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Putting Children to Bed: A Win-Win Proposition

When children fight sleep, it can be a recipe for disaster.

Putting Your Children to Bed: A Win-Win Proposition

Probably one of the most challenging things parents face is putting our children to bed.....and helping them stay there. When they are babies, they don't have a routine way of sleeping. But, as they get older, around six months or so, they start to sleep with a regular pattern, several times each day. By the time children reach elementary school, they usually go to bed, fall asleep, and sleep all night.

But, some children do not go to bed so easily. They fight sleep and get up again and again. They become crankier and crankier, as we become more and more frustrated. It's a recipe for disaster. We can easily forget that this exhausted, out-of-control tornado running down the hall is really just a very tired, little angel in disguise.

Four Tips to Help Children Stay in Bed

1. Don't give negative attention: Parents can become as lost as their children in the tussle over going to sleep. When we lecture or raise our voice ("I said, 'GO TO BED!'"), we might unintentionally reward our children with negative attention. I myself, even as a psychologist, must tap into my "wise" mind and remember the rule "All attention is attention." Children thrive on attention, so when parents pay negative attention to getting out of bed, they can accidently teach their children to keep getting up.

2. Separate your child from the behaviors: Sometimes my frustration gets the best of me, and I only see my children misbehaving. I forget to see them as the little children they really are. We all can be better parents when we remind ourselves that our little boy or girl is the baby we rocked to sleep not-so-long-ago.

I use two strategies. First, I pick up my children and rock them the way I did when they were young. Not only are our children reminded of the calm they felt as babies, but so are we as parents. It reverses the cycle of frustration, promoting calm instead.

Second, I refocus my thoughts by silently reciting the lyrics to "I Loved Her First," by Heartland: "But I loved her (him) first and I held her (him) first, And a place in my heart will always be hers (his), From the first breath she (he) breathed, When she (he) first smiled at me, I knew the love of a father runs deep." I focus my mind on the love I feel for my children. I shift my thoughts away from the out-of-bed behaviors, filling my mind with ideas about teaching my children to calm down and fall asleep.

3. Pull, don't push: In many martial arts, when someone attacks you, the idea is to pull their attack toward you and control their energy. The principal is also true for putting children to bed. When my children fight sleep, I do not fight back (push), I find some way to connect to them (pull). Often, they are not tired-being physically active in the winter is hard to do-so they are not physically ready to sleep. Instead of lecturing them about sleeping, keep them up a little longer by reading or playing with them. But-stay in their room while they tire themselves out.

4. Follow good sleep "hygiene" habits: As a parent, I teach my children to brush their teeth and blow their noses. Children learn good hygiene habits about health from us, and they can learn sleep hygiene too. The rules of sleep hygiene are simple: (a) keep the same bedtime every night; (b) follow the same schedule each night (for example, bath, PJs, story, bed); (c) keep the room dark and quiet; and (d) be calm to set a relaxing tone before sleep. As parents, we can use times when going to bed is tricky to reinforce the use of these hygiene habits-and teach a life-long lesson about how to go to sleep.

What Else could be the Problem?

Sometimes, problems with sleep can be a sign of something else. Sadness or worrying can cause a child to stay awake or wake up too early. I advise my patients to use books like "The Way I Feel" to help children learn to talk about feelings.

Other problems, like ADHD, can make it harder to fall asleep. Some children with ADHD have problems bringing themselves down slowly at night. For ADHD children, it is important to have plenty of physical activity, keep things calm, and teach good sleep habits.

Finally, frequent problems going to sleep, especially if your child can't sleep for hours each night, could be a sign of more serious problems. Children need sleep if they are tired, so hours of being awake at night, night after night, make a trip to the pediatrician worth it.

As with any physical health issue, it is a good idea to contact your pediatrician whenever sleep problems seem to persist. Your pediatrician is the best first step to finding the help you might need for a persistent and disrupted sleep pattern. The American Academy of Pediatrics has an excellent website for parents:

A Final Word from an Older Dad

As a psychologist-father, I would like to tell you that it is "easy" to handle my children refusing to stay in bed. Of course, I have the same frustrated reaction most of us have. I am tired by the end of the day (especially being in my 50s), so keeping calm is hard to do. But in the long run, I feel better at the end of the day if I teach my children, and myself, valuable lessons than can last a lifetime. No matter how old I get, it is never too late for me to learn a new trick or two.

More from Kevin D. Arnold Ph.D., ABPP
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