It is important that parents decide how they wish to approach the issue of their children’s sleep habits. Establishing regular sleep routines is an essential role of parents. If you have an inconsistent approach to bedtime, your child will become confused and is likely to push the boundaries in whatever way possible. Poor sleeping habits are hard to break and it may take considerable time and willpower on the part of the parents to achieve good sleeping patterns.
It is also important to manage your own expectations. Are you hoping for a child that never gets out of bed once you have put her there? Do you want a child to sleep through the night, from aged 3 months, and never bother you again? Do you wish your child would sleep until 7.30am or play happily alone when they wake up? Some children might achieve this, but they are the exception rather than the rule and you will be less disappointed if you have slightly lower standards.
There are many books that can give you advice on sleeping problems and there are also organisations, such as Millpond, to help you if your child has serious sleep issues.
Solutions for a calmer bedtime, for toddlers and older children:
- Have a set time that you want your children to be in the bath. If it ties in with a favourite television programme, make sure that once the programme is over they go to their bath straight away.
- Have expectations and rules about the bath. For example, give them 10, 5 and 2 minute warnings to get out. Certain games in the bath are fine but others, such as sloshing water over the side, mean that they have to get out.
- Engage with them while they are in the bath: sing songs, tell stories or even read a bedtime story.
- Have their pyjamas, and toothbrushes with toothpaste on, ready and waiting.
- You may like to give them some playtime after the bath, particularly if they have been quick to get out and into their pyjamas.
- Invite them to choose a story, but make sure that you stick to what was agreed. Endless 'Can I have another one?' can make you feel very frustrated and also eats into 'child-free' time.
- Have an agreed bedtime routine. For example, they could lay out their clothes for the next day, find any teddies or toys that they want to take to bed with them, put on a nightlight or get a drink. Having a bedtime checklist is very helpful for both the parents and the child.
- Establish a tucking-in process. Do you have something special you say when you say goodnight? How many kisses do you give? Do you agree to come back in the room one extra time?
- If you are using a tick-chart, ask your child to tick off all the stages up to and including the very last bit before you leave the room.
- If you have a child who is prone to calling out or getting out of bed, wait outside for as little as a minute before popping your head around the door and saying, 'You’re doing the right thing! You said you'd stay in bed and there you are, still tucked up. Well done’. You may need to repeat this at increasing intervals. If a child gets attention and is praised for doing the right thing, it has a huge impact on them. If they are lying there, wanting attention and the only way to get it is to call out or get out of bed, they receive negative attention. Unfortunately, a child can’t distinguish between the two so it’s important to focus on the positive.
- If you are called back more than once, stand outside the door and say, 'Johnny, what was our agreement? I’m going to wait until you are quiet and then I will praise you for doing the right thing'.
- Make a chart for staying in bed through the night. Make it easy for them to earn stickers by rewarding small improvements. Sleeping all the way through the night with no interruptions could earn 10 ticks or small stickers. If they used to get up five times and they only got up twice, they could still earn a few stickers. This system allows the child to see and understand their progress.
- You can buy special clocks that encourage children to stay in bed until a specific time. When accompanied with the above suggestions, they can be very helpful.
- If you have children who come into your bed at night, you need to be very consistent about the rules. Some parents don't mind or actively like it, in which case 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it!' Others, like me, find that their sleep is too disturbed by nocturnal visits. If this is the case, you have to be completely consistent about taking the child back to his own room, however hard it may be. You could do this in stages, starting off with a mattress on the floor next to your bed, or making the rule that they can only sleep at the bottom end of your bed, which is less cosy and warm. Ultimately, you need to get them back into their own bed.
- Some children respond very well to the idea that being in their own bed means they are more independent or grown up. Try giving them freedom and responsibilities during the day and link this to how independent they can be at night by sleeping on their own. If the issues or fears are more complex, a consultation with me could help resolve the problem. Alternatively, you could consult books or a sleep practitioner.
A client's story about sleeping
Jane and Douglas came to see me about Amber, their 3 year old who had never slept through the night. During the first session I established a really good understanding of Amber’s character, their routines, when the hot-spots occurred and also Jane and Douglas’s experience of being parents. Quite often in these situations, you find that one parent plays ‘good cop’ and the other plays ‘bad cop’. This was the case with these two – Jane was ‘good cop’ and Douglas ‘bad cop’. We looked at how to align their parenting styles to make it work for Amber. Jane agreed to be more consistent and Douglas to be more positive and understanding.
It turned out that cooperation wasn’t just an issue at bedtime. There were frequent incidents during the day when Amber refused to do what was asked; arguments and threats ensued, with Jane giving in ‘for a quiet life’. We talked about the downsides of giving in and the confusing message it gives to the child. Over four sessions we achieved a huge amount. We worked out a plan of action and practised newer and more positive ways of communicating with Amber. As a routine was established and Jane and Douglas stuck to it consistently, Amber’s day became more predictable and calmer. They helped Amber create a flow chart, showing her bedtime routine and the progression of time to get into bed. She stopped using her dummy with no trauma whatsoever, she stopped having tantrums every five minutes and she became so much happier and more cooperative. The progress was so fantastic that after the four sessions, and for the first time, Jane and Douglas were able to take Amber on holiday. Even in a strange environment and with a babysitter she didn’t know, Amber went to bed happily and slept through the night. Jane and Douglas were able to go out for dinner and have an undisturbed night’s sleep.
* names have been changed