Bedtime For The Little Ones

Getting your preschooler to go to bed and stay there through the night can be a trying experience. So Early Show contributor Robin Goodman, who is also a clinical psychologist, dropped by The Saturday Early Show with advice on how to establish a good leep routine for preschoolers (children 3 to 5 years old).

Goodman's first guideline: Set and stick to a regular bedtime.

  • The time for bed should be consistent. And once set, try to adhere to the same times, even on weekends. Try to keep it especially when it's time to get up. (If children are up early, then there is a better chance they'll be tired enough to go to sleep at the right time.)
  • Think about what happens before bedtime. Children and teens will sleep best when they get exercise and fresh air during the day, so schedule plenty of activity.
  • Know the best bedtime for the child and work backwards so that routine starts before the child is actually sleepy. The child should be ready to sleep when the routine is winding down.
  • Know your children. There's lots of individual variation. It's important not to force children to sleep a specific number of hours. It's more important to notice if they're rested.
  • Determine the best time for bed but be reasonable about expectations about how and when sleep happens. It can be fine for a child to have quiet time alone. Parents don't necessarily have to stay with their children until they are fully asleep. Children need to learn how to put themselves to sleep.

    Goodman also says it's a good idea to establish a calm routine.

  • You can prepare older children for bedtime by saying something like: "Another 15 minutes and it's time to start getting ready for bed."
  • The routine should be comforting, and non-negotiable once it starts.
  • Have a sequence for the activities. Let the child have some say in what happens, then do them in the same way. For instance, the routine could go something like this:
    • Bath.
    • Child picks out a story.
    • Mom or Dad sits in a particular chair.
    • There's often an ending ritual, like a hug and lights out.
  • Keep it consistent. Routines help establish behavior and sleep is learned behavior. When children are learning things, repetition helps them master the skill.
  • Be the expert on you and your child. There is no "one size fits all" approach. If an approach doesn't seem right, don't do it. But evaluate whether the approach was wrong or you didn't give it a fair try.

    Finally, says Goodman, you should create a sleep zone.

  • It's best to keep the bedroom as an electronics-free zone. That means no computer, TV or video games in the bedroom.
  • Right before bed, skip things that are counterproductive to sleep (like jumping around, scary movies or chocolate milkshakes).
  • Not too many toys in bed.
  • Check the children's preferences. Some need a nightlight, the door cracked open, a "white noise" machine, or their favorite cartoon character on their sheets.

    Some bad habits to avoid:

  • Don't use sleep and a bed as punishment. Sometimes parents need to say, "OK. That's enough. Time for bed." But don't threaten by saying things like: "If you don't stop that right now, you're going to bed."
  • Avoid falling asleep in your children's beds. If they wake up in the middle of the night, they can be scared or confused.
  • Don't reinforce such poor sleep behavior as having children sleep in your bed. The occasional time (when children have a fever or bad dreams) won't do terrible damage. But teaching children that the only safe or comfortable plan is your bed can turn into a bad habit. In general, everyone needs to learn how to sleep in their own beds.

    If they wake up in the middle of the night:

  • Be firm and give the child confidence. Sometimes, reassurance is all that's needed.
  • Minimize the interaction. No discussions. If it was a bad dream, don't start going over the details of the dream.
  • Don't start the whole routine over. Go to the children's room or lead them back to their room to help establish that they can handle sleeping on their own in the right place.
  • In the light of day, come up with prevention methods, like a flashlight near the bed or having your child made a dream catcher to keep in the bedroom.
  • Reward the children in the morning for staying in their own rooms. It's immediate and gets the day off to the right start.

    If problems persist:

  • There's a range of sleep problems that children might encounter, and there are different solutions. You may need to talk to the child's doctor to check what's common and what needs help.
  • If nightmares, worries and bad dreams persist, it's important to see if a child's fears need other attention. (Is the child troubled by family stress, school problems, or trauma?)
  • Keep an eye out for too much or too little sleep. Then pay attention to the cause. The problem may be that the child needs more sleep. But for older children, it could be a sign of emotional problems.
    By Robin Goodman