Question: My preschooler has trouble getting to sleep at night – what can I do to help?
Sleep issues are common with preschoolers. Young children use all of their senses to learn about their environment, which can sometimes lead to over-stimulation, fear, or anxiety – all of which can affect how easily they go to sleep at night.
Along with learning about their environment comes the knowledge that they have control over that environment and their own actions within it. Testing the limits of that control – and a parent’s reaction to it – is part of the work of growing up.
The trick to helping a child calm down, accept limits and go to bed is figuring out what is causing the issue and then formulating a matching response. Below are five common reasons preschoolers have trouble getting to bed at night and some possible solutions.
Lack of Consistent Routine: Bed Time Blocker #1
Young children thrive on routines. Routines let children know what to expect and help them feel control over their environment. Most parents understand that having a consistent bedtime ritual – a winding down period, a bath, a story, a hug and a kiss – helps children prepare for bed. Just as important as the ritual is having the child go to bed at the same time every night, and having consistent routines throughout the day.
Success at bedtime does not happen solely in that one hour before lights out, however. Rather, consistency throughout the day helps a child feel secure enough to “leave” a parent at night. Make sure meal times, nap times, play times with parents, pick up from childcare, etc. are as predictable as possible for young children, and you’ll both have an easier time getting to sleep.
Anxiety: Bed Time Blocker #2
Changes in children’s lives can lead to difficulty sleeping – a new sibling, a divorce, a new school, illness, can all cause anxiety. Just as adults sometimes lie awake at night due to the stress of the day, preschoolers now have inner thoughts and these can affect them in the same way. Even preschoolers for whom nothing external has changed may experience stress due to their ever-expanding intellectual abilities.
Preschoolers have reached an age where they no longer think everything stops just because they are not there. While concepts about time are not adult-like, they do think about the future and the past. Children may fear that they will miss out on something exciting while they are sleeping or that a parent will no longer be there when they wake.
Just as maintaining a consistent daytime routine helps keep bedtime smooth, dealing with a child’s complex emotions during the day will prevent them from bubbling to the surface at nighttime. Make sure your child has a space to discuss – or play out – his or her anxieties during the day. Get down there on the floor with the dolls, matchbox cars, or stuffed animals and play along so that you can offer ideas and solutions to alleviate fears.
Additionally, if your kids are worried about being alone at night, you may need to ease them into being alone at bedtime with a step-by-step approach. For the first couple of nights, place a chair in the doorway of the child’s room and catch up on your free reading. It is important that you do not talk to your child or do anything that might seem “exciting” to your child. If your child does get up, calmly walk him or her back to bed and go back to reading. After he or she gets used to the chair in the doorway, move just outside the door, then to your own room, and finally downstairs or to another part of the house.
Fear of the Dark: Bed Time Blocker #3
When kids are alone in a quiet, dark room with no distractions, their brains can start actively imagining all sorts of things.
Nightlights and other comfort items like stuffed animals often do the trick of alleviating fear of the dark, and limiting television viewing at night is a must. Children latch on to images and may be afraid of a commercial or a quick news break even when watching cartoons.
Over-tiredness: Bed Time Blocker #4
Preschoolers need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep per day. For some children, the hours are consecutive, while for others the sleep hours spread out between night and naps. When children become over-stimulated, they actively expend energy trying to stay awake. After a few days of late bedtimes or over-tiredness for other reasons, revving up the body at night becomes a habit.
Somewhat counter-intuitively then, an earlier bedtime and napping during the day can actually help a child fall asleep at night. Even if a preschooler spends an hour of “quiet” time alone rather than napping, it can still have the effect of resting the body and the added benefit of helping a child acclimate to being alone in his or her room.
Kids’ Need for Control: Bed Time Blocker #5
Children this age are just finding out that they have control over their behaviors, and are famous for testing the limits. Let them know that bedtime is non-negotiable, but that they can have some control over the bedtime routine. Do they want to put pajamas on or brush their teeth first? Would they like a book or a song? A hug or a kiss – or both?
It is important that the questions be either/or situations and not open-ended. In this way, your child has a clear choice, will not choose anything that you do not feel is acceptable, and really does not have a “no” option.
Adequate Sleep is A Necessity
Getting enough sleep is important at all ages, and often the only down time parents of young children have is after the little ones are safely tucked in bed. Given the high stakes for both children and parents, bedtime can often be a source of frustration. Maintaining consistent routines, clear expectations, and respect for the child’s needs can ease the transition from an active day to a peaceful night.© Copyright 2014 Nicole Fravel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Parenting