Every child is different. They all have different needs and preferences, and they all react differently to the world around them. This is especially true when it comes to sleep. As a dentist for kids, we see children with all different types of personalities and temperaments.
Sometimes they’re afraid of missing out on a wonderful, interesting world when they go to sleep. Sometimes they’re afraid of the dark, or are afraid of monsters under the bed. Sometimes they don’t want to be separated from their parents, and sometimes they just don’t want to give up control and go to bed. Some children legitimately have trouble sleeping for other reasons, too. They might want to sleep, but it’s hard for them.
As a parent, you might still be trying to figure out your child’s needs when it comes to sleep. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but we’ve rounded up some tips from experts and parents that might help you and your little ones get a peaceful night’s sleep more often.
Structure and Routine
Whether they want to admit it or not, most kids love having a routine. Structure helps ease stress and anxiety. Whatever your bedtime routine ends up being, it’s helpful to explain the routine to your child and make sure they understand what to expect and why it’s important.
The following chart should help you loosely establish a bedtime and a wake up time for your child. Your schedule might demand some adjustments, and that’s okay, too. These are just guidelines.
Now that you’ve established a bedtime, a good bedtime routine might consist of:
- A bedtime snack – Something healthy like a small piece of fruit or graham crackers. Children with full stomachs usually have more trouble sleeping, but if they’re hungry before bed, a small snack will help to ease and comfort them.
- One hour of quiet time – This should ideally take place right before sleep time, and it can include their nightly bath, teeth-brushing, and other parts of their hygiene routine. During this hour, gently cut out TV, movies, and video games. Anything with a screen will make them want to stay up longer. The quiet time should be fun and relaxing– something your child looks forward to every night.
- A story or song – If you have a younger child, they still might want you to read or sing to them. This book, The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep, has been working well for many parents with young children. If you have an older child, give them a little bit of their own reading time. Incorporate this into the hour of quiet time if possible.
- Check in on them – Try to leave the room before your child falls asleep, and try to check in on them once before they fall asleep. That way, they’ll know you’re there and they’ll know you’re supportive.
- Follow your own routine – Following your own sleep routine can help show your child how important sleep is to you. They might just follow your example.
If you want to establish an earlier bedtime than the one your child currently has, the Cleveland Clinic recommends the following:
“… you can start setting your child’s bedtime 15 minutes earlier every few nights until you meet your new goal. For example, if your child currently falls asleep at 9:30 p.m. and you would like him or her to go to bed at 8:30, you could start making his or her bedtime 9:15 for a few days, then move it back to 9:00 p.m. This technique is called bedtime fading. Be cautious about moving the bedtime back too quickly or making it too early (for your own convenience) as to make it age inappropriate. Doing so may cause your child to not be able to fall asleep, leading to a lot of frustration.”
You’ve worked hard to create a safe, pleasant home environment, but sometimes, the things that keep kids awake are little things we might not even think about and children can’t always articulate what’s keeping them awake, either.
- Temperature – Most people sleep best in a cool room. Try to understand what your child might be feeling by spending some time in their room, dressing approximately how they will be dressed for sleep. Sometimes younger children kick the covers off too, so that’s another thing to consider.
- Light level – Make sure the room is as dark as your child will accept during lights out. If they need a night light, try a gentle one. Leaving a light on in the hallway and opening their door might work, too. It’s up to you and your child’s preferences. During quiet time, try switching off the overhead lights and turning on a softer lamp.
- Noise level – The house should be quiet when your child is trying to sleep. We’re busy parents, so it’s tempting to catch up on housework or projects while our children sleep, but how can they be expected to doze off if we’re making a racket? Your child might also find a fan, a heater, or a white noise machine soothing.
- Comfort item – If your child loves a certain blanket or stuffed animal, that object might provide them with comfort, while you’re out of the room and in your own bed.
- Your presence – Ideally, your child’s room should look the same when they fall asleep as it would if they woke up at 2am. If your child’s sleep is contingent on you being in the room, they’ll be upset when you’re not there upon waking. Try to ease yourself out of the room before your child falls asleep. Pre-sleep and after-story check-ins can also help with this.
If your child is afraid of monsters or shadows, Pennsylvania mom, Karen Foley, gave a great suggestion to Parenting Magazine:
“Our oldest is dealing with being scared of monsters and the shape the shadows on the wall creates. We shut off the light, adjust our eyes and talk about all the shadows and what they could be, other than scary things. It’s helped him a lot.”
The same article recommends filling a spray bottle with water aka “Monster poison” to help your child feel safe and comfortable.
Patience and Persistence
If your child still has trouble adjusting to bedtime, it can be rough for both of you. Remember that it’s not your fault and you’re doing everything you can. That will help you be firm, gentle, and persistent.
- Consistency – You might endure fighting and complaining, but sticking to your guns is the only thing that will bring about a bedtime routine that works better for you and your children. Be firm, but refrain from yelling even if you’re frustrated.
- Getting out of bed – If your child keeps getting out of bed, just escort them back and say “goodnight.” It might be tempting to cuddle them or read them a story, but you want to make seeing you in the middle of the night a non-event, not a reward.
- Punishment – If it comes to the point of punishment, severity probably won’t work well. Do something minor like limiting video game or reading time for a night or two. Tell your child it’s easy to earn it back– just go to bed and get up at their appointed wake-up time one or two nights in a row.
- Rewards – If you’re really struggling, rewards might help, too. If your child follows their routine and falls asleep all week (or any number of days, you know what works best), treat them to a family event like an ice cream date or a fun family game night on the weekend.
If your child keeps arguing or wants a new bedtime, Empowering Parents has a great suggestion.
Try asking these four questions about their bedtime routine:
- How will we know it’s working?
- How will we know it’s not working?
- What will we do if it’s working?
- What will we do if it’s not working?
That way, you and your child can discuss your expectations, rewards, and small punishments, if applicable. They are easy, pointed questions that will help your child understand why their bedtime routine is important.
Every child has different needs. As a dentist for kids, we know we have to treat every kid as an individual to make them happy and healthy.
When it comes to sleep, you have to create a routine that works well for each child, and one that works well for you. Go easy on yourself. Making sure your child gets enough sleep can be tough, and we know you’re trying your hardest. Hopefully these tips will help make the battle a little easier on you and your child.
The Busy Mom