If you’re like most parents, you’re all too familiar with this scenario: You put your preschooler to bed at 8:30 at night, hugging and kissing her and wishing her sweet dreams.
It’s been a long day, but still the dinner dishes await, you have bills to pay, the dog needs to be walked and the cat fed, and you haven’t had a spare moment to put your feet up.
But instead of spending the rest of the evening catching up on your chores and clocking some precious time with your partner, you’re in and out of your child’s room, cajoling her to sleep. She finally nods off — about three hours after she first went to bed.
Take heart: Bedtime can be rough for a preschooler. On the one hand, she’s learning to assert herself and her newfound independence. On the other hand, she’s fearful of what it means to be on her own. “Fighting sleep is a way to take control, but it’s also a way to stave off fears that come with the night,” says Jodi A. Mindell, associate professor of psychology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and the author of Sleeping Through the Night. Monsters under the bed, boogiemen in the closet, thunderstorms, bugs — those are pretty scary things to deal with when you’re all alone in the dark!
What you can do about bedtime battles
Set aside some time to talk to your child about her day. Your preschooler may be fighting sleep simply because she needs time to check in with you at the end of her day. Especially if you work long hours yourself, allot some time before bed to chat with her about goings-on at preschool and to get the scoop on the latest dramas in her social life. You may find that she’s more amenable to sleep if she’s had a chance to unburden herself.
Stick to a bedtime routine. Make a pictorial chart for your preschooler to follow — including her bath, teeth brushing, bedtime story, and goodnight kiss. Also include her usual (and reasonable) requests — like that second sip of water or a peek at the moon. Give her some notice before it’s time to start the routine each night (“Sophie, five minutes before bath time!”). Try not to let her dawdle, or drag things out with activities that aren’t part of the ritual — no third glass of water or round of “Baby Beluga,” for instance.
Motivate her. When your preschooler goes to bed on time, the rewards for you are obvious. Make it clear what’s in it for her too. The morning after she sticks with the routine, praise her and give her a sticker to put on a special chart. Offer her a reward — like a new book or a visit to her favorite playground — once she stays in bed three nights in a row. (Start small — for a preschooler, a few days is a long time to hang in there!)
Offer choices. Refusing to go to bed is a powerful way for your child to assert herself. So it might help to find an acceptable means of allowing her to be assertive. Let her decide whether she wants to hear Silverstein poems or a Ranger Rick story before lights-out, for instance, or ask her if she’d like a sip of water before or after she climbs into bed. Be careful to offer only choices you can live with; if you ask “Want to go to bed now?” you probably won’t like the answer you get.
Be calm but firm. Even if your preschooler cries or pleads for an exception to the going-to-bed rule, stand your ground. If you’re frustrated, don’t engage in a power struggle. Speak calmly and quietly but insist that when time’s up, time’s up. If you give in to her request for “five more minutes, please,” you’ll only hear it again tomorrow night.
Teach your preschooler to fall asleep alone. If your child depends on you to stay with her while she falls asleep, now’s a good time to encourage her to doze off on her own. You might give her some incentive by reminding her that it’s time to go to sleep, and if she stays quiet you’ll be back to check on her in five minutes. Reassure her that she’s safe and that you’re nearby.
Take the stepladder to success. You can’t expect your child to learn, in one fell swoop, how to go to bed and sleep all night according to your perfect scenario. Take it one step at a time: If your preschooler’s used to falling asleep in your bed, maybe her first step is to fall asleep in her own. Her second step could be learning to limit her nocturnal “escapes” to one per night, or calling for you only once without actually getting up. Build your way to the ultimate goal (sleeping through the night without a peep) in successive, successful steps.