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Things That Go Bump in the Night: Kids and Sleep Problems

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Every parent has some degree of trouble getting a child to go to bed and stay in bed. Struggles over sleep are the most common concerns we hear about on the Web site and the ones I'm asked about most frequently in the clinic. Here we look at sleep from the child's perspective and then explore some sleep problems and solutions for parents.

Routine Is Everything

Children behave the best around any issue when they see a pattern they can rely on. A regular bedtime and a standard routine for settling down for the night help kids understand what's expected. If the time, the place, or the routine changes all the time, then anxiety, confusion, and room for negotiation may creep in. Although some kids rely on regularity more than others do, all children benefit from a bedtime routine.

A good bedtime routine for just about any young child lasts about 30 minutes. It can include a bath, a snuggle, a story, or a song. If the routine lasts longer than that or becomes too elaborate, kids wind up rather than settle down. But a routine under 30 minutes makes most young kids feel pushed to bed.

If weekend and weekday bedtimes vary by more than an hour, expect trouble on Monday. For best results, try to stick to a single schedule all week. This plan is tough for families who like to sleep in on the weekends, but my experience suggests that having at least one parent get up with the kids on Saturday and Sunday morning will make life go more smoothly overall.

Children should sleep in the same place every night if possible. Switching locations — sleeping in different beds, on the floor, on the couch — makes it difficult for kids to get into a good pattern. If kids are in a joint physical custody situation (which I don't recommend for young children), do your best to be sure the routine and some of the physical features, such as the pillow or blanket, are the same in each place. Parents in different households need to coordinate bedtime routines so that they are providing pretty much the same structure.



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