SETTLING YOUNG CHILDREN AT BEDTIME
Sleep problems in young children are quite common and you will probably find there are other parents in your neighbourhood experiencing similar difficulties with their child. Trying to deal with the problem without help is often difficult, tiring, and frustrating.
The management of sleep problems in children should be geared towards establishing a routine, which clearly emphasizes the difference between day-time and night-time activities, and where the routine for this is followed with firmness and consistency.
The ideal conditions under which your child should fall asleep are being alone in a familiar bed or cot in a familiar room, which is quiet, and with dimmed light. You should always aim for these conditions. Most children soon learn to link these conditions with falling asleep, and also other conditions such as holding a favourite toy or comfort blanket, etc.
However, it is unfortunately all too easy for them to learn inappropriate sleep conditions too. This means they learn to fall asleep under poor conditions, which can create difficulties for the child and parents. For example, when they are held or rocked to sleep; when they fall asleep on a sofa or chair in the presence of their parents; or when they fall asleep sucking a bottle. This will mean that in order to fall asleep they will need to be rocked or placed on a sofa downstairs. Furthermore, if they wake up in the night they will find it hard to get back to sleep unless they are rocked or on the sofa, etc.
The following programme is designed to help you avoid such bedtime problems, or deal with bedtime problems you may already be experiencing. You should not expect the problems to disappear overnight, but be prepared to put a lot of effort into sticking closely to the programme for around three months. It will not be easy, but it will be well worth the effort you put in.
You must first decide on what time you intend to put your child to bed each evening, and whether you will allow him to stay up a little later at weekends. For the purpose of this programme I will assume you have decided on 8.00pm.
At 7.30pm tell your child the time and that it is nearly time for him to go to bed. Ask him to get changed into his nightwear and tell him you are going to make him a bedtime drink. (Drinking chocolate or something similar that he likes.) If he does as he is asked the first or second time you ask him, praise him for doing as he was told. Let him have the drink in the lounge, but ensure he sits whilst drinking it. Spend all your time with him leading up to 8.00pm, chatting quietly or watching T.V.
If he does not do as you ask of him, tell him once that if he does not go and get changed into his night-wear you will take him upstairs and get him ready for bed, but you will not make him the bedtime drink. If he then gets ready for bed, do not praise him, but do make the bedtime drink. If your child does not get ready for bed, take him to his room and help him change into his nightwear. Do not make his bedtime drink but tell him he can sit with you until his bedtime. Completely ignore any tears or demands for the bedtime drink.
At 8.00pm tell your child it is his bedtime and let him say goodnight to those downstairs. Go with him to his bedroom, tuck him in and sit on the bed and talk to him for 5 minutes or so. You can then either read to him for 15 minutes or, if he prefers, let him read on his own for 15 minutes. At the end of the 15 minutes kiss him goodnight then tell him quite calmly that you are going to the lounge and that you do not want him out of bed until the morning. If he cries or asks you to stay longer, remain quiet and leave the room. Decide beforehand whether you will leave on his bedroom light, the hall light, or none at all. (This depends on past practice and what your child prefers.)
If he gets out of bed and comes down stairs to you, do not say a word, just take him back to his room, tuck him in and leave the room. Ignore any shouting or crying, do not answer any questions or respond in any other way than remaining silent. You will need to follow this procedure every time your child shouts down to you or gets out of bed. However, if you feel your child is genuinely ill, you will clearly need to respond to his needs. When there is a change for the better in respect of the number of times he comes down stairs, and the speed in which he settles, this must be encouraged.