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Pillow Talk: How to End Sleep Struggles

child in bed

Bedtime is a scramble in most houses, mine included. You're trying to finish one last thing when you check the time and realize your kid needs to start snoozing pronto. Or even if you're not running late, you have a wide-awake kid who fights her nightly routine. "Five- and 6-year-olds drag out bedtime longer than younger kids do -- it can be frustrating," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., a Parents advisor and associate director of the Sleep Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Wouldn't it be nice if bedtime could be storybook cozy? Well, it can. It's not too late to rewrite the ending to your family's bedtime tale. Follow this plan dreamed up by sleep experts.

Minimize Evening Disruptions
Your kid needs to start unwinding about an hour before bedtime. Late dinners and nighttime electronics stimulate children, making it harder for them to fall asleep, says Kim West, author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight: Gentle Proven Solutions to Help Your Child Sleep Well and Wake Up Happy. "If one parent gets home after 7, feed your child dinner early, then offer him yogurt or fruit to eat with the family later," says West.

If your child resists unplugging from his Wii, DS, or other electronics, give him a five-minute warning that turn-off time is nearing. If your child ignores you when it's time to quit, firmly but gently say, "If I have to turn off the Wii, I will decide when it gets turned on again. You might not like my decision." Don't remind him again or plead; that will teach him that he doesn't need to follow directions until you repeat them several times, says Parents advisor Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital.

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Stick to a Schedule
You might have had a consistent routine and regular bedtime for your child when she was younger, but have you slacked off? It's easy to do when after-school practices, homework, or even spring weather throw you off your normal game plan. But an overtired child is much more argumentative -- a major factor in parent-child bedtime struggles, says West. Your 5- to 6-year-old still needs ten to 11 hours of sleep, so to calculate the best time to hit the sack work backwards from when she needs to wake up. For instance, if the alarm goes off at 7 a.m. for school, her bedtime should be close to 8:30 p.m.

It's more important not to rush through the routine than to get your kid to bed at 8:30 p.m. on the dot. "Kids read us really well, and if we rush them they usually push back by slowing down or fighting us," says Dr. Swanson. So even if you're exhausted or got home late, take that ten to 15 minutes to hang out with your child and gently move her toward bedtime. If you're late getting your child to bed because you've been out to dinner or a social event, skip the bath or pick a shorter book to read.

Close Up Loopholes
You offer one story, but your kid pleads for two. You tuck him in, but he whimpers that his tummy feels empty. For stalling experts, Dr. Mindell suggests posting a bedtime chart on their bedroom wall. Each step in your routine should be clearly spelled out or pictured. "A chart feels more definite to many kids, so they're less likely to try to disrupt the routine once it's in print," explains Dr. Mindell.

If your patience wears thin because your child gets out of bed repeatedly to use the bathroom, get a drink, or ask you something, consider implementing the Bedtime Pass. Create an official-looking document, then print it and set it on your child's nightstand every night. He can use it only once a night for any after-bedtime request. Once he's used the pass and given it to you, stand firm about not honoring any extra wishes.

Manage Scary Nights
Bedtime fears are usually legitimate among children this age, and not just excuses to get extra snuggle time. So take them seriously but don't let them derail your bedtime plan. Reassure your child that you're watching out for her and won't let anything harm her. "I tell kids, 'Mommy and Daddy do a good job keeping you safe and check on you when you're sleeping,'" says West. "Now it's time to throw out your scary thought and replace it with a nice, happy thought. How about imagining playing with your best friend?"

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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