Making Bedtime Easier
"I want another drink of water!" This simple request can provoke anger in even the calmest of parents, who thought that their preschoolers were asleep in bed.
As many tired parents know, coaxing a reluctant preschooler into bed can be the greatest challenge of the day. Young children love to exert their power over the few things in life they can control, and going to sleep is one of them. Haggard parents, however, can negotiate peace before the bedtime battle begins by establishing a consistent routine. Young children thrive on consistency. Having a snack, bathing, brushing teeth, reading, and singing are all relaxing activities that help young children prepare for bed. The key is making sure the routine is enjoyable, calming and the same every night.
When choosing a bedtime hour, parents should remember that preschoolers need ten to twelve hours of sleep a night. Bedtime will be much less stressful for everyone if parents begin the routine early enough to give children plenty of time to complete all of their tasks without rushing.
Parents must also be firm with children about sleeping in their own rooms. Creating fun sleeping quarters can entice youngsters who find mom and dad's room more alluring. A few simple props or pictures, along with a preschooler's active imagination, can transform any bed into a favorite fantasy land from tree house to tractor-trailer truck.
Although consistency is necessary, it is not always sufficient to prevent bedtime resistance. One common preschool refrain is "I can't go to sleep." Children need to know that they have to be in bed, but they do not have to fall asleep right away. Encouraging them to look at a book, listen to a tape or play with some small toys not only makes bedtime enjoyable, it helps children learn to relax on their own.
Sometimes, children really cannot go to sleep because they are taking late afternoon or long naps. To solve this problem, gradually wean children from their naps by shortening them five to ten minutes every day.
Children who insist on getting out of bed will often stay put when parents use positive reinforcement. One method is rewarding children with stickers for remaining in bed. At the end of the week, they receive a small prize for collecting a preset number of stickers. For many preschoolers, making the chart and putting the stickers on is as important as getting the prize.
The vivid imaginations of preschoolers leave them prone to distressing nighttime fears. Whatever the danger, parents can help by listening to all the details and assuring their children that they are safe. Night lights and dimmer switches work wonders for fears of the dark. Favorite toys or security blankets also provide comfort when children feel alone and vulnerable before they drift off to sleep.
Although fears are common in preschoolers, intense fright, especially when accompanied by panic, is unusual and may be a sign that outside help is needed. Moreover, children who feel terror at bedtime often have difficulty in other parts of their life such as in school, with peers, around meals or bathing. If parents are worried about their children or cannot develop a routine that seems to work, they can talk to their pediatricians or seek a referral to a professional counselor.
About the Authors
Ellen C. Putter, M.D. is a Clinical Instructor of Pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine.
About the NYU Child Study Center
The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at www.AboutOurKids.org.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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