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Why kids wake up during the night
Why won't my child sleep through the night? It's a question many bleary-eyed parents have pondered.
"Night wakings are a normal part of our sleep cycle, but good sleepers know how to fall back asleep without help," says Jodi Mindell, author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep. Unfortunately, many toddlers and preschoolers struggle to master this skill. If your child counts on you – or some other sleep aid – to help her nod off, she may have trouble drifting off again when she wakes in the wee hours.
Of course, not even the most competent snoozers are immune to sleep disturbances. Common preschooler fears, including monsters, ghosts, or other things that go bump in the night, can make things hard for even the soundest sleepers.
Nightmares, which peak between the ages of 3 and 6, also may send your child running for your bedroom. Likewise, any departure from your child's normal routine – a vacation, an illness, or even a change in bedtime – can derail normal sleep patterns.
How to deal with late-night visits
If you and your partner don't mind a family bed – or the occasional nighttime cuddle – there's no harm in giving in to your child's wishes when he wants to climb into your bed in the middle of the night. But if you're trying avoid sharing your bed, consider these strategies for coping with a child who won't stay put:
Lose the crutch. Come bedtime, many kids this age still have trouble falling asleep without the comfort of a pacifier, a stuffed animal, a special lullaby, or you. The problem: If that sleep aid isn't available when your child wakes, he may have trouble dozing off again. The solution: Gradually and gently phase out any sleep aids that your child can't manage by himself during the night.
"When you put your child to sleep, leave the bedroom exactly as it will be in the middle of the night," Mindell says. If you plan to turn the hall light off when you go to sleep, turn it off now. White noise or soft music is fine – provided it plays all night.
And whatever bedtime routine you follow, it's imperative that you leave the room before your child falls asleep so he doesn't wake up wondering why you're no longer there. Just remember that this may be a long, hard process. Success won't come overnight, so be patient.
Set physical boundaries. Once your child makes the transition to a big bed, you can try to convince her to stay in her room by placing a "magic" gate in the doorway. Some parents feel comfortable with this hardline approach, and some don't. Trust your instincts.
Be consistent. Develop a plan and stick with it. At 3 a.m. it's easy to get worn down by your child's pleas – no matter how dead set you may be against co-sleeping. But if he manages to wiggle his way in, even once or twice a week, he's bound to keep trying.
So haul yourself out of bed, escort him back to his room, give him a quick kiss, and leave. Be prepared to repeat this routine over and over if necessary – and to load up on coffee the next morning.
If your child is sick or has a particularly bad dream, you may decide it's okay to bend the rules. But, says Mindell, if you camp out in his bedroom rather than allowing him into yours, it will probably be less of a setback.
Address fears. It's perfectly normal for a preschooler to develop a fear of the dark. It's okay to indulge her by leaving on the hall light or installing a night-light.
A lovey or other comfort object – such as a special blanket or soft toy – can provide reassurance in the middle of the night. Try reading books or watching shows to help your child talk about and tame her fears.
If it's poltergeists, extraterrestrials, or other paranormal activities that scare her, you might want to do a monster search at bedtime. Check under the bed, inside the closet, and anywhere else specters may lurk. A spray bottle filled with extra-strength monster deterrent (that is, water) can also provide late-night comfort. Be careful with this approach, though: It may help some children feel empowered, but for others it may confirm their fear that monsters are real.
Offer incentives. Rewards can be a great way to encourage a resistant child to comply with the nighttime drill. "Some parents frown on this method because they feel they're bribing their kids," says Mindell. "But learning to stay in your own bed is hard work, and it's okay to reward them for their efforts."
Set aside time for snuggles. Lots of kids will stay in their own room as long as they know there's snuggle time built into their morning routine.
Since your child probably can't tell time yet, tell him to come in when the sky is light, or buy a clock that changes color when he's allowed to wake you up. (You set the time.) If he's a little bit older, show him the numbers to look for on a digital clock so he knows when it's okay to leave his room.
Let your child "own" her bed. When you buy a big bed, let your child pick out the sheets, pillows, and a comforter for it.
To personalize her bed even more, go to a craft store and buy felt, fabric, wooden letters, or other supplies to decorate the bed with her name or initials. If your child still takes naps, let her "practice" sleeping in her new bed. Before you know it, she may insist on sleeping there!
Compromise. Consider sharing your bedroom but not your bed. "When our 3-year-old daughter refused to sleep alone, we put her toddler bed in our room and let her sleep there," says Alison Bard, a Kirkland, Washington, mother of two.
If you're pressed for space, however, a sleeping bag or nap mat might work too. Better yet, these items are portable and not quite as cozy. After a few nights or weeks on the floor, your child's own soft mattress may seem more appealing.
Take our poll: How do you handle midnight visits from your child?