When you become a parent, I don’t think you are prepared for the lack of sleep you will encounter. Sure everyone tells you about the sleepless nights, but until you experience it, you don’t completely feel the pain. If you are one of those lucky parents whose child sleeps through the night, or you are a blissful co-sleeping family this blog is not for you. This is for those of you that are blurry eyed and downing gallons of caffeine to make it through another day because your child is not sleeping at night. Your child might have slept great as an infant but now that they have reached toddlerhood they have decided that your bed is more comfortable or that you need to wake up with them and cuddle before they go back to bed. Whatever it is you are ready for a change ASAP! I will offer several ideas that may work for for you. Pick and choose what you like or try everything. I would love to hear what worked for you and what didn’t! Here we go!
The first area to consider is creating a bedtime routine. This can consist of stories, bath time, drink of water, snack, saying goodnight to specific people or pets, or any other activities that are important to your child and you before bed. Then, put it into a schedule that you will complete every night. Of course you can modify this if you are getting home late after dinner or something, but the majority of the time you will follow the same routine at night before bed. Sometimes it is helpful for littles to use a visual schedule that is created for them. A visual schedule is a schedule that is made out of pictures. Take pictures of each step of the routine, print it out and put it on paper. For example, a picture of your bathtub with their toys in it for bath time, a picture of their favorite stuffed animal and their favorite book for story time, and a picture of them in their bed for bedtime. You can choose to put it vertically or horizontally just help your child to move from 1 picture to the other. I also like to put Velcro on the back of each picture and your child can take the picture off as he completes each step. This makes it more concrete for your child and helps them to know when a step is completed. You can use an envelope or box to put the pictures when you are done with a step.
Another idea is to create a story around what you are expecting of your child at bedtime and during the night. You are going to personalize the book to your child, just like the visual schedule. Take pictures that represent the story you are going to tell your child. An example would be page 1 “My name is ______” “I am a big girl and I sleep in my own room.” Put a picture of their room with their bed and blankets etc that they would sleep with. Page 2 “I have my teddy and a special pillow I like to have in my bed with me.” Put a picture of their bear and pillow. Page 3 “I lay down in my bed and close my eyes when it is bedtime. Sometimes I have a hard time relaxing, but I hug my bear and stay quiet until I fall asleep.” Put a picture of your child laying down hugging her bear. Page 4 “Sometimes I wake up at night. Shhhhhh! Mommy is sleeping. Shhhhhh Daddy is sleeping. I hug my bear and close my eyes to go to sleep.” Take a picture of mommy and daddy sleeping in their bed. Page 5 “When the sun comes up it is time for me to get up! Wake up Mommy! Wake up Daddy!” Use a picture of their room with sunshine in it or the lights on. Mommy and Daddy awake and happy. You can create different dialogue or other phrases that you want your child to use to fall asleep or stay in their room, but make sure that the phrases are simple and something that you can try to illustrate with pictures. I use Power Point to create the pages, but you can use whatever works for you. Print out the pages and laminate them so that you can read this book with your child, as well as give it to them to look at on their own. This sets up your expectation of what you want them to do even if it’s not what is happening now. You can talk about how they will be sleeping in their own room and what that is going to look like when this happens. You don’t want the training phase to be a surprise to them. Here is an example of a bedtime social story book that I have used with some of my families.
You have set the ground work for what is going to happen; that your child will be sleeping in their own bed in their own room. Now for the fun part… You will start the training process. After you have gone through the bedtime routine you will put your child in their bed or crib and tell them that it is time to go to sleep and that you will sit with them for a few minutes while they are quiet. If they lay their quietly for a few minutes, tell them that you are going to check on something, go to the bathroom, put the dog out etc. but will be back in a few minutes. Leave the room even if they start to cry or whine, and stay out for a few minutes. If they do not stop crying or yelling go back to the room in a few minutes(2-3) do not make eye contact or pick them up unless you are putting them back in bed and say a statement about what you need them to do in a calm and matter of fact way. Such as “quiet it is bedtime” “shhhhh lay down” or “You’re ok, lay down and close your eyes.” when they are quiet stay in the room for a few minutes and then leave again saying you will be back in a few minutes if they are still awake. If your child stays quiet come back to the room sooner than if they were crying and throwing a fit, smile at them and tell them you are proud of them for being so calm/quiet etc. stay with them another few minutes and come back after a longer period of time. If they are crying or throwing a fit again wait 2-3 minutes and repeat the process. You are letting your child know what the expectation is for them and you are rewarding them if they are quiet and laying down. If they are upset you are letting them know you are still there, but you are not reinforcing their crying by picking them up or giving them attention. Continue with this process until they fall asleep. Sometimes if your child has not been able to calm down on their own or has gotten picked up and taken to your room, their tantrum will last longer or be worse at the beginning. This means that it is working so don’t give up! They are used to you giving in to their crying and so they are increasing the volume or intensity because it has worked in the past. If you remain consistent with not picking them up or giving them attention this behavior will slowly go away.
If you have been co-sleeping with your child are trying to get them into their own room, you can try slowing fading them into their own room. Start with keeping a mattress, sleeping bag or an air mattress next to your bed. Talk to your child about now that they are growing and getting bigger, you both need more space to sleep at night and that you think it would be a good idea for them to try to start sleeping in their own bed and eventually in their own room. Have your child sleep on their own bed next to yours for the first week and then next week you start to move their bed/mattress a few feet away from your bed and every 3-5 days you move the bed closer to the door, then just outside the door and finally into their own bedroom. Staying consistent with putting them back into their bed, no matter where it is during the night, will be important. Your child will learn that they need to stay in their bed at night. Having both mom and dad taking your child back to his/her bed at night can help, if you are having to wake up multiple times at night.
Sometimes just getting your child to wind down after a long day of playing and learning is the problem. Try making sure that the lights in the house start getting dimmer as it gets closer to bedtime. Experiment with giving your child a shower or bath at bedtime to see if it makes them feel calmer or more active. Putting lotion on their limbs and rubbing their arms or legs using a little pressure can also work at relaxing their body. Keep electronics off or not accessible to kids about 1 hour before bedtime. Make sure your child is getting in heavy work or play during the day such as pushing heaving boxes or bags from one room to another room, putting some heavy items in a backpack that they are wearing and bringing them up and down stairs. Wheelbarrow walking across the floor or outside. Having items on the floor that they need to pick up and put in a grocery cart or wagon, then having your child take them to a specific spot. Look into whether your child is more calm or relaxed with a heavier blanket on or if they would rather sleep without clothes on. If your child is too cold or too hot at night they may be waking up more frequently.
Finally, if you have tried all these ideas and it doesn’t seem to be working you could look into using calming essential oils, or magnesium for kids. There are many different options you could try. Check with your pediatrician before giving your child any supplements, but it could be a nutrient that your child is missing that is not letting your child relax or calm his/her body.
This is not a comprehensive list of ideas about how to improve your child’s sleep habits, but it is a list of strategies that I have used with my kids and with some of my clients. Sometimes one idea works better than another and different kids respond to different techniques. I hope you can take some of these tips and use them to help you in whatever sleep situation you find yourself in. Parenting isn’t always easy, but it does help when you can share ideas and tricks. Please let me know if you have any other ways you have gotten your child to sleep.