We asked experts to troubleshoot real-life scenarios in which parents and kids are left struggling to get a good night's sleep.

Family Fell Asleep On Bed With Book
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Can I teach my toddler to sleep late on weekends?

Good luck—young kids don’t know (and don’t care) that Saturdays are for catching up on shut-eye. “I’d be more inclined to show your toddler how to entertain himself,” says Amanda Tarullo, Ph.D., director of the Brain and Early Experiences Lab at Boston University. By age 3, you can use a light-up alarm clock to signal when he’s allowed to wake you up. Then give him safe toys to keep him occupied until then. “Once he’s old enough to play in his room by himself, a little age-appropriate screen time is fine too,” says Dr. Tarullo.

I know you should never wake a sleeping child, but what if I actually need to? 

It’s the oldest sleep rule of all, and for good reason. Still, you shouldn’t feel guilty about cutting your child’s sleep short to, say, make a crack-of-dawn flight, says Dr. Tarullo. You can minimize the impact by planning ahead. “Put her to bed early and let her sleep in her clothes,” says Dr. Tarullo. “Or, if you’re arriving home after bedtime, put her pajamas on ahead of time.”

So...um...can I drug my kid?

“Not unless your child’s doctor advises it,” says Dr. Mindell. Some parents use Benadryl to help their child nod off on long rides. While it’s safe for kids over 2, try it at home first, because some kids actually become hyper, says Dr. Mindell.

Should we just cosleep?

Avoid bedsharing until your child is at least 12 months old, when the risk of SIDS, accidental suffocation, and strangulation in bed are lower, advises the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). After that, it’s up to you. Cosleeping is the norm in many cultures. If you want to join them, follow these rules:

  1. Both you and your child must get enough sleep.
  2. Use a bed rail to prevent falls.
  3. Everyone has to be on board.

If one parent wants to do it and the other objects, there will be conflicts, says Dr. Mindell.

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What if she won't let us leave her room until she falls asleep?

It’s worth ruling out external factors, like a tummy ache or underlying anxiety, points out Wendy Moyal, M.D., a child psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute, in New York City. Then she’d want to know if the sleeper still naps. “If she does, and it takes hours to get her to sleep at night, I’d phase naps out,” Dr. Moyal suggests. “Every few days, add a short daytime snooze for catch-up.”

If that doesn’t do the trick, it’s time for a behavioral intervention. Parents can begin weaning her need for their presence by moving closer to the door each night and not looking at their phone while they’re waiting (the light can interfere with sleep). “Give her something of yours, like a sweater or an undershirt, to have in the room as a transitional object,” says Dr. Moyal. Parents should leave while the child is still awake and tell her what they’ll be doing—cleaning up, washing the dishes—so she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out. On the first night, they should let her know they’ll be back to check on her (and do so right away). Then extend that to every five minutes and, once that works, every ten minutes. They should keep going until they only check on her once. The process often takes several weeks to complete.

Our son shows up in our bed at 3 a.m. How can we get him to stay in his?

If your child crawls into bed with you in the middle of the night, experts suggest one key question: What’s going on at bedtime? Dr. Mindell suspects that parents lie down with him until he falls asleep. “When a child has help falling asleep at bedtime, he’ll need that same help going back to sleep in the middle of the night,” she says. If so, they need to stop.

Otherwise, it’s merely a bad habit. To help him kick it, they need to set this ground rule: He must sleep in his bed all night, and they’ll return him  to his own bed every single time he comes in. To make sure Mom wakes up when he comes in, they should put a bell on their bedroom door. Dr. Mindell also suggests using a sticker chart with a fun incentive for cooperating (such as a family outing to the zoo). If parents stay firm, he should stop bed-hopping within two weeks.

Parents Magazine