By Lisa Meltzer, Ph.D., CBSM
Preschoolers never want to go to bed. What child wants to stop playing or miss out on all the fun they think you are having after they go to sleep? Not to mention that young children want to do everything by themselves. So bedtime can become a battle, especially when both parents and children are tired! Here are some suggestions for making bedtime better for everyone.
Going to bed around the same time each day is one of the most important things you can do to improve your child’s sleep. If you push bedtime too late, your child may become overtired and cranky, or else hyper and silly. Either way, your child is not going to want to go to bed. Having a consistent bedtime keeps your child’s internal clock on schedule, helping them to fall asleep easily.
While it may seem tempting to let your child stay up late on weekends, just know they will likely not sleep later in the morning. This means you and your child will likely wake up tired, making for a grumpy day.
Bedtime routines are essential for helping our bodies prepare for sleep. Your technology can turn off with the press of a button. But our bodies and minds have dimmer switches, and need time to unwind.
Bedtime routines should be short and sweet (no more than 20-30 minutes), include the same activities in the same order, and always move toward the child’s sleep environment. For example, your child could have a final snack, brush their teeth and use the potty, put on pajamas, and get into bed for a final story or song.
If your child has trouble with transitions or fights the bedtime routine, create a picture chart that shows each step of the routine. Have your child start a timer on your phone for each step and see if they can complete the step before the timer goes off. You can also provide stickers or stars when each step is completed.
Young children want to be independent, and this means they want control. So give them forced choices to help them feel in control. A forced choice is a choice between two things you are okay with: do you want to use the red or green toothbrush? Be careful to not use a yes or no choice. If you ask “do you want to brush your teeth?” the answer will always be no!
Preschoolers have wonderful imaginations! At this age, a child’s imagination is unlocked, leading to new and positive parts of their development, but also to some new fears. This can mean they worry about monsters (or other scary things) at bedtime. Simply telling your child that monsters are not real may not work, as in their minds, monsters are real. If fears are disturbing your child’s sleep, consider giving your child a spray bottle with water that is labeled “Monster Spray” (or witch spray, or clown spray). Tell your child that monsters are allergic to the spray, and if they get too close they will start to sneeze. So monsters will stay away! Then let them spray all around the room to protect themselves.
For children who do not want to get into bed or fall asleep, invite the Sleep Fairy for a visit. You can tell your child the Sleep Fairy is a friend of the Tooth Fairy. Once your child falls asleep, the Sleep Fairy will bring a small prize (e.g., sticker) and leave it under the pillow. She comes every night for two weeks (to build up the expectation), then we don’t know when she is going to come (keep them guessing!). Many parents have found that visits from the Sleep Fairy makes children want to go to bed and fall asleep easier.
Many preschoolers still need to nap, and that is okay. But at this age, naps can make it harder to fall asleep at bedtime. If your child is napping, and never falls asleep before a certain time at night, keep an eye on what time you put them to bed. For example, if your child never falls asleep before 9:00pm on days he naps, then a 7:30pm bedtime will guarantee a bedtime battle. On napping days you may need to push bedtime closer to 8:30pm. You can also consider shortening naps (although waking kids up from a nap is not fun!!).
Wishing you and your child pleasant dreams!