How to Get Your Child to Sleep (Really!)

by Holly Robinson

How to Get Your Child to Sleep (Really!)

Tips for making sure your child (and you!) can get some shut-eye.


With my first baby, I discovered that there really is a Land of the Living Dead. It’s populated by zombies whose children don’t sleep. My son had a voracious appetite, so he (and I) would be up every two hours so he could eat. My daughter was a tough one, too—every time I put her down, she howled like a wet cat. Still, by the time they were toddlers, we were all sleeping through the night pretty well. Then came baby number three. Aidan hated going to bed and woke up every time a breeze blew on Pluto. I didn’t sweat it, though—I knew all babies eventually sleep through the night.


But, as it turns out, I knew nothing. By the time Aidan was 3, my husband and I had dubbed him “Mr. Attorney Loophole” because he always had a good reason for not sleeping: He needed water, a snack and a softer blanket. The music on his CD player was too loud or too soft. There was a wasp in his room. Or a ghost. Or a monster! The hamster wheel was keeping him awake. He wasn’t tired. He was too tired. His throat hurt. “It’s just that everything won’t let me sleep, Mom,” Aidan told me.


Why? Why was my third child so impossible? “Children come as sleepers or non-sleepers,” says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night—you’ll know which yours is by the time he’s old enough to try climbing out of the crib. And if you’ve got a non-sleeper, you may find he does his non-sleeping in different ways as he grows (oh, it’s true; Aidan tried everything). But you can get these kids into bed. I did, and Mr. Attorney Loophole practically puts himself to bed now. Here’s how to handle the most common post-babyhood sleep problems:


12 to 18 months: “Go back to sleep!”


For young toddlers, the most common sleep problem is frequent waking—some naturally wake up as many as six times during a single night. “The question isn’t really why your child wakes during the night,” Mindell says, “but why he can’t put himself back to sleep.”


If he can’t soothe himself in the middle of the night by this age, there’s probably some part of his bedtime routine that he can’t do on his own: a song, a story tape or you sitting cross-legged with a grapefruit balanced on your head. Developmentally, too, this is a tricky time, since a child is old enough to figure out that the minute he closes his eyes you’ll leave, his pacifier will drop out of sight and his music will squeak to a halt. The bottom will fall out of his world. Therefore, why would he want to fall asleep?


The solution: Train him to drift off on his own by creating new sleep associations. This way, you won’t have to “drag your sorry butt out of bed every few hours,” as Sarah Bieber, a mom of three in Rockland, Maryland, puts it. The first thing to do is make sure your bedtime ritual is up and running (see “The best bedtime routine”), and then:


See nighttime through your child’s eyes. Stand in his room and imagine that it’s 2 a.m. What does your child see? A light on in the hallway? Toys in the bed? Make his bedroom look the same at bedtime as it will in the wee hours. If you don’t plan to be sitting in that rocking chair singing to him then, get out of there before he falls asleep.


You might need props, too, to ensure the sameness. Tori Stewart, now 21 months old, would wake at any sound and cry out for her mom, Amanda. But turning on a fan in her room drowned out the sounds. “It was a small miracle-no more midnight awakenings,” says the Campbellsville, Kentucky, mom. Practice your poker face. When you do get that late-night wake-up call, do a simple checking routine that involves going into your child’s room (or taking him back there) to tell him that everything is okay. Be gentle but firm: Don’t cuddle, play or stay too long. Your goal is to make him think it’s not worth his while to call for you.


Delay gratification. As the night goes on, stretch out the time between his first call for you and when you go into his room. Try waiting five minutes the first and second times, ten minutes the next and so forth. And give him several days to adjust. “Here you are, changing all the rules,” says Mindell, “so it can take a week or two for the new sleep associations to take hold.”


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 goodnight 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.