How to get your child to sleep

How to Get Your Child to Sleep? Challenges, Suggestions and Temperaments Discussed by a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant

We all know how important sleep is for our wellbeing but when it comes to establishing a proper sleeping schedule for our children, things seem immensely difficult. That’s why I consulted with Macall Gordon who is a certified pediatric sleep consultant.

Continue reading to find out what she suggests.

1. When it comes to bedtime routine, what are the things that parents get right and wrong?

It’s not so much “right” versus “wrong” but instead, “sustainable” versus “I can’t do this anymore.”
Bedtime routines can become unwieldy when parents aren’t prepared for the level of negotiation and (let’s just say it) blackmail that can happen at bedtime – one more book, another drink of water, I’m hungry, one more hug,… You know that if you say “no,” it’s going to be an hour of meltdowns and if you say “yes,” suddenly you’re reading seven books and singing three songs, plus choreographing a dream ballet. Bedtime easily becomes an hour-long extravaganza with no viable exit plan in sight.

All of this wrangling comes from a really good place. By 2-1/2- or 3-years-old, children are really feeling the power of their brain and their ability to make things happen. “What if I say I’m hungry?” “What if I say I’m scared?” “Mom read four books last night, why not four books tonight?” They are learning that they can have an effect on their environment and the actions of others. (Yay for them. Yikes for us.)

A baby yawning, a plush teddy bear next to it
Maybe “failing to have a plan” is where things fall apart. – Macall Gordon/ Photo: Unsplash

Bedtime and the routine leading up to it require parents to really get ahead of the shenanigans and have a plan for reining them in. In that sense, maybe “failing to have a plan” is where things fall apart.

So, what makes a good, effective plan for bedtime?

1. Have a bedtime routine chart.

If there is always “one more…. whatever,” it’s time to lock down the routine. Craft a bedtime chart and if your child is old enough to help contribute to it, that’s even better! This isn’t a sticker chart. This is more like a contract or roadmap for what will and what won’t happen during the routine. For younger children, consider using pictures for each step.

Next, put everything on the chart that happens and front load any requests: e.g., last drink of water, last trip to the bathroom. List how many books, how many songs, etc. Here’s the important part: IF IT’S NOT ON THE CHART, IT DOESN’T HAPPEN. You can table discuss or consider revising the chart tomorrow, but there’s no on-the-fly decision that you should make at the moment. (You will lose.)

In addition, make sure to include post-lights-out behaviors that you want to see and make sure to phrase them in the positive i.e., what you want to see versus what you don’t want to see. So, “I stay in my bed” versus “I don’t get out of my bed.” See the difference?

Finally, go over the chart in the daytime and again before bed. We don’t want any surprises and repetition is going to be key.

2. Consider rehearsing any changes you’re making at bedtime during the day.

For every change that you’re planning to make, it’s crucial that you don’t lie to them. Whether you are going to work or if you’ve changed the room around – really, any change that you’re planning to make, you should rehearse during the day!

Have them pretend to get into bed and do a run-through of the change so they can be prepped for it ahead of time. We really don’t want to spring anything on them at bedtime.

3. Consider having a “pre-routine routine.”

Yes, you read that right. Preparation and ample transition are going to be your friend. Having a helpful step or two before the routine even starts is going to help, I promise.

Here are some examples:

– “Special Time”

This is an easy and really effective strategy for every child and it’s especially good for new older siblings. Special Time is 15-20 minutes of 100% one-on-one child-led play. Your child gets to be THE BOSS. They tell you what to be/say/do. For two- and three-year-olds, this gives them a little dose of being in charge so they don’t have to act that out at bedtime. For children who have just become an older sibling, it gives them a little bit of “only child” time. It’s also a beautiful segue between dinner and starting to get ready for bed.

– “Heavy Work”

Heavy work is really games meant to give little bodies some BIG input. For some active kiddos, they actually need this strong input to their joints and that can help them downshift. If you have a child who’s roughhousing, or crashing into things or jumping at bedtime, this is going to be like magic.

Heavy work includes activities like racing a laundry basket full of books down the hallway, or tug-of-war with a towel, or crashing into pillows. I know it sounds like the exact opposite of a soothing activity, but it really does work.

Kids having a pillow fight
“Heavy work” as a bedtime routine for kids./ Photo: Unsplash

– Bedtime Yoga or Stretching

Bedtime yoga or stretching really helps little ones calm their body down. It’s a great way to help them calm that active brain down, too! These physical strategies for calming can really lay down a great lifelong foundation of understanding how to slow and calm their bodies for sleep.

