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How to Get Your Child to Sleep Through the Night

Jen Geller
June 27, 2018


Amanda, a Manhattan mom, appears to have it all: Two cute little girls, a great husband, and a job that she loves in public relations. What she doesn't have, nearly ever, is a decent night's sleep. "Our bedtime routine can take up to two and a half hours and our little one still wakes up several times a night - and she's 21 months," Amanda says.

Amanda may sound like you: Everything is great, except for the sleep. Parents who initially are experts in all things Ferber, Weissbluth, and Sears, a few years later wind up with kids with disastrous sleep habits. With hectic work schedules and desperate for sleep themselves, some parents become lax about enforcing healthy sleep routines, though extra help at night can help. Ambivalent feelings about crying-it-out or co-sleeping can also lead to problems. Whether you have succumbed to total zombie status or are just regularly sleep deprived, help is here.

Sleep Training Tricks

At first co-sleeping is cute and it stops the crying. The warm little bundle in pajamas settles down immediately after hitting the pillow--your pillow. Soon, you come to expect a miniature knee in your back every night and it's getting annoying. Dr. Dennis Rosen, associate medical director of the Sleep Disorders Program at Children's Hospital Boston offers some advice for those who want crowd control in bed.

  • Be on the same page

Make sure you and your partner agree that co-sleeping is not right for your family. It's vital to be consistent and unified. A younger child will not understand that it's ok to come in on a Friday night, but not a Monday. Setting limits and sticking with it will lead to success.

  • A Gate

Once the child is old enough for a bed, a physical barrier like a gate may be your best option to keep them in their room. Yes, screaming will likely ensue, so don't do this the night before a big presentation. Again, follow through. You likely aren't a big cry-it-out person since you are in this situation in the first place. What could take one family three days could take another two weeks.

  • Rewards

Dr. Rosen recommends giving stickers for how well the child does each night.  At the end of the week, tally-up the stickers and give a reward. It doesn't need to be anything extravagant. It could even be a hot chocolate from Starbucks. And one thing that you probably read in the baby books that still holds up when the kids get older: make sure the child falls asleep in his or her own bed.

Admit It: Your Sleep Routine is Ridiculous

Sleep routines often become too ritualized at home. Think of it as the lucky socks phenomenon; a player is sure he will lose a game if he isn't wearing his lucky socks. Families start to think the kids can't fall asleep unless they do the exact same thing each night. That's probably not true, but a couple of things to consider:

  • The time

7:30 may work for you for your child's bedtime. It may not work for your child. 

"The child may be getting too much sleep, especially if he or she takes a nap during the day. They may feel totally awake when you think it's time to go to sleep and they keep pushing the bedtime out longer," says Dr. Rosen. 

Having two different bed times could be hard if siblings share a room. Allow the older child to either read or play quietly in bed for a half hour, or allow some time with you outside the bedroom in pajamas, then he or she can slip into bed after the younger one is asleep.

  • Environment

Keep your evenings mellow and as routine as possible. Bright lights and excitement revive kids just as you want them to go to bed. Chill out. Consider moving bath time earlier if it just amps the kids up. The calmer the evening, the calmer the kid.

What's the Harm?

"Sophia tucks me in bed around 10 p.m. and then hangs out with her dad watching TV sometimes until 11. She wakes up at 7:00 am as a happy camper and is the easiest kid to be with all day. I attempted a normal bedtime routine many times, but an organized routine in the evening doesn't really work for our family," says Valerie, a New Jersey mom, of 3-year-old Sophia's unorthodox sleep habits.

You may be able to relate with kids and late bedtimes. Or, it could be that your child falls asleep watching TV every night, or uses a pacifier at night well past the age of one. These may be crutches or embarrassing habits for some, but other families say they work.  If everyone is happy, what's the big deal?

Dr. Rosen agrees.

"You have to ask yourself if normal is a sharp point or a spectrum? It's reasonable to have an unorthodox routine, so long as your family doesn't seem to be suffering and the kids are happy. Not everyone needs 8 hours of sleep."

Teen Trouble

Dr. Rosen cautions that older children and teenagers may be critically lacking in sleep. Up late doing homework then texting or on Facebook into the night, some teens don't go to bed until after midnight and have to be up for school early. This type of sleep deprivation may lead to weakened immune systems, poor concentration and even depression. While you can't force your teen to sleep, having a good discussion about shutting down for the night could help. Try to keep cell phones off of night tables and watch out for the blue glow coming from their rooms in the middle of the night.

Go to Bed, Already

Getting your kids to bed may never be that easy. But as the parent, you set the tone. Lonni, a Long Island mom of three says matter-of-factly, "I need 10-11 hours of sleep myself every night. I get in to bed and too bad for everyone else. It works.  They have no choice."

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