How to Improve Sleep in Younger Children

Many of us with young children have learned to dread bedtime. It can be a real struggle for lots of families. Managing our children’s behaviours, anxieties and sometimes flat out tantrums can really push our buttons. Bedtime can however provide an opportunity to spend some quality time with your child, where you can engage in nurturing behaviours like story-telling or hugging. If a solid and consistent bed-time routine is developed it can even be a time to teach children how to soothe themselves and relax as they transition from the busy activities of the day into rest.

Quality sleep routines can improve the mood of your child dramatically. Well-rested children are often described as having an ‘easier temperament’. Sleep helps to maintain a healthy body and a strong immune system in growing bodies. It can also increase energy levels and helps our little ones to focus, concentrate for longer periods of time, and absorb more information when learning.

Some of the most common behavioural issues reported are children calling out to parents after going to bed, or children getting out of bed after being put down. This is often a way for young children to keep you around and continue to receive attention from you. Some kids might also experience anxiety at bedtime, so feel like they need you around to keep them feeling safe. A structured and consistently applied bedtime routine can reduce some of these behaviours because it helps kids to feel more safe and secure.

Try these steps to reduce bedtime battles

  1. Set up an effective routine

Doing the same thing every night is a great way to establish a routine. This means that kids will learn to predict what is going to happen next. This reduces anxiety and increases the likelihood that they will accept going to bed. Create an order of doing things. For example having dinner, then having a bath, then getting into pyjamas, then using the toilet, having a drink of water, brushing teeth, reading a book together and then hugging your child as you put them into bed.

  1. Make sure your child knows what is expected

Bed time is final. In a loving and firm manner let your child know that they need to stay quietly in bed until they fall asleep. Pre-empt calling out by letting them know you will not respond. Follow through by not responding-unless you believe there is an emergency situation.

  1. Encourage your child to sleep on their own in their own room

This can be difficult to accomplish, but the benefits by far outweigh the cost. Sleeping in their own room means children have or are developing the skills to settle themselves when tired and when feeling stress. Important skills that they will carry through life.

If your child walks out of bed, calmly walk the child back without talking to them or giving them any attention. Try not to make eye contact or do anything that signals to the child that they have your attention. We want to try our hardest not to reinforce this behaviour. For younger children a childproof gate might help or closing the door until the child is asleep.

It is important to note that punishment the following morning is an ineffective strategy for increasing positive bed time behaviours. Research and clinical experience strongly suggest that this type of punishment does not work. Give children lots of praise in the morning for listening to your instructions, being quiet at bedtime and of course for staying in bed. If your child has a difficult night, simply try again the following night. It will take some time to establish a routine. This is totally normal.

At Sydney Children’s Practice, we know the important role that sleep plays in the happiness and health for everyone in the family. If your child struggles with sleep, you can make an appointment with one of our clinical psychologists and we will be more than happy to help you establish a routine.