We heard rapid little footsteps on the ceiling above us. It was midnight and once again, our 6-year-old daughter was still awake. Somehow our previously rock-solid sleeper had become a weepy, sleep-deprived grouch. We never expected that the really hard sleep problems would happen when she was in first grade rather than in her younger years.
In fact, a constellation of changes can cause new or worsening sleep issues in children this age. Once the school year starts, not only do kids have to get up early, but they have to deal with other pressures and anxieties, explains Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. "The structure and expectations of school often make it harder for children to get the rest they need." The good news is kids this age can re-learn healthy sleep habits -- or develop them for the first time if they never slept well to begin with -- with a little guidance from you.
Making sure your child goes to bed -- and to sleep -- early enough can be harder now that he's in school. With homework and projects, sports practices or after-school activities, there's often more to do in the evening than ever before, and you may end up pushing bedtime later, admits Parents advisor Judith Owens, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center.
Kids this age generally require ten to 11 hours of sleep per night, so if your child needs to wake up at 7 A.M., bedtime should be between 8 and 9 P.M. Plus, the timing of sleep is just as crucial as the amount, says Dr. Owens. You can avoid problems by sticking to the same bedtime even on Friday and Saturday night. While it can be fun to do on occasion, letting your child stay up late and sleep in on weekends can "shift" his schedule, making it hard for him to fall asleep at his regular school-night time, says Dr. Owens, so aim to keep your child's routine consistent when possible.
Five- and 6-year-olds still have a very active imagination, and so they may insist there's a monster in their room -- but they may also have trouble falling asleep because of real-life worries about robbers or thunderstorms, says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. Since they are still developing the cognitive skills to manage their uncomfortable feelings, these fears (whether they're legitimate or not) can get out of hand.
You can help your child learn to distinguish between her rational thoughts and her imagination by thinking critically. Dr. Chansky suggests having your child ask herself, "What is my worry saying about the monster under the bed?" and then asking, "What is my smart brain telling me? Which do I think is really true?" It takes some practice, but kids this age can be taught to debunk their own fears. "This exercise shows your child how to reassure herself. Plus, she'll internalize a skill she can use even when you're not there," says Dr. Chansky. You can also encourage her to relax herself while she's lying in bed by choosing to think about pleasant activities, like having playdates, decorating cupcakes, or building a tower out of blocks.
Some kids resist bedtime with all their might. For example, your child may have tried excuses like needing to use the bathroom, remembering he didn't hug the dog, or saying he heard you call his name as reasons to pop out of bed. These stalling strategies are common, because kids this age love to test limits and feel as if they are in control, says Dr. Mindell.
Having a clear and consistent nighttime routine -- even if you've never had one before -- will give your child the structure and boundaries he needs. To ease into it, Dr. Mindell suggests giving your child a "bedtime pass" that he can turn in for one more thing after the lights are out -- like a hug from you, a song before bed, or a cup of water. If he still has the pass in the morning, let him pick a small reward, such as playing a game or planning a trip to the park this weekend. This allows your child to have the sense of control he craves but reinforces that once it's time for bed, fun time and talking are over. Creating a sticker chart, where he can earn stickers for not calling out to you, falling asleep in his bed alone, and staying in bed all night, can also motivate your child to follow -- and stick to -- the bedtime rules.
If your child still lies awake staring at the ceiling, she might just be a night owl. Some kids this age have a circadian rhythm (their innate sleep and wakefulness cycle) that's out of sync with school hours, says Dr. Owens. While night owls need the same amount of sleep as other children, they aren't able to fall asleep until late at night -- even if they're peacefully lying in bed. They also want to sleep much later in the morning than their school schedule allows. "Your child may even become anxious because she can't fall asleep when she needs to," says Dr. Owens.
First of all, make sure she isn't consuming any caffeine or looking at a screen before bed, which can keep her up. Dr. Owens also suggests a technique called "bedtime fading" to help her get more shut-eye during normal hours. Start by temporarily setting your child's bedtime back by half an hour, but continue to wake her up at the time she needs to get up for school. Once she falls asleep within 20 minutes of slipping into bed, start moving her bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments each night until she falls asleep within a few minutes of getting into bed and sleeps soundly through the night.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Parents magazine.