4. Rethink the steps in the bedtime routine.

For some children, the usual activities that we associate with a bedtime routine don’t actually help and may, in fact, rev them up, and isn’t that the last thing we want at bedtime?!

So, consider these questions to reach a conclusion:

– Are bedtime baths really helping?

Baths and the feeling of water can make some children more awake. Ask yourself if the bath helps them calm down and focus or is it waterpark funtime?

SOLUTION: Move the bath to the daytime.

– Are the storybooks really helping?

Some really verbal/visually-oriented kiddos can get revved up by picture books. So monitor whether the story helps them focus or does it just cause a million questions and thoughts and ideas.

I once had a client who would make up a story on the spot every night while their verbal three-year-old was falling asleep. I asked if that helped the child fall asleep and the answer was an emphatic, “No way. She just wants to add on to the story and ask questions.”
If the books/stories aren’t helping you, time to think of something else to do.

SOLUTION: Recorded sleep visualization stories. These recorded stories require the child to listen to the story, rather than look at pictures.

These stories have an additional secret bonus: they’re constructed to help your livewire use their imagination to relax. Yes! The story is specifically to teach an active little brain to quiet itself. 

There are tons of different stories on the Mochi, Calm, and Headspace apps, Audible, YouTube, etc. Just Google “sleep visualization stories for children.”

– Is it game-on for conversation and lots of thoughts and questions?

SOLUTION 1: Have a “put away the thoughts” box. Have a moment in the routine where your child can have you write down questions, thoughts, things they meant to tell you on slips of paper that you put into a decorated box for tomorrow. This is a physical demonstration of “putting thoughts away for the day.” You can decide whether you want to tackle any of them during the next day or just tuck them away for your memory book.

SOLUTION 2: Once the lights are out, only use “non-words” to respond. You can just use “night-night” or “shh-shh” instead of actual words.

– Are they saying they’re afraid of the dark/monsters/ghosts, etc.?

This one is so hard for parents. What to do? We don’t want to dismiss their fears, but we don’t want to give in either. There are a couple of possible strategies

SOLUTION 1 (For children under 4): Magical solutions actually work! “Monster spray,” a sign on the door or closet that says “No Monster Zone,” a “Ghost-away spell”… These magical strategies work for younger children.

SOLUTION 2 (For older children): For children 4 and up, logical explanations/reassurances are going to be better. At this age, we can start helping them get used to the dark. There are research-based “exposure” games for fear of the dark. These are games you could do at bedtime that will gradually help your child become more comfortable in the dark.

The key to reining in bedtime is to have a clear, almost rigid structure and that you start moving gradually out of the room so that we scaffold their ability to start falling asleep without us right next to them. The same brain that is so good at throwing roadblocks in front of bedtime also responds really well to patterns. If we can stay consistent for a few days, they can detect the pattern and really settle in. And then bedtime can really be more pleasant for everyone.

2. How does bedtime (earlier vs. later) affect kids and does the effect last into adulthood or not?

Is there such a thing as kids not being able to go to bed before 9 p.m.? I’ve heard some parents say that they can’t make their preschoolers go to bed before 10 p.m.

While it is true that children can vary widely in sleep needs and a bit in sleep timing, as a sleep coach, I always say: try for an earlier bedtime first!
Children who parents say won’t fall asleep until 9 or 10 p.m. have almost certainly hit their second wind. It’s likely that their lull in energy (microscopic as it might have been) happened earlier and now they’ve engaged their booster rockets and are going strong.

Most children have a lull in energy right around 7 or 7:30 p.m. when melatonin is released. If you can capitalize on this moment, sleep can happen. If you miss it and don’t start bedtime until after the moment has passed, you are riding their energetic upswing. Exposure to blue light from TVs or other screens also impedes melatonin.

Children until well into their school-age years need about 11 hours of nighttime sleep. If they’re not in bed until 9 or 10 p.m. and they’re having to get up for school or daycare at 7 a.m. that’s only 9 or 10 hours of nighttime sleep. Research suggests that an earlier bedtime is related to longer nighttime sleep. Later bedtimes do not cause a child to sleep in longer—just the opposite. If your child is waking at 5 a.m., they actually need an earlier bedtime. Sounds nuts, I know…but it’s true.

