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Bedtime Routines: The Path to Perfect Sleep

May, 2012
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img_0373-copyParents often ask me about how to get their children to go to sleep at night…. and how to get their children to sleep in their own beds.

It is important to remember that you create you child’s world by the choices and decisions you make. If you live in Paris, or London or Shanghai, that becomes the child’s bigger world. Schools you select become their world. Your home is the smaller, intimate world that you all return to at the end of the day.

The routines and expectations that you establish with your child help determine the way their lives turn out, and how your life turns out.

Those routines and expectations also help determine how the nightly show that is bedtime turns out.

The most important thing to know is that you are the director of this nightly show! You are responsible for the staging, the scenes and the dialogue. You are in control, though I am sure it often doesn’t feel that way.

The idea is to begin to slow your child down, to create a loving, peaceful environment that makes falling asleep easy for your child. Your child has practice doing this; most children do this at school everyday. It is you that needs the practice in setting the stage, just like the teachers do.

You will need to begin to reset the stage, the expectations, and choices.

Dinner marks the end of the day and the beginning of nighttime in many families. While it is enjoyable to have dinner with your spouse, your child would enjoy having dinner with you, too. That doesn’t mean at the same time. Having dinner all together could be something done on weekends when children sometimes stay up later. During the week, children need to be in bed early to be fresh for the morning and rested for school.

If you and your child have “dinner,” it simply means that you sit down and have a few bites of food together. You turn off your cell phone, turn off the TV and tune into your child. You talk, you tell loving stories about the day, you ask questions and you listen. Even if your child is young, your behavior is saying, “You are important to me.”

Dinner is not a time to have a battle over food. It should be a pleasant experience, not one where you are giving a lesson on how good broccoli is! You don’t start or engage in upsetting conversations when you are on a dinner date with your spouse and enjoying each other’s company. Please don’t do that to your child, either.

If you are serious about reclaiming some time in the evening for yourself or to spend with your spouse, you will want to keep the quiet time going. After dinner, re-energizing a child by rough housing, playing board games or watching TV is not what the goal is here. There are other times, before dinner, for example, to do that.

Many parents start their children’s bathroom “routine” now. That word is very important. Young children, up to the age of about 5 or 6, flourish when there is a nightly routine. Even now, you do have a routine! Perhaps it includes 5 hugs and kisses, and then you say, “Good night.” Five minutes later, more kisses are demanded and you say, “Good night,”…. again. This goes on until you are upset and perhaps your child is crying, as you leave his or her room saying, “I mean it! This was the last ‘good night’.”  

img_0370-copyYour child has actually given you the part in the play that (s)he has written! And while it is not really satisfactory for either one of you, neither one of you can seem to change the script.

I suggest you consider something: a bath is a wake up call. I have never seen a child get sleepy as a result of taking a bath. The child plays with toys, splashes, yells and has a good time. Perhaps a bath just before bed is not a good idea. You might consider giving your child a bath right after school, or not having a bath at all at night, but in the morning, or perhaps a shower with Mommy or Daddy. It is a happy, quick way to start the day….requiring only a few minutes of planning.

It would also help to take photos of “going to bed”. These pictures can be labeled: “Michael, brushing teeth,” “Michael, using the toilet,” “Michael, washing his hands and face,” “Michael, drying his hands and face” and any other photos that you might need, and put them in the bathroom. The bedroom will have another set of photos: taking off my shoes, taking off my socks and clothes, putting my clothes in the dirty clothes hamper, putting on my pajamas or nightgown. The idea is to take the nagging out of “going to bed,” to make the children responsible and independent; just like at school.

Your child can come to tell you when everything has been done.

A child’s room should be a place where your child loves to be. It has toys and books and games in it. It also has a special place for sleeping, a bed.

The idea of “putting your child to bed” is not exactly accurate. “Having your child stay in his or her room” is more accurate, at least at first when you are breaking old patterns and trying to make new ones.

Ask your child what toys he or she would like to have in bed that night. You decide the number together. Does it matter if your child had 5 or 15? No. Who cares?

“In case you wake up. I want you to have some things you love to play with, because mommy and daddy will be sleeping. You can play with your toys in your bed until you feel sleepy again. Your room is so happy and you can play quietly here with your toys.” Say that twice, to make sure your child understands.

By the way, it is fine if your child gets out of bed and plays quietly on the floor. The goal is to have your child stay in the room, not necessarily in bed. Later, you can move your child into bed, and pull up the covers.

Now, you are finally ready to read a story together.

To this day, I fall asleep when I read in bed. My mother read to me as a child, and I read to my children. I often fell asleep with them. I learned early in life that nighttime reading in bed meant going to sleep.

The nighttime story that you select is critically important. Remember: you are the director of this performance called “going to bed.” If you select books that are stimulating, funny, full of brightly colored pictures, those things wake your child up! You want to select books that have gentle pictures, soft colors, and a simple, uncomplicated story, like Goodnight, Moon, or Guess How Much I Love You. Young children love to have the same story read over and over again, every night, sometimes two or three times a night. Choose carefully. Make sure the story has a “happy ending.” No witches or monsters, please.

If your child wants a soft night-light on, that is fine. Your goal is to make sure your child feels safe and loves his or her room, even in the middle of the night! Put the light where no shadows are made. We teach children to be afraid. That must now be unlearned if your child is afraid of the dark, or the room at night. A little flashlight can also provide nighttime security and comfort.

Sometimes parents give their child a snack as part of the bedtime routine. If you start “going to bed” shortly after dinner, I am not sure your child has any room for a snack. Perhaps some warm milk with something special in it, like a little vanilla, will be sufficient. Warm milk is a trigger for helping people fall asleep. This should be done before the brushing of teeth and sitting down with you. Those will be the treasured moments that will communicate that “Mommy (Daddy) loves me.”

When you finally do end the story and kiss and hug your child and say “good night”, there is an excellent chance that within a very short time, you and your spouse and your child will have more peaceful evenings.

If, within a few minutes, your child persists and gets out of bed or calls for you to come comfort him or her, bring your child back to the room and say, “The day is over and now you must rest. It is night-time. You can play with your toys in bed until you fall asleep. You are happy and tired and your bed is where you sleep. I know that you can do this. Now it is time for going to sleep.”

No more kisses and hugs, if possible…those keep your child still as the director of “going to bed,” and not you.

Hopefully, as you leave the room, you will have written a new ending to your child’s day, and a new beginning for your evening. It may take some days or weeks, but if you are patient and firm, it will work.

 

By Judy Townsend

 

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