Like food and shelter, a child's need for sleep is basic. The healthiest, happiest kids are the best rested. A child's ability to learn, imagine, create, and socialize are all linked to getting a sound night's sleep, as rest gives a growing body and brain a chance to consolidate experiences, archive the day's memories, and process emotions.
As simple as the need for sleep may be, however, it is wrought with complexities. For some small children, going to sleep means giving up control, and sleep discipline — teaching a child to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night — can be emotionally loaded for parents who need to weigh their sense of responsibility with their own need for rest.
Luckily, there are concrete steps you can take to help your child become a better sleeper and to make sure everyone in your home gets a good night's rest. If all the work it takes seems daunting, remember: Helping your child sleep through the night will give him the resources to face his rough-and-tumble days of exploration and learning and help him to flourish.
Sleep Is a Family Affair
Just as there's no single way to raise a child, there's no "right" way to encourage good sleeping habits. However, because disruptive sleep patterns can upset an entire household, it's very important to create an environment that is respectful and peaceful for everyone. Each family has to find their own way. Start by setting some ground rules.
First, parents need to reach a universal agreement — especially since research has found that, on average, children wake up three to six times per night. Decide how you'll handle a crying baby or a demanding kindergartner: Will you respond at once to a whimper, wait two minutes and then attend, or wait a full five or ten minutes, then offer some comfort? If one parent favors co-sleeping and the other doesn't, it's best to clear the air long before the wee-hour awakenings require your attention.
It's important not to lose your temper or punish your child for awakening — even when you've got to be up for work in two hours. Parental outbursts tend to exacerbate sleep difficulties rather than resolve them.
Remember, too, that the sleep strategy that worked when your child was 6 weeks old might not be ideal when she's 6 months, and will change again by the time she's 3 or 4. Your child's development and her abilities to soothe herself and to separate change over time.
Two basics will serve you well: First, follow your instincts. Second, remember that you are in control. As a parent, you set the tone for your children, and as always, consistency is key — even in the night.
The Trouble With Sleep
Many variables can contribute to children's sleep difficulties, but most fall into a few common categories, including separation issues, fears, and simple distraction. The good news is that bedtime doesn't have to turn into a battleground. By understanding what's at play, you can help your child conquer his issues so that he can become a happy, independent sleeper.
Separation. For young children, going to sleep seems like a separation from you and from the safe and predictable "awake" world. Make separations easier with transitional objects, like toys or blankets, or with reassuring props such as nightlights and music boxes. Remind your child of your presence, awake or asleep — he will be encouraged to know that you're not far away, and that you're available to help if he needs you.
Follow your child's cues, within reason. Three-year-old Devon, for example, likes to listen to an audio tape every night after storytime and lights-out. Since he is eager to stay awake, he always asks for "one more song." By setting solid guidelines and clear consequences — "I'll stay with you for two songs, and then I'm going downstairs to read" — he will learn that his parents are there for him, even when he can't see them.
Sleep separation can be an issue for parents, too, particularly those who are away at work and have a strong desire to spend time with their children in the evening. But protracted nighttime routines, overlong good-byes, and lengthy tucking-in rituals don't serve a child well in the long run, as they expand the transition you're trying to ease and delay the separation into sleep. Try shifting evening coziness to other hours of the day — after his bath, for example, or by altering your early morning routine so that it includes a little private time together. At bedtime, make sure to praise your child's (increasing) ability to settle in and go to sleep. Reinforce your praise in the morning to set the stage for the next night's sleep.
Being awake is more fun. As children grow, life's attractive distractions pull even red and tired eyes away from bed. Why go to sleep when the fireflies are out? Or when your big brother is up watching a video with Mom and Dad? As pediatrician T. Berry Brazleton observed, no right-thinking child actually wants to go to bed — certainly not to sleep through the night, especially if loving arms await with a warm drink and a lazy cuddle in the rocking chair. Ensure that your child has plenty of opportunity for play and lots of exercise during the day, and make going to bed fun so that he looks forward to the quiet time.
Create a peaceful, comfortable space for your child. Whether he shares a room or has his own, his bedroom is his refuge. Keep TV and computer separate from sleeping space as their stimulation runs counter to relaxation. Light-hearted posters and fun pillows can make a kid's room a real oasis.
Underlying issues. On a deeper level, sometimes a child's reluctance to go to sleep reflects inner issues. A child seeking to master a new situation or confronting a life change may cause him to backtrack in his sleep patterns and need much more reassurance at bedtime. Again, special transitional objects can provide him with the security he craves, as can more doses of attention and affection sprinkled throughout the day. For balance, strive for greater predictability and regularity in your child's daily life.
Monsters in the closet. Preschoolers' very active imaginations make it difficult for them to separate fantasy from reality. They sincerely believe that monsters lurk under the bed and ghosts are hiding in the closet. These fears deserve your careful attention and empathy. Instead of saying "There's nothing under your bed," for example, try, "I see you're worried. Let's look under the bed together." Your child will feel both understood and reassured. Try to help him see the difference between real and pretend creatures and make sure he knows you would never let a monster into the house.
Bad dreams. Night fears and bad dreams are a part of preschoolers' lives. Much of the content of these dreams is evident in your child's rampant imagination and passion for pretend play and can crop up in direct relation to "a dramatic boom in cognitive development," says Dr. Jodi Mindell, author of Sleeping Through the Night.
Help your child manage his fears by encouraging him to name them. Sometimes just framing a fear with language makes it go away. Or, invite your child to draw pictures of his dreams. Both approaches let kids attempt to control the things that scare them.
Surefire Sleep Strategies
Helping a child learn to sleep well and soundly takes creativity, commitment, and patience. Here are some strategies.
Set a regular bedtime for weeknights and weekends. Keeping your child's daily schedule consistent, with fairly predictable meal and sleep times, helps regulate his body's inner clock.
Design a pre-bedtime ritual that helps your child unwind. This routine should take about 20 minutes or so and can include three or four activities, like reading a story, singing songs, or listening to music. Invite your child to put his stuffed animals to bed, giving a kiss goodnight to each. Just as reading a favorite story again and again gives your child a treasured sense of control over his world, a well-structured bedtime will help him come to expect and look forward to settling into sleep.
Don't dwell on a "bad night." If your child is up and down one night, praise his efforts at getting back to sleep instead of complaining about how difficult the night was. Young children want your praise and affection above all. Make a happy fuss at the breakfast table celebrating his "victory" and he'll be even more likely to settle in easily, eventually dropping the middle-of-the-night wakeup calls altogether.