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Family Files

Bedtime Battles: Let’s Talk Sleep

"My baby has slept through the night since he was 2 weeks old." This is something that all tired parents have heard, longed for, and even envied, yet a peacefully sleeping child seems a far off dream.

Sleep. It's one of the keys to your child's development yet, one of the most challenging aspects of parenting young children. Resistance to bedtime, waking throughout the night, endless bedtime routines, preferring the parental bed to their own, nightmares, and just plain not sleeping are common sleep issues that many parents with young children face. Dealing with a child's sleep problems can often leave parents feeling stressed, tense, and TIRED!

A common approach to addressing sleep problems may be to "wait it out", "give it time," or that the child will "grow out of it." Research has shown that if sleep difficulties are ignored, the problem can last a very long time – extending 2 or 3 years from when the problem initially began.

The good news is that parents can take control and help improve their child's sleep habits by teaching appropriate bedtime behaviors. Some strategies that parents can use include:

  • Know your child's signs of tiredness. Most children will exhibit some sign that they are becoming tired – yawning, twirling hair, rubbing eyes. A child who is overly tired is harder to get to sleep. When your child starts exhibiting signs of tiredness, it's time to start the transition to bedtime.
  • Establish a regular bedtime and sticking to it. Include relaxing, calm activities that are done in a regular order. Bath time is a great, relaxing routine to establish before bedtime. Story time or singing a soft lullaby are also good activities to calm your child and send the message that it's time for bed. Children find comfort in rituals, so following the bedtime routine will ease the transition into sleepy time.
  • Connect "sleepiness" with the bedtime routine by making your child's bedtime a little later. This temporary strategy will help your child learn that the feeling of being sleepy is associated with the bedtime routine. Once your child is falling asleep at the later bedtime, gradually make bedtime earlier until you reach the desired bedtime.
  • Create a safe environment for your child. Many children have sleep difficulties stemming from fear of separation from their parents. Strive to make your child feel safer in their environment by using a nightlight, reassuring you are nearby, leaving the bedroom door open, or giving the child a "lovey" like a stuffed animal or special blanket.
  • Be firm if your child throws tantrums at bedtime. It may be helpful to set some rules for bedtime. For example, rules may be set regarding how many times a child may get up to get a drink. It is important to be consistent with the rules you establish around bedtime. Children feel more secure when discipline is delivered in a consistent manner and learn that their actions have consequences.
  • Decide what to do when your child wakes in the night or crawls into your bed to sleep. For some parents, allowing the child to naturally drift back to sleep by himself works for them, while others offer a comforting presence to assist the child back into sleep. Some parents permit co-sleeping when their child wakes in the night, while others return their child to his own bed. Resolve to use whatever approach you feel is best for you and your child.

If you find yourself getting frustrated with your child due to their sleep problems, remember, your child is not having sleep problems to upset you. Remain calm. Talk to a friend or family member. Talk with other parents about your problem – they may have some great advice that can help you too. Check your library for resources on toddler sleep problems. Visit the National Sleep Foundation for resources on sleeping or the University of Illinois Extension parenting website Parenting 24/7 for information on a wide variety of parenting topics.

Leave a comment on what experiences have you had with bedtime issues or night waking. What worked well for you and your child? What advice would you give parents struggling with toddler sleep problems?