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Good Night, Sleep Tight! A Stress-Free Guide to Bedtime

It can be a bit more challenging beyond the infant stage, but every child can be taught to self-soothe and fall asleep by himself," says Parents advisor Judith Owens, MD, coauthor of Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep. There are different ways to get him snoozing solo. Choose the one that works best for your lifestyle and your child's temperament.

The hard-line strategy: You put your child to bed and leave. Try your best to ignore any protests, and if he comes out of his room escort him back and simply say, "You need to stay in bed." Some experts suggest putting a gate up so there's no escape. This technique can be tough on both parent and child but often works well and quickly, says Dr. Owens.

The graduated method: You put your child to bed but tell him that you'll come back in five minutes to check on him -- and you follow through with that promise. Then, keep checking on him, waiting successively longer intervals of time before going back into his room. Eventually, your child will get bored waiting and fall asleep. This is the method most parents choose.

The gentle approach: You stay in your child's room but don't lie in his bed or interact with him. For example, the first night sit in a chair by his bed. Each night, move farther away from him. Ideally, by the time you've edged your way out of the room he has learned to fall asleep on his own.

While children's needs vary, these general guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine will give you a good idea of how many hours a day he should be snoozing (including naps).

Infants (up to 11 months): 14 to 15 hours

Toddlers: 12 to 14 hours

Preschoolers: 11 to 13 hours

School-age children: 10 to 11 hours

Help your child break these before-bed no-nos:

  • Watching TV, playing video games, or using the computer less than 30 minutes before bedtime (though stopping one hour before is even better).
  • Excessive roughhousing.
  • Eating a large meal close to bedtime (but don't send her to bed hungry either).
  • Snacking on foods that contain caffeine.

Your bedtime regimen may sometimes feel like the movie 50 First Dates, but all the repetition is worth it. "Not only do nighttime rituals help children transition to a more relaxed bedtime mind-set, but allowing kids to know what to expect helps them feel in control," says Jocelyn Joseph, MD, chief of pediatrics at the MIT Medical Center. "Without that, they can have a hard time falling asleep and are more likely to act out." Create a routine that works best for your family, and even if it means starting an hour before bedtime, make sure you allow enough time for each task. Rushing through the process will make it more stressful. Get inspired with this sample routine.

1. Clean up toys, or do a quiet activity together such as a simple puzzle.
2. Give your child a warm bath.
3. Get into pajamas.
4. Brush teeth.
5. Bring in a small cup of water for her bedside, to avoid the "I'm thirsty" excuse for getting out of bed.
6. Switch to dim lighting in the bedroom. (Darkness triggers melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.)
7. Read books. Tip: Tell her ahead of time how many you'll read, i.e., "two short books," so there's less room for stalling.
8. Talk quietly together for no more than five minutes if your child still needs to settle down. One idea: Discuss the high point and low point of the day. Don't get sidetracked by big topics. You can always say "We'll talk about it in the morning." Just make sure you follow through.
9. Say good night to a few favorite stuffed animals.
10. End on a positive note. Sing a favorite lullaby and give her a kiss.

Beyond causing meltdowns, scrimping on sleep can also spell trouble for your child at school. A study of elementary-school students showed that just one hour less of sleep a night can put a child's academic performance and ability to concentrate in class on a par with a student two years younger; other research also has found that even a one-hour deficit in the 3-and-under crowd can have lasting effects, including causing behavioral and cognitive problems when kids start elementary school years later. We asked Dr. Owens describe some ways that a zzz's deficiency can get in the way of preschool success.

  • Attention problems. A child may have difficulty listening to detailed instructions or focusing on planned activities.
  • Inability to verbalize imaginative/creative thoughts. She may go blank when asked to come up with a story or describe a painting she made earlier in the day.
  • Dulled memory. What color was that again? What are the words to the song we just learned?
  • Hyperactive behavior. A child who can't sit still will have a tough time learning.

No matter what we read at bedtime, I always kiss my daughter's hand and she kisses mine, just like in the book The Kissing Hand. This ritual comforts her -- which helps her go to sleep.
-- Elizabeth R., Somers, New York

After I say good night to my 5-year-old daughter, Emily, I turn on an audio book before leaving her bedroom. She follows along to an Amelia Bedelia story or a Frog and Toad book and then she's ready to turn off her light and go to bed.
-- Sherry G., Charlotte, North Carolina

A snack before bedtime works wonders for my 4-year-old son, Hudson. I give him a small bowl of cereal with milk or a mini bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter. It fills him up and he doesn't come out of his room saying he's hungry.
-- Sally R., Hoboken, New Jersey

I read that toddlers may avoid going to sleep because they want more time with their parents. So I sit in bed with my 3-year-old, Hayleigh, and 5-year-old, Pierce, and ask them to tell me about their day. Once that's covered, they really seem to wind down.
-- Dana H., Rowayton, Connecticut

Cuddle up with some of our favorite reads.

How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?
By Jane Yolen
Discover the softer side of dinos with this funny, vividly illustrated glimpse into their nighttime routine.

 

Guess How Much I Love You
By Sam McBratney
This warm and fuzzy bedtime classic reveals the extraordinary love between baby hare Nutbrown and his dad.

 

Bear Snores On
By Karma Wilson
Excitement builds as a big furry bear slumbers soundly in his lair while all his animal friends party around him. Then the bear wakes up, and the fun really starts.

 

When Sheep Sleep
By Laura Numeroff
This adorable rhyming story follows a girl who falls asleep as she tries to find farm animals who are still awake.

 

Our soothing playlist will help little eyelids droop.

1. "Rainbow Connection" (Kenny Loggins)
2. "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"(Lisa Loeb)
3. "What a Wonderful World" (Louis Armstrong)
4. "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon" (Ernie, Sesame Street)
5. "You Are My Sunshine" (Sara Hickman)
6. "Imagine" (Jack Johnson)
7. "Lullabye" (Billy Joel)
8. "I Love You" (Barney)
9. "Moonshadow" (Cat Stevens)
10. "Blackbird" (Sarah McLachlan)

 



Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 2008 issue of Parents magazine.