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Getting Your Child to go to Bed, and Stay There

The majority of clients I work with struggle to get time for themselves, and with their partner, as they have the nightly battle of getting their children to go to bed - and stay there. It’s not easy, but it’s one of the most important things you can do for them, you, and your relationship.

When children don't get enough sleep, they have a harder time controlling their emotions. They may be irritable or hyper, which is no fun for anyone. Kids who are always sleep-deprived are more likely to have behaviour problems, have trouble paying attention and learning, and be overweight. So although it's not easy, it's important to do all you can to help your child get the sleep they need.

Regular schedules and bedtime rituals play a big role in helping kids get sound sleep and function at their best. When you set and maintain good sleep habits, it helps your child fall asleep, stay asleep, and awake rested and refreshed. They can help take the stress out of bedtime, too.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for bedtime, and every child is different. What's important is to build a routine that works for your family -- and to stick with it. Here are some ways to get started-

Make sleep a family priority

Lead by example by setting regular go-to-bed and wake-up times for the entire family. If you'd like to a establish an earlier sleep time than your child current has, you can start setting your child's bed time 15 minutes earlier every few nights until you meet your new goal. For example, if your child currently falls asleep at 9:30 p.m. and you would like him or her to go to bed at 8:30, you could start making his or her bedtime 9:15 for a few days, then move it back to 9:00 p.m. This technique is called bedtime fading.

Work as a team

It's important to discuss and agree on a sleep strategy for your child with your spouse or partner beforehand and work together as a team to carry it out consistently. Otherwise, you can't expect your child to learn or change her behaviour.

If you are starting a new sleep routine for your child, make her part of the team by explaining the new plan to them if they are old enough to understand. For a young child, try using a picture chart to help your child learn the new routine, showing actions like changing clothes, brushing teeth, and reading a book.

Routine, routine, routine

Kids love it, they thrive on it, and it works. One study found that a consistent night time routine improved sleep in children who had mild to moderate sleep problems and also eases anxiety in children. It helps your child learn to be sleepy, just like reading in bed often puts adults to sleep. It can also make bedtime a special time. That will help your child associate the bedroom with good feelings and give her a sense of security and control. There is no single routine that's right for everyone, but in general, yours should include all the things that your child needs to do before going to sleep, including brushing teeth, washing up, putting on PJs, and having a snack or drink of water. Your child may want to read a book with you, talk about the day, or hear a story. Whatever you choose to do, keep the routine short (30 minutes or less, not including a bath) and be firm about ending it when it's time to sleep.

Bedtime snacks

Children may need more than three meals a day to keep them going, so a small snack before bedtime can help their bodies stay fuelled through the night. Healthy options include whole-grain cereal with milk, graham crackers, or a piece of fruit. Avoid large snacks too close to bed, especially with older kids, because a full stomach can interfere with sleep.

Dress and room temperature

Everyone sleeps better in a room that is cool but not cold. A rule of thumb is to dress your child basically as you dress yourself, keeping in mind that very young children often kick off the covers at night and can’t cover themselves.

Sleep environment

Make sure the bedroom is dark and quiet and the noise level in the house is low. If your child does not like a totally dark room, turn on a small night light, or leave the hall light on and the door to the bedroom open.

Security object

Bedtime means separation, and that can be easier for kids with a personal object, like a doll, teddy bear,

or blanket. It can provide a sense of security and control that comforts and reassures your child before they fall asleep.

Provide protection from fears

Instead of dismissing bedtime fears, address them. If simple reassurance doesn’t work, you can try buying a special toy to stand guard at night or spray the room with “monster spray” before bed. (A can of air freshener with a creative new label works well.)

Reduce the focus on sleep

Just like adults, kids can have trouble shutting their brains off for the night. Instead of increasing that anxiety by insisting it’s time to sleep, consider focusing more on the idea of relaxation and calming your child’s body down.

One last thing.......

Kids will always ask for that one last thing - hugs, a drink of water, a trip to the bathroom, just one more book. Do your best to head off these requests by making them part of the bedtime routine. And let your child know that once they are in bed, she has to stay in bed.

If your child starts developing a habit of getting out of bed, these tips may help resolve this problem. Take your child back to bed, tell him or her that the door will be closed (but not locked) if he or she gets out of bed again and that he or she has control of keeping the door open by staying in bed. If your child stays in bed, the door stays open.

If your child gets out of bed, close the door for 1 or 2 minutes. If your child gets out of bed again, put your child back in bed and close the door again for another couple of minutes. Be consistent. You may increase the length of time the door is closed by 1-2 minutes if you do not get a desired response.

When your child stays in bed, open the door and acknowledge his or her good efforts with praise. If age-appropriate, a bedtime pass to allow one exit from the bedroom for a specific reason may work as well to give the child a sense of control. For older children, a method of positive reinforcement can be performed, such as praise next morning for staying in bed.

Rewards and penalties

Do praise and reward your child when he or she stays in bed or does what you want him or her to do regarding bedtime activities and sleeping. Consider stickers, breakfast treats, small toys, or other special prizes as some possible ways to reward your child. Be careful not to offer junk food as reward. Use positive phrases, such as, "you are doing a great job of staying in bed."

On the other hand, don't dwell on misbehaviour from the previous night. Don't use the bedroom as a place of punishment or time outs – so your child doesn't associate the bedroom with negative behaviour.

A crying child

If your child cries, speak calmly, reassure your child "that he or she is fine and that it is time to go to sleep." Make your visit brief, and then leave the room. If your child continues to cry, space out the time between visits to the bedroom, and when you do return, do not do anything but talk calmly, briefly (1-2 minutes), and then leave. No arguments or discussions need to take place. The purpose of your visit is to let your child know that you are present and to reassure him or her that they are okay. Continue to keep the atmosphere as for bed time (dark, quiet, calm). Your child will learn to calm down and go to sleep if you stick with this routine.

Patience and persistence

Changing any habit takes time. Your child will learn new sleep habits if you stick to your prescribed routine. Your child may want to argue or complain about new bedtime rules. You must ignore these arguments and protests. Firmly and calmly let your child know that this is the new bedtime plan. It may be very challenging at first and may take several nights to get your child used to the new plan but with some persistence, you will succeed. Remember, consistency is the key!

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