Child sleep: Put preschool bedtime problems to rest

Consider common preschool bedtime problems — and what to do about them. The result could be a good night’s sleep for the entire family.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

You’re past middle-of-the-night feedings and diaper changes, but a good night’s sleep is still elusive. Maybe bedtime has turned into a battle of wills, or you’re struggling to get your preschooler to stay in bed all night.

Consider these simple strategies to put the most common bedtime problems to rest — starting tonight!

The problem: Bedtime is chaotic

The scenario: You feel rushed or stressed when you put your child to bed.

The solution: Make bedtime a priority. A predictable, calming bedtime routine is key to a good night’s sleep.

Avoid active play and electronic devices, which are stimulating. You might give your child a bath and read stories. Talk about the day. Play soothing bedtime music. Then tuck your child into bed drowsy but awake and say good night.

Experiment to find what works best for you — but once you settle on a routine, follow it every night. This will help your child know what to expect and establish healthy sleep patterns.

The problem: Your child doesn’t want to go to bed

The scenario: It’s bedtime, but your child wants to stay up.

The solution: If your child can hear talking, laughing or sounds from electronics, it’s easy to see how he or she would want to stay up. To ease the transition to bedtime, turn off or put away electronics and keep things quiet around bedtime. Sleep might be more appealing if everyone slows down before bedtime.

The problem: Your child won’t fall asleep alone

The scenario: Your child needs you to stay in the room until he or she falls asleep.

The solution: To encourage your child to fall asleep alone, help him or her feel secure. Start with a calming bedtime routine. Then offer a comfort object, such as a favorite stuffed animal or blanket. Turn on a night light or leave the bedroom door open if it will help your child feel better. Make sure your child is safe and well and leave the room.

Avoid returning to your child’s room if he or she calls out to you. Try to allow your child to sort out how to get to sleep. Remember that you’re helping your child learn to fall asleep alone. If you give in and continue appearing at his or her bedside or climb into bed with your child, that’s what your child will remember — and probably expect the next night.

Alternatively, you can try to wean your child off of your support by waiting progressively longer periods before checking on him or her. When checking, keep the visit to a minute or two. Offer your child reassurance and a light pat — no cuddling.

The problem: Your child won’t stay in his or her bed

The scenario: You put your child to bed, only to find him or her trailing you down the hall.

The solution: If your child regularly gets out of bed to ask for water or a stuffed animal, try to manage those needs ahead of time during the bedtime routine. When your child gets up, promptly return him or her to bed — repeatedly, if necessary. Avoid giving your child attention for this behavior.

The problem: Your child stays up too late

The scenario: Your child’s bedtime is 8:30 p.m., but by the time he or she is ready to sleep it’s usually past your bedtime.

The solution: If your child isn’t tired at bedtime, you might be fighting a losing battle. Try scaling back on any daytime naps.

You might also consider if the amount of time you’re allotting for your child to spend in bed exceeds his or her sleep needs, which are about 10 to 13 hours for a 3- to 5-year-old. Consider delaying your child’s bedtime or advancing his or her wake time by 15 minutes every few days until you achieve the target sleep window.

The problem: Your child wakes up during the night

The scenario: Your child wakes up during the night and won’t fall asleep again without your help.

The solution: If your child regularly wakes up and calls out to you during the night, try using the same techniques you’d use to help a child who won’t fall asleep alone.

If your child has a nightmare, however, respond quickly. Reassure him or her, talk about the dream and, when your child is ready, encourage sleep.

The problem: You’re frustrated with your child’s bedtime problems

The scenario: You’re tired of the whining, so you get angry with your child or give up and let your child fall asleep in front of the TV — or in your bed.

The solution: Bedtime battles can test a parent’s resolve. But giving in to your child’s demands or responding negatively won’t help solve your bedtime problems.

Try to remember that you’re teaching your child an important skill. Be consistent in your approach and consider positive reinforcement strategies, such as a sticker chart. Set an attainable goal and, if he or she meets it, reward your child with a sticker first thing in the morning. Over time, you can set more challenging goals.

It’s never too late to teach your child good sleeping habits. Eventually, your consistency will pay off in a good night’s sleep for everyone.

Nov. 13, 2020

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