Parents know the drill: You tuck your little one in, read them a bedtime story, sing them a lullaby. And just minutes after they’ve drifted off and you’ve closed the door, you hear the pitter-patter of little feet in the hallway. Yep, they’re up again!
It can be hard to get your kids to sleep — at times, it can seem downright impossible. It can feel as though you’ve exhausted every avenue, but all hope is not lost. Sometimes all it takes is testing out a few new tricks, says Martha McCarty, MD, a pediatrician at Alewife Brook Community Pediatrics. Do not despair, what does not work for one child may work for another child and although one technique does not work now it may work in a few weeks. Keep trying.
“Most moms and dads stick to a bedtime routine, but the truth is, not all routines work for all children,” Dr. McCarty said. “And that makes it frustrating for parents and kids. What you can’t do is give up. Children need sleep just as much — or more — than adults do, even when they resist.”
The Need for Z’s
How much sleep your child needs depends on his or her age. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers these recommendations:
- Infants: 12 to 16 hours a day (naps included)
- Toddlers: 11 to 14 hours a day (naps included)
- Preschoolers: 10 to 13 hours a day (naps included)
- School-Age Kids: Nine to 12 hours every night
Inadequate sleep can wreak all kinds of havoc on kids’ little minds and bodies: concentration problems, crankiness, even illness. Poor sleep can even trigger symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the Child Mind Institute.
All of that might sound like a valid argument in favor of more sleep — but try selling it to a resilient toddler. Most likely, they won’t be buying it.
“As a parent, you’re going to have to get creative in how you get your kids to sleep,” Dr. McCarty said. “And sometimes, that means standing your ground, even when you’re at your wits’ end.”
Tricks of the Trade
So what are those creative tricks to get kids on board with a good night’s sleep?
“Though there’s no single answer, many kids respond well to a combination of rewards, soothing techniques and a calming sleep space,” Dr. McCarty said.
Trick 1: Sticker Charts
Guess what? Bribery works! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), young children respond well to rewards — especially when they can see their progress toward those rewards.
“It can be helpful for kids to see a cause-and-effect relationship of their good behavior,” Dr. McCarty said. “That’s not to say you’ll shower them with gifts every time they follow the rules, but rewards can be a very helpful tool, especially at nighttime. At least until they get used to a bedtime routine.”
That’s where a sticker chart comes in. Explain to your little one that they’ll get a sticker for each night they stay in bed. When they collect enough stickers, they’ll get a special prize — maybe a small toy, or a shiny penny, or a trip to the ice cream shop.
To get started, download a printable chart from the CDC’s website, pick out some fun stickers and get going!
Trick 2: Bedtime Passes
Think of this as a nighttime hall pass. Using stickers, crayons or construction paper and an index card, let children create their own personalized bedtime pass. Whenever they get out of bed at night, have them turn in the pass. The trick is to encourage your kid not to use it by promising rewards. If they wake up in the morning and still have it, reward them with a special prize, the American Psychological Association (APA) suggests.
This trick also works for when a child first goes into a bed from the crib. “Have the child make their bedtime passes, laminate them, and whenever they hop out of bed they lose a pass. The passes are given back for the next night. Most children will learn to hold on to the passes for when ‘they really need them,'” suggested Dr. McCarty.
The APA says this trick teaches your kid to stay in bed and fall asleep independently — when means more sleep for mom and dad, too.
Trick 3: Soothing Sleep Spaces
To soothe kids into a sleepy state, it’s best to keep things calm, quiet and dark right before bedtime. That means no late-night TV, light-up toys, sugar, caffeine or loud music.
“Screen time and stimulating activities can make it hard for adults to fall asleep, and they can have the same effect on children,” Dr. McCarty said. “So make the half-hour before bed as sleep-friendly as possible. Sing a lullaby, talk in hushed tones and dim the lights to set the right mood.”
To make that work, the bed should be a sacred place for sleep — and only sleep — not for playtime, homework, phone time or TV.
Trick 4: The Sleep Fairy
The sleep fairy is like the tooth fairy, but instead of leaving money in exchange for a tooth, she leaves a prize beneath the pillow of a sleeping child. Tell your little one that the sleep fairy will leave a small gift under their pillow each night, but her magic only works if they’re deep asleep. You do not want to break the bank or have your child expecting expesive items so keep the gifts small and useful, i.e. small books, cars, or dolls.
Obviously, this one’s not sustainable over the long term, so the APA recommends leaving a prize every night for the first two weeks. After that, spread out the sleep fairy’s visits. If kids protest, explain that she’s got a job similar to Santa’s: so many children to see, and so little time to see them.
Turning Routines Into Habits
As you experiment, you’ll find which tricks work best for your tot. But if nothing’s working, ask yourself: Do they have everything they need before bedtime, such as a snack, some water, a potty trip and/or some snuggle time with mom or dad?
“If all their needs are met and they’re still resisting sleep, take a look at recent life changes that could be disrupting their sleep,” Dr. McCarty said. “Did they recently get a new sibling? Or could a divorce, a new dog or a move to a new house be causing their bedtime trouble?”
Some children have general anxiety and/or separation anxiety. Finding what works for your child may take some creativity, however it will be rewarding. “Empower your child to help find a solution. Our oldest was afraid of monsters in her room. I asked what we could do to help and she said ‘let’s set a trap to catch it.’ She built her trap using string around a child’s building block on which we set an unside down butter tub. She set the trap every night and went to bed without issues…however we never caught that monster,” said Dr. McCarty.
The important thing, she added, is to find a routine, stick with it and help kids learn how to fall asleep on their own in their own bed. And don’t abandon the old tricks, such as giving them a bath, tucking them in and reading a story. While they might not have worked at first, they could prove effective later on.
The good news: In time, every kid learns to value sleep. Just ask any parent of a teenager — their kid probably sleeps until noon every chance they get.
If your child is showing signs of sleep deprivation, it may be time to visit a pediatrician. Find a Lahey Health professional near you here.