Solve Your Big Kid’s Sleep Problems

by Paula Spencer

Solve Your Big Kid’s Sleep Problems

Kathy McCleary has heard it all at bedtime from Grace, her 6-year-old: “Read me another story.” “I have to pee.” “I need a snuggle.” “We forgot dessert tonight.” One memorable night, Grace even tried: “Can I stay up to help clean? I just love doing dishes!”

As the evenings dragged on later and later, the exhausted McCleary, who lives in Portland, OR, tried threats, rewards and even sitting guard in the hallway outside Grace’s bedroom. Nothing worked. Her younger daughter, Emma, 3, caught up in her big sister’s bedtime resistance, charged that McCleary treated the girls “like prisoners” because she insisted they go to bed.

“No, Emma,” corrected Grace. “Prisoners can do things and go places. Actually, it’s more like Mommy is our prisoner.”

“She’s right,” McCleary sighs.

Many parents feel shackled by their kids’ bad sleep habits. But while advice abounds about putting down infants and toddlers, there’s little help if you’re the parent of an older child. And you’ve got lots of company: A recent study of almost 500 kids from kindergarten through fourth grade found that more than a third of them suffered from at least one sleep-related problem, including bedtime resistance, sleep anxiety, and night waking.

This not only leaves us frustrated, but also chips away at the precious p.m. hours grown-ups need to unwind, do chores, and relate to a mate. Kids’ sleep problems are linked to daytime crankiness, hyperactivity, depression, and poor school performance, says Will Wilkoff, M.D., a pediatrician in Brunswick, ME, and the author of Is My Child Overtired? Too little rest is a new epidemic among kids, he asserts. If you’ve asked yourself, “Isn’t he too old for this?” get a grip with these tips.

Paula Spencer is the author of Everything Else You Need to Know When You’re Expecting: The New Etiquette for the New Mom.

The Delay Artist

Grace, the girl in the opening example, simply doesn’t want to go to bed. In fact, the more her parents insist, cajole, threaten, or indulge, the more resistant she becomes.

Most sleep resistors act as if their bedtime is too early, but once the fussing ends, they may actually wind up short on rest. Five-year-olds need about 11 hours of sleep per night, which gradually lessens to 10 1/2 hours by age 7, 10 hours by age 9, and 9 1/2 to ten by age 12. But a better indicator of whether a child gets enough sleep is her behavior, says Marc Weissbluth, M.D., professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. If she wakes up rested but gets cranky later, or needs extra shut-eye on the weekend, she’s probably sleep deprived.

Kids who buck bedtime generally like the attention it brings. But it’s unhealthy for both parent and child to struggle with each other when tired, Dr. Weissbluth says. For the child, the nightly dramas themselves become the bedtime routine.

Changing this habit requires consistency—a tall order if parents are already so tired they lack the physical and emotional stamina it takes. (“My husband and I are usually both too wiped out to draw a line in the sand,” McCleary admits.)

Announce during the day that you’re instituting a new routine: “After you brush your teeth and put on pj’s at eight o’clock, we’ll read one chapter of a book together, and it’s lights-out.” No further explaining allowed. Consider starting the bedtime wind-down earlier than usual so you can spend reasonable one-on-one time with each child. If your kid resists, just keep calmly taking him back to his bedroom. Another tactic: the pass system. After you tuck her in, give your child a bedtime pass exchangeable for only one excused departure from the room after bedtime. A kid saving the valuable pass may fall asleep waiting to use it, says Patrick Friman, Ph.D., a researcher at Boys’ Home in Boys Town, NE, who reports success with the method.

The Land Rover

Kate Nolan* of Creve Coeur, MO, starts out every night sleeping soundly in her room. But in the wee hours, she pads down the hall to her parents’ bed. When she was a cuddly toddler, her mom and dad didn’t mind, but now she’s a gangly 7-year-old, and they resent the regular intrusions—and sleeping on a sliver of mattress as she hogs most of the bed.

Why can’t Kate and kids like her stay asleep? Between cycles of light and deep sleep, it’s natural to wake up from time to time. Most of us roll over and drift off again. Some kids, however, have trouble returning to sleep, perhaps because they occasionally feel too hot or cold, or have had a stressful dream.

