Strategies to Help Your Kids with Bedtime
Sleep problems are some of the most challenging concerns parents face. After all, one child’s sleepless night can affect the whole family. Luckily, a few adjustments can help your child (and your sleepy family) to get back on track.
Many times, sleep problems arise due to “habits” or “associations” created around sleep. For example, some children have trouble sleeping if their parent does not lay down in the bed with them until they fall asleep. This happens because sleep becomes associated with snuggling with a parent. In situations where this is not possible (e.g., parents’ night out, sleepover, parent works nights etc.), the child’s routine is altered and it is very difficult for the child to sleep.
Oftentimes, these situations escalate because children have difficulty regulating their emotions when they are feeling tired and an alteration in the bedtime routine can seem like the end of the world. At this point, parents are willing to do almost anything to get their sleepy, upset child back to bed. Usually, this means climbing back into bed with the child and waiting until they fall asleep and thus, perpetuating the association between sleep and the parent’s presence.
Other common bedtime associations are falling asleep in another location (e.g., parents’ bed, couch, car) and being carried to bed. Any parent who has experienced these associations knows that the child often wakes up disoriented, confused, and upset when they have been moved from the place they fell asleep to a new location. Other kids have difficulty falling asleep without a certain snack, TV show, or comfort object like a pacifier. In these situations, kids often try to extend the pleasurable activity by “stalling” or may become frustrated when the pleasurable activity has ended. Once again, the child’s tiredness gets in the way of their ability to tolerate even minor frustrations.
If you have been in any of these situations at the end of a long day, you know how hopeless it can feel. Luckily, with a few gradual adjustments and bedtime boundaries, you can help your child become a successful sleeper. First off, think about the things you want your child to associate with sleep. For most families, this is the child’s own bed in a quiet, dark or dimly lit room. To create this kind of environment, limit distractions (especially screens!) in the bedroom. Most importantly, stick to the rule that the child’s bed is for sleep and sleep alone. When kids play, watch TV, do homework, and eat in bed, the association between sleep and bed is nonexistent. Instead, the child associates the bed with many different activities and the child’s body does not prepare for rest when they get into bed.
So, if your child’s bedtime routine is associated with an activity like falling asleep in front of the TV, it will be important to adjust this habit. For example, have your child watch TV in the living room and when you notice their eyes getting heavy, escort them to their bed. This way, the feeling of extreme sleepiness and drifting off to sleep will be associated with bed rather than TV. A common mistake is waiting for the child to fall asleep before bringing them to their bedroom. As mentioned earlier, this perpetuates the association between sleep and another location or activity. Therefore, it is crucial to bring the child to their bed just before the onset of sleep.
Similarly, if your child associates a parent’s touch or presence with sleep, it will be important to gradually change this association. You will start by initiating the normal routine where you snuggle with your child and then build up the child’s tolerance to being apart from you at bedtime. First, excuse yourself from the child’s room for a few seconds by stating you need to do a small task (e.g., blow your nose, put clothes in the dryer). Assure the child you will be right back and leave for about ten seconds. Praise the child for waiting patiently and resume the normal bedtime routine. Gradually, as your child tolerates small absences, build up to longer periods of time until your child is able to fall asleep on their own. Once they fall asleep on their own, let them know you came back to check on them as promised and they were already asleep. Again, praising your child is crucial!
Oftentimes, when parents notice their child engaging in a quiet activity or initiating the bedtime routine on their own, the parent worries any interruption will derail the positive behavior. In fact, the contrary is true! If you notice your child engaging in a quiet pre-bedtime activity, state, “I am so proud of you for putting away your screens on time and reading in the living room before bed! I can tell you have really been paying attention when we talk about healthy sleeping habits.” This reinforces the child’s positive behavior and promotes independent decision-making.
If you have tried some of these tips and tricks and still notice your child is having difficulty sleeping, this is a great time to talk to a therapist!
At Balanced Minds Psychology & Wellness we specialize in assisting teens and children with navigating life’s challenges. To learn more about me and the services I provide, checkout my profile. If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation, either over telehealth or in person!