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Good Nights: 4 Sleep Solutions for Your Preschooler's Bedtime

Bed time

When your child doesn't well, you don't sleep well. And that probably means that your whole family is waking up on the wrong side of the bed.

"The quality and quantity of your preschooler's sleep, or lack thereof, affects everything—dawdling, crankiness, hyperactivity, growth, health, and even whether he can recite the ABCs," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution. At this age, it's incredibly important for your child to get enough sleep; for most 3- and 4-year-olds, that means at least 11 hours of sleep a day, including naps.

To make sure your kid gets the sleep he needs to wake up refreshed and ready to learn, combat some of these common bedtime battles with real-life expert solutions.

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bedtime routine

Your child may not look tired, but that doesn't mean she isn't. All preschoolers get drowsy, even if they don't want to admit it. And because many kids move into overdrive when they're overtired, it can seem like they still have energy to burn.

Sleep Solution It's crucial to set a nighttime routine and stick to it. "A child's biological clock functions best with a specific daily schedule, and going to sleep at the same time every day helps her body know when to wind down," says Pantley. Research has also shown that kids who have rules about bedtime have higher scores on tests of language, literacy, and math skills. Make your bedtime pattern a special time to bond. Choose a few calming activities, like braiding your child's hair after her bath, reading, and saying good night to her toys together. And remember to take your time; if you rush through the process, it could create tension and may just make her less sleepy.

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family in bed sleeping

When a child prefers sleeping next to his parents, it's a sign of his trust and love. But once you get in the habit of letting him into your bed, it's a difficult pattern to break, and he may become dependent on your proximity to fall back to sleep.

Sleep Solution To help your child stay in his own bed, there are a number of approaches you can take. "Going cold turkey (locking your door at bedtime and not opening it until the next morning) can be an effective method," says Parents advisor Judith Owens, M.D., director of Pediatric Sleep Medicine at Children's National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. If you'd prefer a more gradual approach, put a sleeping bag in your room. Tell your child this is his space to sleep if he wants to be near you during the night but that he can't come into your bed. If he does climb in bed, take him back to his own room (or his sleeping bag) every time. Be ready for a challenge. "Your child will protest and cry to test how serious you are," says Dr. Owens. Don't give up.

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child looking under bed

The same creativity that lets your child conjure up pretend friends and elaborate games of pirates can also lead her to think there are monsters under her bed. "It's normal for preschoolers to have these fears because, developmentally, they've realized that people exist even when they can't see them," says Dr. Owens.

Sleep Solution The key to handling your child's night frights is not only to say that everything's okay, but to act as though it is. Start by reinforcing the message that there are no such things as monsters. Go in the closet or look under the bed together to prove there's nothing lurking in the dark spaces. (Avoid using solutions like "monster spray," which may make your child think that the scary guys do indeed exist.) In addition to getting a night-light, you can make the room feel safer by leaving a flashlight on her nightstand or getting a soothing white-noise machine. Before you leave her room, remind her that you're right down the hall and won't let anything happen to her.

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One common reason kids get up so early is simply that they've had enough rest. "If your kid is sleeping about 11 hours, and he doesn't appear tired during the day, his early rising is normal," says Pantley.

Sleep Solution Get your early bird to snooze a little later by keeping his room dark, using blinds or curtains to block out the light. You could also place a digital clock on his bed stand, put a sticky note over the minutes display, and tell him to stay in bed until he sees the number 6 (or whatever your preferred hour of being dragged out of bed is). Schedule playdates in the afternoon so he gets lots of exercise to help tire him out, and stick to the same bedtime, even on weekends; letting him stay up to watch a family movie can throw off his sleep schedule and result in unreasonable wake-up times, preventing you both from getting enough winks during the week.

Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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