“To help your kid learn to fall back to sleep on her own, have a conversation about it during the day, when she’s less anxious,” suggests Kelly Byars, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist at the Sleep Disorders Clinic of Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. Use age-appropriate language like, “You’re a big kid now, and you need to learn to sleep in your own bed. We’ll all sleep better that way. So if you come into our bed before morning, I’m going to tuck you back into yours. You can still come to our room once it’s light out.” Talk about ways your child can soothe herself to sleep, like hugging a stuffed toy or thinking happy thoughts. And remember to follow through at night—for as many times as it takes.

“Don’t be discouraged if your child’s behavior doesn’t improve immediately,” Byars warns. “For a child who can’t fall back to sleep alone, the skill has to be learned, and it may take days, even weeks of consistent practice.” But if you give in to such compromises as having your child camp out in a chair or sleeping bag next to your bed, you’ll never solve the problem.

The Anxious Sleeper

“I’ve tried everything,” complains Lauren Coles*, 9, of Elmhurst, IL, “and I just can’t fall asleep.” The later it gets, the more worried Lauren becomes. If her parents retire before she’s asleep, she panics and begs them to stay up.

When all’s quiet at night and it’s time to make the transition to sleep, fears often surface—about tests at school, the scary TV show she just watched, and what would happen if Dad was snatched by aliens or Mom was attacked by chipmunks.

Preadolescents can be especially vulnerable as their lives get more crowded with homework, sports practices, clubs, and socializing. When they want to sleep, they’re so hyped they can’t. It’s been widely reported that teenagers’ biological clocks change, leading them to stay up later at night even though they still need to rise early for school, but kids 9 to 12 can be affected too, says Dr. Wilkoff. By sixth grade, this lifestyle leaves many children chronically sleep deprived, according to a study last year by researchers at Tel Aviv University. Such kids truly need a calm wind-down to the day, Dr. Wilkoff continues. Curb wild play, suspenseful TV, video games, and books (this may include Harry Potter ones for some children) an hour or so before bedtime.

Well before lights-out, explore what’s on your child’s mind. “A lot of highly motivated, type-A kids are obsessed with worrying, ‘How will I do tomorrow?’ in terms of schoolwork and social situations,” Dr. Wilkoff notes. Don’t dismiss concerns, because even if they seem irrational, they’re serious to your child. Instead, Dr. Wilkoff suggests, “say, ‘Let’s write down what you’re thinking about, so we can get the worried thoughts out of your head and onto the paper.'”

Also, show your child ways to distract herself from stressful thoughts. “Ask her if she can travel, in her imagination, to the most beautiful place she’s ever seen, and assure her that she can go there in her mind whenever she chooses,” suggests Barbara Kay Polland, Ph.D., professor of child development at California State University at Northridge.

The Please-Stay-With-Me Sleeper

When John Connor*, 7, of San Anselmo, CA, had a bad ear infection, his mom sat at his bedside as he fell asleep. After a few days, the ear was better, but John insisted that his mother stay by his side. “I need you to be with me,” he’d say. Now he refuses to go to sleep unless his mom or dad is there with him.

We all have certain props that help us fall asleep. Maybe you prefer a feather pillow, say, or the thermostat set at 65 degrees. A typical sleep association for a child is a night-light or a favorite blanket. Unfortunately, it can just as easily be you.

“Sleep is a biological need of our bodies, but it’s also a learned behavior,” says Byars. “A child can learn to ‘need’ his parents’ presence to fall asleep.” He doesn’t really need you there, of course. But every time he insists that he does—and you stay by his side—that insistence creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To break the habit, try a phaseout. For starters, suggests Byars, say something like: “As you grow up, it’s important to sleep by yourself, without me here. I’m going to stay in your room but not lie down next to you.” For a few nights, sit up on the bed until he drifts off. After success with that, move to a chair next to the bed. If your child protests, remind him: “I’m not far away. You are working on learning to sleep by yourself.” Most parents who stand their ground have success in a week to ten days, as they transition out of the room. Help your child build a new sleep association to take your place. Maybe it’s a substitute for you, like your T-shirt. Kelly Sheehan of Phoenix, MD, helped her son Colin, 7, pick out a stuffed dog. “I told him he needed to make sure the dog felt safe at bedtime. Having this responsibility seemed to ease his tension,” she says.