How to Get Your Child to Sleep (Really!)
18 months to 3 years: "Just go to bed!"
As your child gets a little older, sleep problems may start earlier in the evening. Toddlers hate to go to bed in the first place. Why? They're control freaks ("No! My way!") and they have wild imaginations ("There's a shark under my bed!"). At first, their plaintive voices, asking to kiss the dog good night or for you to please, please check behind the curtain, are cute. But by 9 p.m. you may be at your wit's end, and your child will end up sleep-deprived.
Indulge (a little) at tuck-in. Get her what she needs --the first few requests are probably legit. It's okay to acknowledge her fears, too; it'll soothe, rather than encourage, if you can spray "monster poison" (water) around or put in a nightlight. "Our oldest is dealing with being scared of monsters and the shape the shadows on the wall creates," says Scranton, Pennsylvania, mom Karen Foley. "We shut off the light, adjust our eyes, and talk about all the shadows and what they could be, other than scary things. It's helped him a lot."
Then stand your ground. If you're having trouble setting limits during the day, you may be at war by bedtime. So once you've said "one more," that's it. She may plead or whimper, but you'll both be better off if you can stay firm. Say good night and mean it. (If she follows you out of the room, return her to bed with just another "good night." Nothing else.)
3 to 6 years: "You still need me?"
Preschoolers love attention, so often they'll get out of bed or call you back simply because they can't get enough of you. But you can use that very lust for attention to help them sleep.
Stage your appearances. After saying good night, explain that you'll be back in five minutes to give him another kiss or read a short story if he's quiet and stays in his bed. Do the same again and again, each time staying away for a longer period. "The key is that you have to return," says Mindell, so keep your promise. Some kids may require shorter intervals; that's okay. Just stretch out the intervals and do fewer "I'll be backs" over the course of a week.
With our clingy (yet savvy) Aidan, we had to get a little more creative. First, we started telling him we'd forgotten to do something: start the dryer, say, or load the dishwasher. We'd leave a dim lamp on and reassure him we'd be back after doing our errand --and often I left the magazine I'd been reading on his pillow as extra insurance that I'd be back. If he was still awake when I returned, I'd kiss him again and tell him how wonderful it was that he was staying in his bed.
Level with him. Lisa Predella of Medfield, Massachusetts, has a surprisingly simple technique that works wonders with her 4-year-old. "I tell him that I'll be a much nicer mommy in the morning if I get to sleep without interruption," she says. "Then I make good on my promise. When he comes into the kitchen in the morning, I run over to him and smother him with kisses."
Another common sleep problem among preschoolers is night terrors, which peak between ages 3 and 6, affecting about 5 percent of kids. Generally occurring within two hours of falling asleep, these scary incidents often start with a scream. Your child may flail, breathe rapidly, sweat --even bolt out of bed. They're actually much worse to watch than to experience, says Mindell, so try not to freak. Other than keeping your child safe during a night terror, your goal should be to do as little as possible.
No matter what your child's age or sleep troubles, you need to be consistent and persistent to get him into bed --for the whole night. It took two weeks (and more than a few bumps) for Aidan's sleep training to really kick in, but since then we've all gotten a lot more rest. It's so great --and so amazing --that my husband and I have been known to sneak into Aidan's room, just to watch him sleep.
Holly Robinson, a mom of three and stepmom of two, is working on a novel.