A baby peeping from a towel
Children until well into their school-age years need about 11 hours of nighttime sleep. – Macall Gordon/ Photo: Unsplash

3. Any scientific take or statistics you can include about young kids’ sleep?

This is a really broad question…Not quite sure how to answer this one easily…

“I thought it would be better by now…” When sleep is really awful, here are some reasons why that could be. But first, let’s define what a sleep problem is.

What is a “sleep problem”? It’s actually difficult to quantify and really depends on parents’ perceptions. Waking up once or twice a night through the first year is fairly normal. Even for toddlers and others, waking once per night can be normal, if the child doesn’t really need help getting back to sleep. 

All children wake at night. The difference is that some are able to just go back to sleep and others need a ton of help and intervention to get back there. If waking for you is at a level that feels manageable and you either don’t have to do anything or it’s super minimal, you may feel like sleep is fine for now. Yay for that!

There are instances, however, when waking isn’t easy or sustainable, especially when children are waking a lot more than once or twice a night and/or their parents have tried every sleep training method out there with zero progress.

As a sleep coach, this is when my Spidey sense tells me that something else is going on behind the sleep issues.

Here are my top culprits:

– Obstructed breathing

Does your child snore or breathe through their mouth when they sleep? Are they a super restless sleeper always moving or thrashing even when asleep? Any snoring outside of a cold should prompt a check-in with a pediatric “Ear, Nose, and Throat” or a sleep doctor. Obstructed breathing is a major cause of broken sleep. Get it checked!

– Low ferritin/”Restless Legs”

This is a major contributor to really bad sleep problems. Does your child thrash around a lot at bedtime (doesn’t want to lie down, kicks a lot, wants to stand) or they just can’t get comfortable (they’re in bed, then out of bed, then want to be held, then don’t)? Does bedtime take hours?

Here’s the big one: Are there periods of long wakefulness (hours) in the middle of the night where nothing seems to work to get them back to sleep? For older children, do they ever complain that their legs hurt/feel itchy? Did these problems come on suddenly?

Bonus questions: Was mom anemic/low iron in pregnancy? Is there a family history of RLS? Did the child have reflux as a baby?

These may be signs of low ferritin, the iron storage factor in the blood, which causes Restless Legs Syndrome. Low ferritin also can alter sleep architecture (the structure of sleep in the brain). But an iron test isn’t enough. Ferritin itself needs to be tested. Sleep doctors also want that level to be above 50 and not the “7” that most pediatricians go by. 

The good news is that treatment is just prescription iron supplementation. While it may take months for levels to fully come up, depending on how low your child was, you will see lots of improvement over time.

3. Sensory processing

This is a tough one. Children who are more sensitive to their environment and to sensory input can have a lot of difficulty with sleep. It just takes less to throw them off. For some children, cosleeping just doesn’t work because of all of the movement and sound that comes with sleeping on the same surface as other sleepers.

When these children come into light sleep, they usually come ALL the way awake and if you are helping them get to sleep at bedtime, you are on call for all of the wakings. Understanding your child’s sensory strengths and challenges can be a gamechanger for sleep.

4. Food intolerance

Dairy intolerance (also, wheat, soy, eggs, nuts, fish, citrus, etc.) can impact sleep in squirrely ways. Intolerances are harder to diagnose and figure out. Many parents swear that by eliminating an offending food or additive, their child slept better.

If your child has or has had eczema, that’s also an indicator of potential intolerances. Plus, eczema all by itself is a known sleep tanker.

Children who are only waking once (twice in infants) and who can go back to sleep easily are usually pretty responsive to the usual sleep training strategies or they start sleeping through on their own within a reasonable timeframe. Some sleep problems go waaay beyond one or two easy wakings. In these cases, sleep training doesn’t have to be the first, or only option. It’s important to rule out physiological sleep disruptors first and then see what your child’s sleep is like.

A kid sleeping
Some sleep problems go waaay beyond one or two easy wakings. – Macall Gordon/ Photo: Unsplash

4. How does temperament affect sleep? How does it NOT?

Most of the popular advice on sleep will tell you that the difference between children who are “good sleepers” and those who aren’t is what their parents are or aren’t doing at bedtime. I disagree! I am going to go way out on a limb and make a big claim:

The difference between children who sleep well and those who don’t
is temperament.

How does temperament affect sleep, you ask? Let’s just say, “How doesn’t it affect sleep?” 

Let’s first think about what it takes to fall asleep: 

1) you notice that you feel tired/sleepy;

2) you are willing to disconnect from the waking world; 

3) you can give in to the need to sleep and you go to sleep.

