Parenting Tips

Sleepy Time Struggles: 6 Tips for Winning the Bedtime Battle

With a little work, there'll be less stress and more beauty rest!

By Jack Maypole, MD on January 9th, 2017

Little girl in bed holding teddy bear
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Have you ever been to a party where it seems that every parent you talk to lives in an alternate universe? They say their child goes to bed straight away, on a predictable schedule, followed by 12 uninterrupted hours of sleep! First, they are most likely not being truthful. Second, so-called sleep resistance (refusing to go to bed) in young kids is a common dilemma. Take heart and fear not! There are simple steps to help pass this tough milestone in the parental journey because good sleep matters for everyone. Here are 6 tried-and-true tips for helping your little one catch more Z's.

1. Start with Yourself
Parents who don't get enough sleep may feel cranky and distracted and may be less able to cope when they need energy and brainpower to outwit support their children. Feeling tired during a showdown at your child's bedtime is not ideal. Parents should develop a good bedtime routine for themselves and aim for a solid 6‒8 hours of sleep each night. Life is too short to dread your child's bedtime.

2. Find the Right Bedtime
This largely depends on their age and stage, and when you need them to rise in the morning. Generally, kids of preschool and elementary school age require about 10‒12 hours of sleep a night. Some sleep more, and some sleep less. Chances are that you know the ballpark number of hours of sleep your child requires to wake up fresh as a daisy. For example, a kindergartner who needs to be up at 7 am for school may require an 8 pm bedtime in order to get her 40 winks and 11 hours of shuteye.

3. Be Consistent
Dr. Richard Ferber, the so-called grandfather of pediatric sleep medicine, reminds us that "sleep hygiene" is also critical to any bedtime plan for it to succeed. Establish routines and work the rituals. Even as kids hit the preschool, kindergarten and early elementary years, there is much to be said for the predictable, enjoyable glide path of having a bath, getting your pjs on, and doing relaxing activities like reading a story. Eschew wrestling; park the screens; choose a fun read-aloud book; keep it chill, and Z's will follow.

4. Use Rewards
It can be tempting to respond to children who refuse to go to bed with irritation and a raised voice. Whenever possible, try to have a plan in place developed with your child. Use a modest reward system (sticker charts are handily cheap and loved) to motivate your child to build up successful bedtime points. Wish them a loving good night, and let them know that it is bedtime. For every "I'm not tired," respond gently: "It is bedtime, time to be in bed." All adult caretakers must agree on the terms. If and when children elope to another part of the house, gently return them to bed until they fall asleep. Eventually (and, yes, sometimes after a few hours), they will relent. It may take a few days to take effect.

5. Make a Sleep Bubble
Some children are light sleepers, disturbed by any household commotion. I advise parents to use soft music, a fan, or white noise machine to muffle any distractions. For children made anxious by the dark, having them pick out a night light (even a string of fairy lights) may in itself be a reward and a helpful tool. And, as all investigators of pediatric and adult sleep advise, keep all screens out of the bedroom. There is a direct link between phones, tablets, or TVs in bed and fewer hours of sleep.

6. Consult a Doctor
With all this being said, there are times when other issues are at play. For some children, reflux, snoring, undiagnosed medical problems such as asthma, sleep apnea, nightmares, and even anxiety, may underlie issues of children who continue to have trouble getting to or staying asleep.

Having a child who fights sleep is a very challenging, but very frequent struggle in the lives of most families. With a bit of determination and grit, everyone will get their beauty rest and be better for it.

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