Since Christmas, I have had a problem getting my five-year- old daughter to stay in her own bed and sleep through the night. At Christmas she went from her normal 8pm bedtime to 9pm, andsometimes 9.30pm, because she was on holidays from school. Big mistake. Now she wants to stay in our bed and won’t sleep in her room any more unless I sit there half the night until she eventually falls asleep. I try to stay silent but it can be very hard. By the time I get her down to sleep it is sometimes 9.30pm or 10pm.
I have tried lots of things to get her back to a good sleep routine, such as: having a frog night light; a dream light pillow; resting her on the pillow and then leaving the room and sitting on the floor outside while she cries nonstop; sitting in her room at the chest of drawers till she falls asleep; bringing her back to her routine at 8pm with a storybook, teethbrushing, kissing her goodnight, and so on.
But nothing has worked and she is still getting to sleep late; we are all exhausted and she is so tired in the morning. At the recent parent-teacher meeting, the teacher said her concentration has deteriorated, which is not surprising. My heart is broken.
Your question highlights the importance of a good sleep routine for everyone in a family. When children start going to bed late or have disrupted sleep at night, this leads to exhaustion for parents and tiredness for children in the morning. As you have discovered, this can lead to children underperforming in school, more behavioural problems and increased stress on parents. So you are right to try to address this.
In my experience, getting a relaxed, regular and enjoyable bedtime routine is the single most important thing in achieving harmony and balance in a family. However, it is very easy to get knocked off track with bedtime, whether this disruption is started by illness, stress or just the change of routines caused by holidays. In these situations you have to patiently restart “bedtime training” and below are some ideas that might work for your daughter.
Gradually re-teach her how to fall asleep by herself
At the moment your daughter is dependent on your attention and company (either with you lying on her bed or by her being in your bed) to fall asleep and this is, of course, not sustainable in the long term. You want to gradually reduce the support you give her and help her relearn how to relax and fall asleep by herself.
Make sure she gets your attention only when she tries to sleep
It sounds like you already have many of the elements of a good bedtime routine, with storybook and kiss goodnight and so on, though I might advise that you start the wind-down part of the routine a little earlier.
The key to success is to ensure the rewarding parts of the routine happen at the end, when she is in her bed trying to sleep. For example, you could try reading her a story when she is snuggled up in bed, or saying you will kiss her goodnight when she is lying down quietly for a minute.
Stay in her room only if she is quiet and lying down
As she needs your support to sleep at the moment, you might want to start by staying close by after the goodnight kiss. Try to withdraw gradually the amount of attention over time. For example, if she needs you on the bed to settle the first night, you might move to sit on a chair in the room the next night and then sit outside her door on the landing the following night, and so on.
The key rule is to give your daughter minimal attention and to insist that she must be quiet and lying down or else you will leave the room: “Mummy can stay if you are lying down quietly.”
As you wait you should do something useful or relaxing for you, such as reading a book, surfing the internet or even sorting the laundry, so you don’t mind spending the time there.
Promise to come back when you leave
When she is settled but before she is asleep, withdraw and leave the room. At this point, whisper “Goodnight” and promise to come back and check on her in a few minutes – but only if she stays quietly in her bed.
If she calls out or comes out of the room, you say “Back into bed now, Mummy will come back to give you a kiss, but only when you are lying quietly.” Once she is lying quietly you come back in and give her a little cuddle, as you promised, and withdraw again.
Gradually, you increase the time you leave her before you come back and eventually when you come back she will be asleep. Using this method, your daughter learns that you will come back only when she is relaxed and trying to sleep. And knowing that you will come back helps her to relax and fall asleep.
Use a picture chart to explain routine
It can be helpful to do a picture chart with the steps of the routine such as: washing teeth; reading a story when lying in bed; kissing her goodnight; coming back when she is lying quietly, and so on.
It can be fun to use your phone to take pictures of her going through these steps and show them back to her on a chart each night. It is useful to have a final picture of her getting a kiss when she is asleep (as this will be reassuring to her) and also to give her a special reward in the morning (such as a star on the chart) when she manages to get asleep by herself.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2015. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.