Episode 061: Bedtime Struggles. How to Get Kids Into Bed and Get Them to Stay There

One concern that comes up over and over again in our private facebook group, is “How do I get my kids to sleep through the night?” We get to talk to Jeff Tesch, LMFT today, all about getting our kids to sleep through the night.

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Jeff Tesch, LMFT

Is it normal for kids to have issues with sleeping?

Both normal and very common. It’s understandable that kids have to kind of learn how to soothe themselves at night and how to stay in their beds.   The phase where they are learning is a hard time for parents.

It’s also really common for a child to be sleeping well, the to experience some regression.  We experience the same kind of cycles as adults.

I think one of the things that’s really, really hard about a child not sleeping is it’s negative effect on everyone’s mood.  When we’re sleep deprived, we’re more emotional and have less control over our behavior.  The same is true for our kids.

Tips for getting your child to sleep and keeping them asleep.

Tip #1: Take time to unwind before bed

We can’t expect a child to go from chaos to calm in two minutes.  It’s important to start telling your child’s body that it’s bedtime at least an hour before bed.  Try keeping the lights low, the music quiet, and doing to calmer activities.  Slowing things down tells your child’s body that it’s about time to sleep.

Tip #2: Have a consistent bedtime routine.

Using a consistent bedtime routine is another way to tell your child’s brain that it’s sleeping time.  I recommend starting the routine close to the same time every night.  Include some activities that are positive for your child i.e., reading books, singing songs, etc.

Note: You’ll need to try to eat early enough to accommodate your bedtime routine.

Tip #3: No screens at least an hour before bed.

There’s so much good research indicating that the blue light from screens mimics the blue light of daytime sky.  The blue light tells your child’s brain that it’s daytime.

In addition to the blue light issue, screens also stimulate the brain.  It’s hard to go to sleep if your brain feels overstimulated.

So commit to turning screens off at least an hour before bed.

Tip #4: Evaluate if their nap schedule is getting in the way of their sleeping at night

If you have a child who seems to not be sleepy at night, look at their naptime schedule.  Are they taking a really long nap during the day?  Are they taking naps late in the day?  Are they sleeping in until 8 or 9 am?  All of these factors can affect how sleepy your child is at night.

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, you may want to adjust so your child can be sleepy at night.

What do you do when all of the above isn’t working?

If you have a good routine, don’t use screens, your kids aren’t napping and the STILL won’t go to sleep at night-go talk to your doctor. 

How do I get my child to stay in their room all night?

Tip #1: Start young

Try to have your child sleep in their own beds as young as possible.  I’m a huge proponent of adults having their own TIME and SPACE.  I think that parents need a break from being a parent.  In my experience, it really is best to have kids sleeping in their own rooms.

Tip #2: Don’t let them crawl into bed with you

This is SO hard to do because you’re exhausted. In the middle of the night, you just want to do whatever it takes to get sleep.  However, if you want your kids to stay in their own beds you HAVE to put them back into their own beds.  They need to learn that it’s not worth their time to try to crawl in with you.

Will this interrupt your sleep? Yes. Will some of you have to take your child back to their beds over and over and over again? Yes. Will it be worth it eventually?  Yes.

Does this mean you can’t ever let your kids snuggle with you in bed?  No.  You can find times, during waking hours, that can be your snuggle time.  Our kids were allowed to come into our bed in the morning to snuggle.  We loved that time together.

Tip #3: Unless a child is ill, try not to let them sleep in your room

You might be thinking, “If I don’t let my child in my bed, is it ok if they sleep in my room?”  I discourage parents from letting kids sleep in their rooms for the same reason I discourage parents from letting kids sleep in their beds.  Adults NEED their time and their space.  If you have your kids in your room at night, it could be hard to feel like you ever have a break from parenting.

There’s also the issue of intimacy.  If you have children in your bed or on your floor, it’s hard to find moments for physical intimacy.  In some cases, I have parents who think that they are being intimate without their child knowing, but it’s actually not the case.  In fact, I have a nine year old on my case load right now who is having issues with sexual behavior because she has witnessed it between her parents.

However, if your child is sick and needs some help through the night, you might consider bringing them into your room (not your bed).  Just know that you will have to train them out of sleeping in your room.  You decide if it’s worth it or not.

Isn’t there another way?

Unfortunately, there’s just not another option. Even if it’s been a month or a year, we can’t start saying, “OK, you can go ahead and just come into bed with us.” You need to keep trying to get them to understand that they need to stay in their room.

You might want to try adding new things to their room. Maybe add some music or a nightlight. Keep problem solving, keep looking for ideas.  But hang in there even if it’s long and it’s hard.

Note: please don’t use any medications or supplements with your child until you have consulted with your physician.

What if our kids are treating coming out of their room like a game?

In these types of situations, be really clear with your child that they can’t keep coming out of their room.  If they do come out, you can give them a consequence.  Maybe they don’t get to watch a show the next day.   To learn more about choosing appropriate and effective consequences, go here.

What if my child is staying in their room but crying a lot?

I never recommend just letting a child “cry it out” without any support from the parent.  I don’t like shutting the door, letting them cry, and never checking on the child.  Rather, I suggest checking on them from time to time and offering support.  That could be as simple as going in every so often, touching their back, tucking them in, then leaving.  Be very brief, but supportive and just do that through the night until they finally fall asleep.

Anxiety and Sleep

There are some kids can’t sleep because of anxiety.  If your child has a fear of the dark or some other anxiety at night, you need to handle the sleeping situation differently.  If you just shove your child with anxiety in their room, you will make matters worse.  If you push too hard, it can make matters worse as well.

So if there seems to be anxiety, you need to stay pretty nurturing and supportive. You can still have the expectation that they stay in their room at night, but you might not move to consequences quite as early.  You want to make sure that you’re providing a sense of safety and security. You might need to add music to the child’s room, a nightlight or I’ve had some families put a little digital photo photograph frame on the wall.

Final thoughts

I wish there were like quick fixes. Having a child that’s not sleeping well is one of the toughest things you’ll encounter as a parent.  It is so hard on everyone.  I do want to give you some hope though.  I have six kids and a handful of them were awful sleepers when they were younger.  In fact, I had one child with ADHD who would wake up at 4 every morning just ready to be awake.  I would lay on his bed while he did quiet activities.  Eventually, he would fall back asleep.  It was a tough phase for me.  Now, each of my six kids are great sleepers.

If you have a child that’s not sleeping well, find ways to get some extra sleep for yourself as you’re dealing with this phase. You may need to be really creative to find a way to get rest during the day, but it might be worth the creativity.

Also, don’t expect too much of yourself while you’re sleep deprived.  You aren’t going to get as much done, you aren’t going to be as patient.  Cut yourself some slack and realize that you will be a better version of yourself again when you are rested.

Try not to be mad at your child for not sleeping.  They aren’t doing it to be malicious and anger towards your child will come out in lots of unhealthy ways.

Be consistent with the ground rules we taught you and eventually, your efforts will pay off.

Happy Parenting!

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