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Getting Your Preschooler to Bed

How To Ease The Struggle Of Bedtime For Your Preschooler

Three-year-old Cole Pheras isn't allowed any sugar after dinner. He has become accustomed to taking a bath at 7:30 each evening, followed by brushing his teeth, having a glass of water and sitting on the sofa to watch a little TV with Mom, Georgia, and Dad, Mark. "He is usually asleep within 15 to 30 minutes," says Georgia, 33, of San Diego, Calif. "Then Mark carries him to his bed."

Sounds simple, doesn't it? In a perfect world we would prepare our little ones for bed, tuck them safely under the covers in their own rooms, give them a kiss and greet them when the sun rises the next morning. However, parents of preschoolers know we do not live in a perfect world, and each family falls into a pattern that works best for their particular situation.

"Mark and I are very relaxed people, and we don't sweat the small stuff," says Georgia. For the Pheras' it is better and easier to have Cole blissfully drift off to sleep in a serene environment than to battle over bedtime; he falls sound asleep and is placed in his bed, all without a fight.

Combating Bedtime Battles

For parents at the end of a long day, bedtime battles are "a major thing," says Mary Hahn, director of Early Explorations, a private preschool in San Diego, Calif. Some parents may choose the easiest, most peaceful route to getting their preschoolers to sleep at night. Others have a nightly bedtime battle. According to Hahn, getting the children to bed benefits the whole family. "People want to spend quality time with their spouse (or partner) as well as with their children. How do you do that if the children won't go to bed?" says Hahn. Additionally, routines and schedules – including bedtime – provide security for children, says Hahn. Children thrive on knowing what comes next, and parental rules provide this predictability.

Many young children resist bedtime. "Bedtime is a time of separation (from parents) for children," says Hahn. "The best way to handle it is to establish a bedtime routine or bedtime ritual." According to Hahn, it is important for parents to warn children of the approaching bedtime in order to give the children time to transition, or to process the information. "Treat children in a respectful manner when it comes to bedtime and follow a ritual to prepare them," she says.

What should be done if the child simply won't accept lights out, begins to cry or will not stay in bed? Hahn, who raised her own children before returning to her teaching career in 1982, recounts the time when one of her young sons decided he did not want to stay in his bed when it came time for lights out. Hahn followed the ritual of putting him in bed, and then sitting on a chair in the doorway of his bedroom, reading a novel silently to herself, until he fell asleep. "It is important that you do not talk to the child. No conversation," she says. "If he won't stay in bed, calmly put him back in bed, and go back to reading the novel. Do this for about three nights, and the child will follow the bedtime rules on his own." This method has proven successful in the Hahn's preschool, as well. The children quickly learn the rule that a certain time is naptime, and they have the additional security of knowing that the teachers are unobtrusively nearby. "If a child is having trouble falling asleep, the teacher will sit next to that child, doing her paperwork or whatever, but not talk with the child."

Monsters Under the Bed

Preschoolers may come up with many excuses to avoid or prolong bedtime, including requests for glasses of water, insisting they are not sleepy, or expressing fear of monsters in the bedroom. Hahn suggests parents allow one drink of water, and whether the child feels sleepy or not, the rule should be that the child must stay in the bed and rest. "As for monsters, this can be a very real fear for a child," says Hahn. She suggests parents find creative ways to eliminate the fear, such as filling a spray bottle with water and spraying the room to get rid of monsters before bedtime. "Then there can't be monsters in the room because Mommy sprayed for them," she says.

Georgia Pheras had to get creative, too, when Cole suddenly became concerned about monsters under his bed. "We gave him a flashlight and we'd examine the whole room before bedtime, showing Cole that no monsters were there!" she says.

Daytime Naps

Should daytime naps be eliminated if the child is not sleepy at bedtime? "No," says Hahn. "I feel very strongly that children need naps until they are 5 years old. At school we shorten the nap time for pre-kindergarteners, but up until the age of 5, children need a nap time, even if they do not sleep." According to Hahn, eliminating the nap may make them wound up and unable to relax at bedtime, if they get into a pattern of go, go, go all day. She also suggests using the rest period as a time for children to use their imaginations. Hahn refers to the time as "white space." Naptime is the perfect time for children to investigate the inner workings of their minds.

While establishing a bedtime ritual might seem easier said than done, children thrive on routine and will eventually accept it if offered. The initial resistance can be overcome within a matter of days, if the parent remains calm and firm. A regular nap and bedtime schedule will result in happier, healthier preschoolers and peaceful evenings for the entire family.

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