We know kids go through lots of phases as they grow up. One of the hardest to handle is poor sleep habits. We often get questions like this:
- Daylight saving time is coming up. How can I help my child adjust to the time change?
- Bedtime is always a battle. My child refuses to stay in bed. Help!
- My child needs me to stay with him to fall asleep and will cry and fuss if I leave.
Our experts answer these common questions – and more - around your child and sleep.
Q: Daylight savings time is coming up. How can I help my child adjust to the time change?
A week or two before we fall back, put your child to bed 15 minutes later and wake them up 15 minutes later in the morning. For example, if bedtime is usually at 8 p.m., move bedtime to 8:15 and then wake them up 6:45 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m.
Pro tip: If your child is still waking up early due to the time change, keep the room dark and quiet for an extra 15 minutes or 30 minutes. The goal is to avoid bright lights until the time you want them to wake up.
Q: Bedtime is always a battle. My child refuses to stay in bed. Help!
- Kids love attention and rewards (but let’s be honest, don’t we all?). We want to use caregiver attention and rewards to reinforce that good or desired behavior (i.e., staying in bed) and limit attention or ignore all undesired behaviors (i.e., leaving the room).
- One way to manage this challenge in preschool-aged kids is to say goodnight, leave the room, and then pop back in after a short period of time and give another round of hugs and kisses and say something like, “I’m so happy that you stayed in bed and tried to fall asleep.” Leave the room again and repeat this until the child is asleep as you gradually increase the time you are away.
- Another option is a simple sticker chart with a goal of “I stayed in my bed all night long” (see link?). In the morning, give a sticker and a small reward such as a special breakfast/cereal, electronic time in the morning, time with a preferred toy, etc.
- Using bedtime passes is another good option for children over age 3 who keep “curtain calling” (leaving room for another hug, to get a drink, to get a snack, to use the bathroom, etc.).
- Give your child 2-3 tickets or passes when you tuck them in and explain that they can leave the room, but they need to have a pass. If they have a pass left over in the morning, they can earn a special reward or prize.
- When the child gets up from bed allow them to do what they need to quickly (2-5 minutes), take the pass, and send back to bed.
- If they are out of passes, send them back to bed with little attention.
Q: My child needs me to stay with him to fall asleep and will cry and fuss if I leave.
- After you tuck your child in, come up with some reason to leave the room and then come right back and give lots of attention and praise for staying in bed and trying to fall asleep.
- Gradually remove yourself out of the room: Lay with him until he falls asleep for a few nights, then sit on the bed, then sit next to the bed, then sit further away from the bed, and so on until you are out of the room.
- Cry it out is another option that may be the hardest to tolerate but it often takes the least time if you can do it. After you tuck him in and say goodnight, leave the room, and do not come back in unless you are worried about his health or safety. This means ignore all crying, tantrums, or fussing.
- Crying is usually longer the second through fourth nights but stay strong. It can take up to 8-12 nights for the new habit or routine to be learned.
- Pick a time you can function on little sleep - maybe when you have a few days off or have extra support at home.
- Your child may throw up from crying. Clean things up quickly and put them back to bed with limited attention.
Q: My child wakes up at night.
- All children wake up throughout the night. The problem is being able to put themselves back to sleep.
- Most often, the child wants something or someone to help them fall asleep at bedtime (light, caregiver, bottle, rocking) that’s not there in the middle of the night to put them to sleep, so they call out for their caregiver to give them what they need.
- Changing locations can also cause a child’s alarm system to go off when they wake up in a different place in the middle of the night.
- The solution is usually to have your child fall asleep, alone, in the dark, in the same location, with no changes in lights, sounds, body movements, with you there at first, and then use the bedtime strategies above in the middle of the night if he still keeps waking.
Q: My teenager's sleep schedule is a mess! They fall asleep at 3-4 a.m. and wakes up between noon and 1 p.m.
- Make sure to create a consistent schedule, bedtime routine, and limit electronics. Check out this blog for more information.
- If she’s used to falling asleep at 3 a.m., trying to have her fall asleep at 11 p.m. is a big difference and likely to just be frustrating because she won’t be tired.
- In cases like this, when a child is falling asleep more than three hours later than the intended time, it is more effective to stay awake 3 hours longer every single night and take a walk around the clock until they reach the time you would like them to fall asleep.
- While taking this walk around the clock, it is important to set an alarm and not get more than 9 hours of sleep and get some bright light (like sunlight) when they wake up.
Q: My son has nightmares almost every night and is afraid to go to sleep.
- Try image rehearsal therapy.
- Change the ending of the story. Draw or write out the bad dream and give it a happy or brave ending instead. Try to have your child imagine it in as much detail as possible.
- Avoid scary media.
- Make sure your child gets enough sleep.
- For other nighttime fears like fear of the dark or monsters under the bed, take advantage of your child’s imagination and magical thinking and try Monster Spray.
- Mix up some water, glitter, a little soap in a spray bottle and have your child spray it three times before bed every night. Be sure you tell them the spray will keep the monsters away.
Q: My child talks in their sleep, walks in their sleep, has moments where they seem asleep and awake at the same time, has night terrors, wakes up in the middle of the night but not able to move their body.
- Night terrors are different than nightmares. Nightmares tend to happen later in the night, night terrors earlier. Kids remember nightmares and do not remember night terrors.
- Keep track of the night terror and when it is happening. If the night terror is happening at the same time each night and multiple times per week, you can wake the child up fully a little before the night terror happens and put them back to sleep. This will often skip the night terror episode.
Q: When or what sleep concerns should I discuss with my child’s primary care provider?
You should discuss the following with your primary care provider:
- Snoring or noisy breathing, especially if snoring wakes your child up at night or you feel like their breathing changes while sleeping
- Having difficulty falling or staying asleep at night
- Waking up in the middle of the night with pain or perceived pain (i.e., unable to be consoled, pulling at ears)
- Excessive daytime sleepiness or falling asleep during the day even though child is getting enough sleep at night
Q: How do I know if it is a good time to implement a sleep intervention?
- It’s not generally recommended to make significant sleep changes before a vacation or when a kid is sick.
- A better time is when you don’t have an important thing to do the next couple of days (if you have a big presentation for work, or will be working doubles or switch shift, it might not be the best time to start).
- Give your changes time to work. Sometimes we get frustrated when it isn’t working after 3-4 days of trying, but remember, it can take up to 2 weeks to see the benefit of your sleep intervention!
- Make sure you have a good reason for making the changes. When you are in the thick of it, this “why” will help you pull through if it gets tough.
Q: Is sleep training safe for kids?
- The research is clear: sleep training, including the cry it out method, is safe and effective.
- It’s important to select a strategy that you feel comfortable with and feel like is reasonable to stick with.
- Parents commonly feel guilty about putting their kids to bed and teaching them to soothe themselves, or for not doing this.
- It is important to know that our brain is going to give us a whole host of thoughts why trying to teach our kids to sleep (e.g., “I’m a bad parent for letting him cry”; “He is going to resent me for this”; “She isn’t going to feel home is a safe place if I don’t comfort her”) isn’t worth it.