Barbara Russi Sarnataro
Hansa D. Bhargava, MD, FAAP
Most parents can trade war stories about their kid's bedtime. Christine
Althoff sits in her daughter Claire's doorway every night until she falls
asleep. She's been doing this for more than five years.
Until her twin sisters were born, Claire, now 7, was rocked to sleep. In an
effort to get Claire to fall asleep on her own, Althoff began sitting at her
bedside every night. The doorway is as far as she got in trying to work her way
out of her daughter's bedroom.
"I don't like it," says Althoff, a Little Rock, Ark. attorney,
"but I know that I created it."
A battle-free bedtime is the goal of every parent, says Jennifer Waldburger,
co-founder of Sleepy Planet, a Los Angeles-based child sleep consultation firm.
She tells WebMD many parents fall short because they don't see the bigger
The key in establishing a child's bedtime routine is to delineate between
what your child needs and what she wants, she says. "What she needs is
some time with you and good sleep. There's a whole war between a
parent's head and heart that keeps them from doing [the right things]."
The stakes are high. Insufficient sleep not only affects a child's
development, behavior, and emotions, says Waldburger, it has been linked to a
greater incidence of obesity.
Here are 10 tips for creating a bedtime routine and ritual that can help
take the battle out of your kid's bedtime.
Make Sure Your Child's Bedtime Is Early Enough
Parents will often tell Waldburger their child doesn't seem tired at bedtime
so they allow him to stay up longer. Big mistake, she says. "Once a child
is overtired, a stress hormone called cortisol is released, which makes it hard
to settle in and causes a child to wake up more throughout the night and wake
up too early [in the morning.]"
If your child is overtired, says Nicholas Long, PhD, a child psychologist at
the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, it may actually
take her longer to fall asleep. Moving her bedtime up by 30 minutes may get
your child to bed before she becomes overtired.
Keep Your Child's Bedtime Consistent
Don't stray too far from what you establish as the appropriate bedtime, says
Waldburger. Consistency is crucial. That means that bedtime stays the same even
on the weekends and during the summer when days are longer.
And when, as inevitably happens, your child does go to bed later than usual,
try to get him up about the same time, says Long, who is also the director of
the Center for Effective Parenting in Little Rock. It's important not to let
your child sleep in sometimes and not others, so he doesn't start shifting his
Let Your Child Wind Down
Just as adults can't go right from the busyness and activity of the day into
sleep, neither can your child. She needs a transition to relax and settle down.
"There should be no vigorous activity between a half hour and an hour
before bedtime," says Jennifer Shu, MD, a pediatrician with Children's
Medical Group in Atlanta. Shu is also co-author of Heading Homewith
Establish a Routine for Your Child's Bedtime
Shu calls this the Four B's: bath, brushing teeth, books, and bed. The
routine should start somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour before you want
your child to be asleep, she says.
It's important that your child's routine be predictable, says Waldburger. Do
the same things in the same order. "Over time, just doing the routine will
make a child sleepy," she says.
And it works in reverse too. Soon, when your child feels tired, she will
start asking for bath and books, Shu says.
With older kids, who get themselves ready for bed, Long suggests playing
beat the clock. Make a deal with them that they if they get ready before the
timer rings, they get an extra story or five extra minutes to read to
Offer Lots of Choices for Kid's Bedtime
Make them simple yes/no choices, though, not open-ended choices that will
frustrate both of you, says Waldburger. The options are endless.
Children want us to run the show, says Waldburger. "A developmental task
of a toddler is to push and test," she says, "Our job is to set healthy
boundaries for them."Knowing that someone's in charge actually makes your
child feel more comfortable." Children seem like they want the sun, the
moon, and the stars," she says, "but when they get it, it's weird. It
makes them feel unsafe when we don't set limits."
Too often, Waldburger says, parents worry that giving their child limits
will upset the child and make them less close, but this isn't the case.
"Never once have I had a parent say that the child was less attached,
less bonded [from the parents setting limits]" says Waldburger. "They
always say the opposite. Once the child is getting that rest, [he or she is]
Provide a Transitional Object
Bedtime means separation andthat can be hard on a child.Help your child cope
by finding something that can substitute as you when you leave the room, says
Waldburger. Take your child to the store and pick out mommy bear (or whatever
stuffed animal he or she wants). Have mommy bear help make dinner, take a bath,
and read books. "Then at bedtime, you say, 'Mommy can't stay but mommy bear
will be here with you,'" says Waldburger. "It gives a child a piece of
you to help cuddle up with when you're not there."
Create a Comfortable Sleep Environment
Particularly for older kids, keep distractions out of the bedroom, says Shu.
Electronics like TVs, video games, cell phones, and computers are sleep
distractions and can be hard to control once you close the bedroom door.
Teach Your Kids to Fall Asleep on Their Own
Every parent knows this is the hardest job of all. But most sleep problems
stem from this inability. Children associate certain conditions with being
asleep, says Waldburger. During their lighter sleep phases, they will
subconsciously check their environment for the same conditions they went to
sleep with in the first place. If you were there when they fell asleep, they
think you need to be there when they wake.
"The reason children wake up is not the issue," says Long. "The
issue is learning to fall back to sleep on their own."
If children learn to fall asleep on their own, says Shu, then they'll be
able to put themselves to sleep that way -- without going and waking you --
when they wake up in the middle of the night.
When dealing with a sleep problem, many parents will do the same thing for
several nights trying to create consistency, and then fall off. Sometimes,
something comes up. Sometimes, the child has just been crying one minute too
long and a parent just gives in and gives up.
"The consistency in their response to their child is the key," says
Waldburger. It's like the slot machine effect, she says. Put in a
quarter, get nothing. Put in a quarter, get nothing. Put in a quarter, get $50.
Yeah, the child thinks. I'm going to try that again.
"It hardly ever happens that it takes one night of adjusting to
change," she says. "But the consistency in your response will get your
result more quickly. It is critical to minimizing the child's frustration and
getting through the process quickly."
"It doesn't matter how far you've gotten off track," says
Waldburger. "Just be consistent. Once you've set the boundary, they relax
SOURCES: Christine Althoff, Little Rock, Ark. Banni Bunting, Bend, Ore.
Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, co-founder, Sleepy Planet, Los Angeles. Nicholas
Long, PhD, child psychologist, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and
Arkansas Children's Hospital; director, Center for Effective Parenting, Little
Rock, Ark. Jennifer Shu, MD, pediatrician, Children's Medical Group, Atlanta;
co-author, Heading Home with Your Newborn.
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