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Sleep Difficulties in Preschoolers

Whether you're eager to help your preschooler begin sleeping alone for the first time, or you have a child who's suddenly developed bedtime resistance, find ways to help everyone get a good night's rest.

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Q: I have a 4 year old who still sleeps in bed with me and my husband. We have tried and tried to get him out, but he cries for hours and eventually we give in. What should we do?

Q: My 5-year-old daughter has recently started throwing fits at bedtime. When I tell her it is time to brush teeth and get jammies on, she says she has a scary feeling and points to her belly. My husband and I have tried everything we can think of, but we can't seem to ease her fears. We have stayed and read stories, sung songs, and prayed together. We have also tried the quick good night approach. None of it works. She still screams and demands that I be with her until she falls asleep. Then everything is fine for the rest of the night. We are puzzled since this never happened when she was younger.

A: These are two of the many questions I receive about nighttime difficulties. It might help if we consider what the struggles are all about before considering possible solutions.

It is understandable that many young children have trouble giving up the physical closeness of the adults they need and love during the night. And it is understandable too that devoted, exhausted parents often give in.

From infancy on, we all wrestle with a conflict between the need for emotional and physical closeness on the one hand, and the need to feel competent as separate individuals on the other hand. It is perhaps our greatest challenge to build a life that balances these two needs. As parents, we perpetually face the even greater challenge of guiding our children to do the same. We want to protect them, but don't wish to clip their wings; and it isn't easy to know what a particular child is ready for at a particular moment. That is why some guidelines may help.

Few would disagree that the children referred to above would be better off sleeping alone in their own beds. For that degree of independence to be achieved, it is best to begin building it much earlier in children's lives. Old habits die hard with young children. So it is best not to start out having them sleep in parents' beds. Instead, be very alert to your child's daytime clues about his feelings, fears, etc. By letting him see that you love and understand him during the day, you will be helping him to trust you enough to separate at night, confident that you will still be there in the morning. Then too, if you allow him the reasonable freedom to make certain decisions within the bounds of safety, such as what to wear, what to play, and what to eat, it will be easier for him to grow up enjoying separateness as much as togetherness. In short, learning to trust one's parents and one's self enough to sleep alone is part of the process of normal growth.

Of course, young children are entitled to a calm household and reassuring bed-time rituals — a special song, a lovey or blanket in their arms, a calming story such as Goodnight Moon, and hugs from you with cheerful reminders of the fun that awaits him tomorrow. It is normal for them to stall sometimes, with requests for extra drinks of water, one more story, etc.

So far I have offered some clues about preventing the bind that some parents find themselves in years later. But what about you who write to us now because you are already stuck in a pattern that you know must be changed? Your child may have missed opportunities to develop a separate sense of self and therefore need expert help from trained and certified child mental health professionals in order to progress toward age-appropriate independence. This much catching up is very difficult to manage all alone, so I hesitate, without knowing your child's needs, to suggest a "cold turkey" locking of parents' doors. However, that may turn out to be a part of the solution recommended by professionals who get to know your child.

The second question, about a 5-year-old child's new bedtime anxieties, is different. Sudden bedtime fears like hers are quite common, precipitated at times by the birth of a baby, a divorce, a move, a change in caregivers or school, a family illness, a strain in the parents' marriage. These and many more stressful events can contribute to children's sleep difficulties, just as they can for adults. So too can a child's own inner conflict (e.g., a fear of reprisal for angry feelings) interfere with sleep. Some children fall into nighttime troubles after an illness that brought Mommy or Daddy into their rooms for needed care. Once the child is well, explain that now she is able to sleep throughout the night all by herself.

In this case, I suggest trying to return family life to calmness and predictability if possible, and tuning into feelings your child expresses in daytime play. If not, don't hesitate to consult a professional. Experts disagree about the merits of night-lights and open bedroom doors. Use your own judgment about what would work in your family. When you respond to your child's middle-of-the-night call, keep your visit short, and avoid turning on lights and doing daytime activities like reading or playing. Once you are assured that your child is well, let her know that now is the time for restful sleep to get ready for tomorrow, which promises to be another wonderful day.

About the Author

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents. In addition, she has written and produced award-winning educational videos.

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