Certain aspects of temperament affect all three of these.

Temperament refers to the way an individual processes and reacts to incoming events and stimuli. A majority of children are able to buffer out an awful lot. For these kiddos, going to sleep isn’t that hard. They feel sleepy, they yawn, and with some encouragement and a little nudging behaviorally, they can learn to fall asleep without a ton of drama.

A subset of children has a much thinner barrier to the outside world (I call them livewires). Their circuits are just more open to outside input, and they react more strongly to that input. While these are the foundations of some amazing abilities, they also completely tank the ability to power down, disconnect, and get some sleep.

These children don’t notice that they’re sleepy. They don’t want to disconnect from the waking world, and they are like “The Princess and the Pea” when it comes to being able to buffer out whatever could keep them awake. For more sensitive children, every aspect of sleep is just much more challenging.

Sleep training books don’t consider temperament.

Most sleep advice was written for the more easygoing, get-with-the-program children. For these kiddos, altering their sleep behavior may not be fun but it tends to work without too much hoopla. For livewires, not so much. Sleep training is not a few nights of “fussing,” but can be hours of sweaty hysterics that never culminate in sleep. Nope. Doesn’t happen.

Dear, tuckered out parents: It’s not you. It’s temperament!

Here are 5 big traits that show up in varying degrees for livewires because not every has every trait strongly. These are the ones that really affect both sleep and your efforts to improve it:

1. “Big feelings” (Intensity)

Everything is bigger. If they’re happy, they’re really happy. Once they get upset, watch out! Some parents of intense, vocal children may not have ever attempted sleep training because they know the blowback that will result.

2. “Zero to sixty” (Reactivity)

“If I don’t get to her immediately, she’s hysterical, even throwing up, and it takes an hour to get her calmed back down.” Livewires react strongly and they react fast. This is another reason why typical approaches to sleep training where parents delay their response don’t work for livewires. There is no “self-soothing” happening because they react so strongly and so quickly, they blow right past their ability to downshift. If I handed you a 100-pound bag of cement, you would likely drop it much faster than if I gave you a 10-pound bag. It’s not that livewires can’t self-soothe, they just have more feeling than they can manage.

3. “The minute I try to leave, his eyes pop open and we have to start over” (Sensory sensitive)

Sensory sensitivity is perhaps the biggest contributor to difficulties with sleep. Any little thing keeps them awake. As babies, they need to be endlessly bounced or nursed all the way to dead-to-the-world. As toddlers, they seem to keep one eye open to be sure that you’re still there. Creaky floors, closing doors, breathing, blinking….and you are starting over from scratch.

4. “Never gives up” (Persistent)

“Easy going” and “flexible” are not words used to describe livewires. Livewires know what they want, and they are willing to outlast you to get it. This is an amazing trait for an adolescent or adult to have, but in children, it can be exhausting. Parents know that even at a young age, livewires can and will outlast you. So, when the books say that the first night of sleep training “could be bad,” they mean 30 minutes of crying. You are on hour two…of night four.

5. “Serious FOMO” (Engaged)

I’ve heard parents of teeny babies say, “She just doesn’t want to sleep. It’s like she’s afraid she’ll miss something.” Some children really crave input and interaction. They want to be in the world. For them, sleep is a waste of time and “sleepy signals” are for the weak. Getting them to power down and be ready for sleep can be a project.

If you have a livewire, your child has some powerful abilities: passion, perceptiveness, sensitivity, engagement. Livewires ask more of their parents and parents are willing to level up. When it comes to sleep training, however, parents of livewires are left a little out in the cold. Advice does not take temperament into account and so, livewire parents are trying to use information that’s not really applicable to their child. It’s like trying to use a manual for the wrong software. It’s not going to work very well.

Understanding a child’s underlying temperament—both strengths and challenges—can help you at least feel confident that the trouble with sleep isn’t because you are doing it wrong; it’s because they are a livewire.

About Macall Gordon

Macall Gordon has a B.S. from Stanford in Human Biology and an M.A. from Antioch University, Seattle in Applied Psychology, where she is currently a Sr. Lecturer in the mental health counseling and art therapy departments. She researches and writes about the relationship between temperament and sleep, and the gap between research and parenting advice.

She is a certified pediatric sleep consultant working with parents of alert, non-sleeping children in private practice, as well as on the women’s telehealth platform, Maven Clinic. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, intense children and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.

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