If you’re like most parents, you’re all too familiar with this scenario: you put your child to bed at 7.30pm, hugging and kissing her and wishing her sweet dreams. It’s been a long day, but still you’ve got washing-up to do, you have bills to pay, the cat needs to be fed, and you haven’t had a spare moment to put your feet up. But instead of spending the rest of the evening catching up on your chores and spending some precious time winding down for the night, you’re in and out of your child’s room, cajoling her to sleep. She finally nods off – about three hours after she first went to bed.
Take heart: bedtime can be tough for a preschooler. On the one hand, she’s learning to assert herself and her newfound independence (hence the jack-in-the-box action on her bed). On the other hand, she’s fearful of what it means to be on her own. Fighting sleep is a way to take control, but it’s also a way to stave off fears that come with the night. Monsters under the bed, boogiemen in the closet, thunderstorms, creepy crawlies – those are pretty scary things to deal with when you’re all alone in the dark! And even if she’s not scared, sleep can seem very boring to a preschooler compared to the excitement of the day.
What you can do about bedtime battles
Set aside some time to talk to your child about her day
Your preschooler may be fighting sleep simply because she needs to spend some time with you at the end of her day. Especially if you work long hours yourself, allot some time before bed to chat with her about goings-on at nursery and to find out the latest dramas in her social life. You may find that she’s more amenable to sleep if she’s had a chance to unburden herself.
Stick to a bedtime routine
Make a pictorial chart for your child to follow – including her bath, teeth brushing, bedtime story and goodnight kiss. Also include her usual (and reasonable) requests – like that second sip of water or a peek at the moon. Give her some notice before it’s time to start the routine each night (“Sophie, five minutes before bathtime!”). Try not to let her dawdle, or drag things out with activities that aren’t part of the ritual – no third glass of water or round of 10 Green Bottles, for instance.
When your child goes to bed on time, the rewards for you are obvious. Make it clear what’s in it for her too. The morning after she sticks with the routine, praise her and give her a sticker to put on a special chart. Offer her a reward – like a new book or a visit to her favourite playground – once she stays in bed three nights in a row. (Start small – for a preschooler, a few days is a long time to hang in there!)
Refusing to go to bed is a powerful way for your child to assert herself. So it might help to find an acceptable means of allowing her to be assertive. Let her decide whether she wants to hear some poems or a story before lights-out, for instance, or ask her if she’d like a sip of water before or after she climbs into bed. Be careful to offer only choices you can live with; if you ask “Want to go to bed now?” you probably won’t like the answer you get.
Be calm but firm
Even if your youngster cries or pleads for an exception to the going-to-bed rule, stand your ground. If you’re frustrated, don’t engage in a power struggle. Speak calmly and quietly but insist that when time’s up, time’s up. If you give in to her request for “five more minutes, please,” you’ll only hear it again tomorrow night.
Teach your preschooler to fall asleep alone
If your child depends on you to stay with her while she falls asleep, now’s a good time to encourage her to doze off on her own. You might give her some incentive by promising to check on her in five minutes. Reassure her that she’s safe and that you’re nearby.
Take the stepladder to success
You can’t expect your child to learn, in one fell swoop, how to go to bed and sleep all night according to your perfect scenario. Take it one step at a time: if your preschooler’s used to falling asleep in your bed, maybe her first step is to fall asleep in her own. Her second step could be learning to limit her nocturnal “escapes” to one per night, or calling for you only once without actually getting up. Build your way to the ultimate goal (sleeping through the night without a peep) in successive, successful steps.
Work out why your youngster finds it tough to keep her head on the pillow at night. Ask about her specific objections to bedtime – is it because she’s not tired? Scared? It’s too quiet? Offer her a torch if she’s afraid of the dark. Eliminate night-time TV if the shows make her jumpy. Let her drift off to recorded lullabies if the quiet is too much. And make sure you listen to her ideas about what might be helpful. After all, a plan that she helps devise has a better chance of succeeding.
Make sure your preschooler’s getting lots of fresh air and exercise during the day too. If she still has a very early bedtime, it might be contributing to her lack of sleepiness at night (at this age, children need a total of 10 to 12 hours of sleep), so you might consider moving bedtime back an hour. Some physical activity and a slight schedule change may be all it takes to ensure that your child is good and tired when bedtime rolls around.