Why won’t my child sleep through the night? It’s a question many bleary-eyed parents have pondered. You may be surprised to learn, however, that no child – or adult for that matter – truly sleeps “through the night.” Night wakings are a normal part of our sleep cycle, but good sleepers know how to fall back to sleep without help. Unfortunately, many toddlers and preschoolers have yet to master this skill. In other words, if your child counts on you – or some other sleep aid – to help her nod off, she may have trouble drifting off again when she wakes in the small hours.
Of course, not even the most competent snoozers are immune to sleep disturbances. Common preschool fears, including monsters, ghosts, or other things that go bump in the night, can turn sound slumberers into troubled ones. Also, nightmares, which peak between the ages of three and six, may prompt periodic sprints to your bedroom. Likewise, any departure from your child’s normal routine – a holiday, an illness, or even a change in bedtime – can derail her normal sleep patterns.
How to deal with late-night visits
It’s 3am, and you’re sound asleep. Suddenly, you feel a poke, a tap, then another poke. Try as you might to ignore it, the nocturnal assault continues. Eventually, you have no choice but to open your eyes. Before you stands your forlorn-looking child, uttering those all-too-familiar words: “Mummy, I need you!” If you and your partner don’t mind a family bed – or even an occasional night-time cuddle – there’s no harm in giving in to your child’s wishes. But if this arrangement is something you’re trying to steer clear of, consider these strategies for coping with a child who won’t stay put.
Lose the crutch
Come bedtime, many three and four year olds still have trouble falling asleep without the comfort of a dummy, a stuffed animal, a special lullaby tape, or you. The problem: if that sleep aid isn’t available when your child wakes, she may have trouble dozing off again. The solution: gradually and gently phase out any sleep aids that your child can’t turn to by herself during the night. When you put your child to sleep, leave her bedroom exactly as it will be in the middle of the night. If you plan to turn the hall light off when you go to bed, turn it off now. White noise or soft music is fine – provided it plays all night. And whatever bedtime routine you follow, it’s imperative that you leave the room before your child falls asleep so she doesn’t wake up wondering why you’re no longer there. Just remember that this may be a long, hard process. Success won’t come overnight, so be patient.
Develop a plan, and stick with it. At 3am it’s easy to get worn down by your child’s pleas – no matter how dead-set you may be against “co-sleeping”. But if she manages to wiggle her way in, even once or twice a week, she’s bound to keep trying. So haul yourself out of bed, escort her back to her room, give her a quick kiss, and leave. Be prepared to repeat this routine over and over if necessary – and to load up on coffee the next morning. If your child is sick or has a particularly bad dream, you may decide it’s OK to bend the rules. But if you camp out in her bedroom rather than allowing her into yours, it’ll probably be less of a setback.
It’s perfectly normal for a preschooler to develop a fear of the dark. So indulge her by leaving the hall light on or installing a night-light. If it’s poltergeists, extraterrestrials, or other paranormal activities that set her off, do a monster search at bedtime. Check under the bed, inside the wardrobe, and anywhere else spectres may lurk. A spray-bottle filled with extra-strength monster-deterrent (aka water) can also provide late-night comfort.
Rewards can be a great way to encourage a resistant child to comply with the night-time drill. Some parents frown on this method because they feel they’re bribing their children. But learning to stay in your own bed is hard work, and it’s OK to reward them for their efforts. Try giving her a sticker for each night she sleeps in her own bed. When she collects four or five stickers, let her choose a special treat such as a colouring book or a trip to the park.
Set aside time for snuggles
Lots of kids will stay in their own room as long as they know there’s snuggle-time built into their morning routine. Since your child probably can’t tell the time yet, tell her to come in when the sky is light (if that’s a reasonable time for you). If she’s a little bit older, tape a piece of paper over the minutes of a clock, and use a marker to draw in the agreed-upon wake-up time. When the two numbers match, your child will know it’s OK to leave her room.
Consider sharing your bedroom but not your bed. Put her toddler bed in your room and let her sleep there. If you’re pressed for space, however, a sleeping bag or nap mat will work too. Better yet, these items are portable and not quite as cozy. After a few nights or weeks on the floor, your child’s own soft mattress may seem more appealing to her.