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Overcoming Sleep Struggles

Whenever 4-year-old Gabrielle Ascenzo spent the weekend with her dad and stepmother in Califon, New Jersey, bedtime was an ordeal that lasted for hours. It was especially hard to get her to sleep when her older brothers were in the living room with the grown-ups. Gabrielle would cry, complain, and carry on -- and return to the living room each time her parents placed her in bed. Eventually, they'd get so frustrated by her antics that they'd give up and let her stay up until she conked out.

Of course, establishing a consistent nighttime routine for a child like Gabrielle, who has two different homes, is a particular challenge. But even parents of preschoolers with the most unvarying daily lives may suddenly find that their once compliant child can become a handful at bedtime -- and they can't figure out why.

"Three- and 4-year-olds want to assert their independence and have as much control as possible," explains Marc Weissbluth, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School, in Chicago, and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child (Ballantine, 1999). They don't want to be told to go to bed -- and they certainly don't want to be carried there.

Their endless stalling may also be a way to avoid being alone in the dark. Preschoolers have increasingly active imaginations and may become convinced that monsters are in the closet or under the bed. "Being afraid to go to sleep is part of normal development at this age," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University, in Philadelphia, and author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep (HarperCollins, 1997).

However, having a nonnegotiable bedtime is important because 3- and 4-year-olds need their sleep more than ever. Not only do most kids have to get up early for preschool, but they have a rigorous daily schedule and may no longer be taking regular naps. Here's how to take control of the situation and put an end to bedtime battles.

After a busy day, kids need a peaceful transition to the stillness of bedtime. Post-dinner activities should be low-key -- reading, drawing, or playing board games -- rather than going to the playground or watching an action-packed video. Preserving this quiet time may be more of a challenge for parents who are just arriving home from work and haven't seen their child all day. Working parents are also more likely to let their kids stay up later. "Resist this urge," Dr. Weissbluth says. "Without enough sleep, they'll be overtired and cranky."

"Knowing what to expect is soothing for a child and gets his body into a rhythm so that he's tired at the same time every night," Dr. Mindell says. Experts advise a lights-out time between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. for 3- and 4-year-olds. The routine leading up to it should last about 30 to 60 minutes and include bathing, putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, and hearing a bedtime story. Give your child a warning 15 minutes before it's time to start getting ready.

To help your child feel more in control, make a chart with pictures of all the activities that need to be done. If you include all of your child's reasonable before-bed requests -- a glass of water, a final trip to the bathroom, saying good night to the dog -- she'll be less likely to procrastinate.

Of course, simply establishing a routine won't suddenly make your child eager to sleep. "Preschoolers want to know what the limits are and will try to see how much they can get away with," Dr. Mindell notes. Be firm; if you've decided that you'll read two books together, don't let your child talk you into reading three one night, because she'll inevitably lobby for a permanent change in the rules. If your child says he isn't sleepy, let him choose an activity to do quietly in bed, such as looking at a book or playing with a stuffed animal.

Even if your child is content to stay in bed, she may beg you to lie down with her. "Many parents have luck with the 'five-minute rule,' in which you leave but agree to check on your child again in five minutes," Dr. Mindell says. There's a good chance that your child will fall asleep before you return, but always go back and check.

If, however, your child constantly gets out of bed, just calmly bring her back to her room -- carrying her if necessary. You might do it ten times the first few nights, but eventually she'll get the message and stay put.

Since you're not giving your child the option of staying up until 10:00 p.m. or skipping toothbrushing, try to find other opportunities for him to make decisions. Having unlimited choices ("Which pajamas do you want to wear?") will be too overwhelming. Instead, give your child two acceptable alternatives ("Do you want to wear the Pokémon pajamas or the blue ones?"). Let him pick the book he wants to hear -- even if it's the same one every night.

Before you turn out the lights, look in the closets and under the bed together so your child can see there are no creatures hiding there. Give him a spray bottle filled with water to use as monster spray, and leave a night-light on if he wishes.

Your child is more likely to stay in bed if she feels safe and happy in her room. To make it more of a haven, listen to her decorating suggestions, and encourage her attachment to a special blanket or lovey. It's easier for some kids to fall asleep while listening to soft music. In addition, make sure the room isn't too hot or cold. And because you don't want bedtime to seem like a punishment to your child, choose a location other than her room for time-outs.

Although your child will probably resist a stricter routine at first, remind yourself that evenings are often the ideal time to develop special family rituals. In the film The Cider House Rules, the doctor at the orphanage repeats the same phrase to the children every night: "Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England." One night, a boy asks, "Why does Dr. Larch say that every night?" Another replies, "He does it because we like it." Kids cherish these kinds of traditions and may even use them with their own children someday.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the June 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.