In this guide:
- How much sleep is enough?
- Figuring out a good bedtime
- Avoiding bedtime battles
- Helping him sleep alone
- Easing nighttime fears
- Top 5 sleep stealers
- When to drop a nap
Good sleep is one of the most important things kids need to stay healthy. In fact, studies have shown that children who don't sleep enough -- or sleep well enough -- can be inattentive, restless, irritable, and more likely to injure themselves. To help your child snooze soundly:
How much sleep does your child need?
Follow these general guidelines:
Babies: 14 to 16 hours a day
Toddlers: 12 to 14 hours a day
Preschoolers: 11 to 13 hours a day
Kids ages 5 and up: 9 to 10 hours a day
If you're wondering whether your child is getting enough sleep, watch her mood: Is she irritable and tired when she wakes up instead of happy and ready for the day? Does she become wild and unruly every night before bed? If so, she may be overtired and in need of more rest.
Figuring out a good bedtime
To find the right time for your child, try working backward from when you wake up. If the family has to be up by 7 A.M. to get out of the house on time, then your 3-year-old who, naps for an hour each afternoon, should be in bed by around 8 P.M.
Whenever bedtime is, start to prepare your child even earlier. Does she tend to rub her eyes, yawn, or curl up on the couch at around the same hour every night? If so, have her put on her jammies and brush her teeth or read to her about 20 minutes before then. If she's high-energy in the evening, try a longer winding-down ritual (like a bath followed by a bedtime story, or a light back rub as you play soothing music). What's most important: consistency. Try to stick to a regular routine, no matter what hour you set as bedtime.
Avoiding bedtime battles
Solutions moms swear by:
Make a chart. Check off when he's put on his pajamas, used the toilet, brushed his teeth.
Get ready for bed yourself. Challenge your child to a race (and for best results, let him win!).
If tantrums erupt, stay firm. Don't negotiate with a fitful child. Say, "This is what you need to do and when you need to do it."
Separate siblings. Allow only one in the bathroom at a time. If an older sibling isn't going to bed, send him elsewhere.
Focus on tomorrow. Direct his attention to the next day's exciting events. Have him lay out tomorrow's outfit by making a "clothes kid" on the floor.
Consider temperament. If he's easily overwhelmed, make decisions for him (pick out his pj's in advance instead of letting him choose). If he needs to be in control, give him a say (over which toothpaste he uses or which stuffed animal goes to bed with him, for instance).
Helping her sleep on her own
As your child adjusts to sleeping on her own, wee-hour visits to your bed and requests for you to sleep with her in her own bed are normal. But the goal is to help her transition to her bed for a full night's rest. Here's what to do:
- Put a sleeping bag on the floor at the foot of your bed for her, and explain: You can come into Mommy and Daddy's room at night if you need to and sleep in your 'special bed.
- To reinforce that nighttime is for sleep, let her know that if she wakes you up, she'll have to go back to her room.
- Explain that even though you love sleeping near her, big kids don't sleep with their parents every night. But if she can stay in her bed most nights, she can sleep with you on Sunday. Keep a chart to mark off the nights that she successfully sleeps alone.
Leaving her bed for good
- Start by curling up in her bed and reading to her.
- Once the lights are turned out and it's time to sleep, sit at the edge of the bed instead of lying down with her.
- Bit by bit, move away from the bed until you're outside the door. If she cries, try talking or singing to her from afar; if she wants physical contact, give her a quick hug or a kiss, then go back to where you were.
Easing nighttime fears
As your child grows and develops, new fears come with the territory. It's not uncommon for separation anxiety -- which usually hits around 9 months -- to resurface between ages 2 and 3. These fears could also be a product of his burgeoning imagination (for example, a piece of clothing takes on the shape of a bogeyman). Or your child's sudden nighttime neediness could be caused by a change in his routine, like a new work schedule for you or your partner or the start of preschool. Whatever the case, during this phase your child wants your reassurance -- even at night. To help him get back on track:
Talk it out during the day. Explain that you want to understand what's upsetting him at night, and decide on a plan together. Perhaps you'll go to her bed with him when he wakes up and lie next to him until he falls asleep again.
"I use the power of stickers to streamline the bedtime routine. I tell my kids that as soon as they're 100 percent ready for bed -- pajamas on, teeth brushed -- they can have a sticker. It really gets them moving."
-- Jane Meredith Adams, Berkeley, CA
Submit your sleeping tip
Act quickly at night. When he comes to your room, don't start talking about his dream. Just follow the plan you mapped out together earlier. The object is to get everyone back to sleep as fast as possible, without feeding your child's fears.
Tell the truth. Your child trusts you. If you say there are no monsters, he may believe you. A consistent bedtime ritual, from a "bath, book, bed" system to tucking in his teddy bear with him each night, can keep him comforted if he wakes up in the middle of the night.
Enjoy a peaceful day. Minimizing stress in your child's daytime life can alleviate nighttime worries, too. If stress is unavoidable (you're moving to a new home, for instance), be prepared to live with some sleep upsets until things settle down. But encourage him to run, jump, laugh, and be active during the day. This will tire him out and also quell tension and anxiety.
Dim the lighting. A nightlight may keep him from being afraid when he wakes up alone in the dark, but keep in mind that too much light can keep him awake.
The top five sleep stealers
Twenty-six percent of kids ages 3 and up have at least one caffeinated beverage a day, and they lose an average of 3 1/2 hours of sleep per week, according to research by the National Sleep Foundation. Caffeine isn't just in soft drinks -- it's in iced tea, chocolate, and even some kids' pain relievers.
The more television a child watches, the more difficulty she'll have falling asleep and the more likely she'll be to experience sleep disturbances.
If you notice that your 3-year-old's bedtime is creeping later and later, it may be time to forgo midday sleeping in favor of some after-lunch quiet time.
Your child might need more stimulation and exercise during the day to fall asleep at night. Tire her out by letting her run around the park in the late afternoon -- but not too close to bedtime, when the activity could rev her up even more.
It's possible that your child is just not wired to go to bed early.
When to drop a nap
By 15 to 18 months, your baby will be ready to drop one of the two daytime naps he's been taking. You'll know it's time if as naptime approaches, he stops rubbing his eyes or acting like he normally does when he gets tired. Still put him in his crib, but if he plays or fusses (or falls asleep only for a few minutes) for several days in a row, he's probably ready to stay up.
- Keep his early-afternoon nap and ditch her morning one, if possible, to break up his day more evenly.
- But put your child down for his afternoon nap earlier, around 12:30 or so.
- If he's less interested in a later nap, try delaying the morning one by 15 to 30 minutes each day until he's snoozing just once. It'll take about two weeks for him to get fully used to the new schedule.
Most kids will continue to need a daily nap until they turn 3. (Some 5-year-olds continue to need it.) The transition from one nap to none can be slow and erratic -- a child may go for days without napping, then have a total meltdown another afternoon. To make the process easier, aim for "quiet time" each day instead of an actual nap. At the regular naptime, your child goes to his room and you go through the bedtime routine -- turn off the lights and close the shades, read books, whatever. He can either sleep or just play quietly.
On the surface, bedtime seems like it should just be a series of tasks to be checked off: pajamas, teeth, books, kisses. But for kids, it can be a tricky transition from a day of activity to a night of rest, from being together to being separate. Creating a smooth bedtime routine is important, but even more important is giving your child the security and love she needs to sleep peacefully and well.