Sleep Solutions: It’s Not So Simple When You’re Tired
You survived the first year of parenthood on an average of only 5.1 hours of sleep per night with your infant and thought it would be better by now. Did you get enough good rest last night? I already know the answer to that. That’s why you’re here. Puffy eyes, clenching your jaw to hold in yawns, and shuffling around in your slippers. Already waiting for The Nap Time to come. Wishing so badly that you could just curl up for one more half an hour? Sorry. Nope. Not an option.
It would be one thing if the bedtime nightmare happened once in a while, but this happens nearly every bedtime or every afternoon before nap. Your child runs around, or maybe even cries until they finally crash. You just want you and your child to get caught up on your sleep and bounce out of bed in the morning refreshed and feeling great. You’d be a better You for your family, and you know they would feel better too.
Some parents believe that sleep deprivation is an unavoidable penalty for the first several years, but before you “go there”, let’s see if there is something we can do to help both you and your three to six year old child get into some better sleep habits.
Remember the Big Picture
A reasonable bedtime is good, and so is a soothing routine. Good for both the body and mind, as research reminds us, but everyone already knows that our ability to function is greatly affected by sleep, so let’s move on.
Putting your efforts into creating the framework for a relaxed nightly sleep routine for your child does something much more for the Big Picture. It strengthens qualities in your child and your relationship that you are always working toward as a parent: cooperation, self-care, independence, and good decision making are four big ones any parent would be overjoyed to see.
A Child Who Happily Follows the Family Plan.
If your bedtime has sounded something like this, “Time for bed. Let’s go.” then you can’t really be surprised that your self-respecting young one does not jump up and go to bed. Where’s the respectful 5 or 10 minute “just so you know”, the kind tone of voice that offers them some control within the process, the hug that tells them you had fun with them today?
A child who has been included in the discussion and been allowed to make some of the supporting decisions within the framework is more likely to be on board with the routine (which is in writing and taped to your refrigerator). Which music (2 choices), brush teeth before or after pajamas, try to go potty with or without a step stool, which pajamas, 1 or 2 stories, which cup for the bedside water, etc. You can go further: lay out clothing for tomorrow, talk about which fruit they want with breakfast, and whether they prefer to set the alarm or for you to wake them in the morning.
Wow! They are the boss of a lot, but not that it’s bedtime. Keep the focus on all the positive choices they are making. Nodding your head with a smile is enough. No need to go crazy with praise. The confidence they are developing every night in their decision making right now is a life skill they will use forever.
Here are some tricks that often (but not always) work for me.
- No electronics/television for at least a half hour before bed. I like to read a book to them on the couch, then we decide which book I will read after they are tucked in. It makes the bedtime seem more fluid and gives them a reason to look forward to getting into bed.
- Or, start the “bedtime music” ten minutes in advance so I don’t even have to announce Bedtime. When the third song begins, they know to start getting ready. Sometimes there is a CD where they like to be in bed by the time their very favorite song begins.
- I often whisper, “What’s next?” if they are being poky so they can feel more in control, and tell me. (Always avoid sounding like a sergeant).
- Sit beside their bed and share with each other the 2 best things that happened that day and a little bit about what the plan is for tomorrow. It gives them happy things to think about as they nod off. It’s also a lovely way to learn what their perspective about the day was.
A Child Who Looks Within for What They Need.
This is a skill that so many adults have yet to learn. You model self-care. Young children definitely experience a wide range of feelings, but it is hard for them to identify their feelings with words. Often there is just a “butterfly” in their chest. Frustration, worry, irritability, and fatigue can all feel the same. If they don’t know what the feeling is, it is close to impossible for them to consciously figure out what to do about it. Hmm…could that be the reason they just start running in circles?
Talk out loud about how you are feeling at different times during the day, and what you are choosing to do about it. You can also try to help them name their feelings for them.
- I feel so hungry, but it’s only an hour until dinner. I think I should have a tiny snack so I don’t get grumpy.
- That made me mad! I am going to talk to them about it.
- It’s hot today. I’m going to remember to drink more water so I don’t get a headache.
- I’m going to get all my work done before dinner so I can relax.
- I am so tired. Tonight I am going to start getting ready for bed a little early.
Learning how to identify and solve their own problems on a daily basis, is another life skill your child will use forever.
Separating Can Be Hard
Going to bed alone and staying in their own bed is a common problem for the three to six age group. The problem is guaranteed to continue if both parents are not in agreement, or if they cave in now and then. If your child sees that you are both rock solid, they can accept it and move on (to something else).
Also, children understandably love the closeness they feel in the evenings with their parents and don’t want it to end. At nap time, they usually don’t want to miss any of the action, and want to stay up even if they are obviously in need of a rest. This is why it helps them accept bed or nap time if the ritual is warm and loving.
If your child needs you to stay until they fall asleep, I wouldn’t argue. Sit in a chair across the room and read the mail or a magazine so your time is well spent on you. You are there, but not engaging them. A few nights later you can leave for a very brief time and come right back. I think it is better in the long run not to battle about this because they end up more desperate to control you when you say no. Also, by listening you are respecting their feelings, but continue to give them the message that they are becoming more independent every night. Soon they will be able to do it without you, which warrants a celebration (for you both)!
Naps can be a dilemma for a few reasons. It can be hard to make one to three in the afternoon sacred down time with our busy schedules. You know that if your child skips their nap, you both will pay later. The worst is when they fall asleep at the dinner table and you have to put them to bed then. A similar problem is when you decide not to wake them at three and let them wake up on their own. Then The Bedtime Routine has just been seriously compromised! Most children out grow their need for naps around four years old, but it takes a few months of tinkering to finally transition out of them The best suggestion I have is to still require Quiet Time in the afternoon until they are five or six, but sleeping is an option. It is good to take a break to refuel from peer or sibling stimulation, and good to learn how to settle down and relax by yourself.
If your child goes to sleep easily, but then ends up getting in your bed later, this is a different problem. You can’t fix it in the middle of the night when you are both desperately tired. You will have to make a plan together during the day, write it down, and refer to it as you gently walk him back to his bed the next night. Multiple times. Do not give up and let him stay in your bed even once because he is a Scientist. He will repeat until satisfied that you will never allow it again. I would not even let it happen on a night that he was feeling sick or scared because it gives his little Scientific Heart hope for a new result. If you felt that you really needed to be with him, sleep with him in his bed, a guest bed, on the couch, or on the floor. Not in your bed.
You Can Do This
If bedtime doesn’t go like clockwork right away, remember that keeping the boundaries both firm and kind is the key. Repetition will eventually pay off and bedtime will become automatic and second nature. Your child will learn to look forward to a relaxing and predictable time to take care of themselves.
It’s worth it on so many levels, so make a good plan with them, and then get some sleep!
I Love These Two Books About Sleep
The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers, written in 2005 by Elizabeth Pantley
and a 2012 kindle book by Dennis Rosen, M.D. called Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids.
Tell me what you’ve tried at bedtime…