Getting young children to sleep — and stay asleep — is one of the most daunting tasks of parenthood. Even parents of “good” sleepers face nap time or bedtime struggles occasionally. In fact, up to a third of children suffer from some sort of sleep problem.
Our experts have identified six common mistakes parents make when it comes to their kids’ getting good shut-eye. But the good news is, these mistakes can be turned around without too much trouble. Children’s sleep experts and veteran parents alike confirm that simple changes to sleep routines and environments can make a big difference in preventing or correcting common sleep difficulties.
And once you’ve achieved success — meaning your child goes to bed on time and stays asleep all night — you’ll not only have a happier, well-rested child but a happier, better rested family, too.
1. Mistake: Putting children to bed too late
School-age children get, on average, more than an hour less of sleep a night than children did a century ago, and kids sleep less these days than their parents did growing up. “In infancy and throughout early adolescence, children today get less sleep than they did in the mid ’70s and ’80s,” says Marc Weissbluth, pediatrician and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. The result of later bedtimes, Weissbluth says, is more bedtime battles, nap difficulties, and night waking.
Maybe you don’t have your infant or toddler on a regular sleep schedule or you don’t have much time with her after work, so you keep her up a little later to play. “Letting children go to sleep too late as babies and toddlers creates overfatigue,” says social worker Jill Spivack, cocreator of The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep from Birth to Age 5. “When they become overtired, they have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep, and they get up earlier than if they were put down at an appropriate time.”
In preschool and elementary school, a jam-packed schedule with multiple sports or after-school activities may cut into sleep time. “A lot of kids have too much to do,” says Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and coauthor with Judith Owens of Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep.
Think about it: By the time your whole family gets home, has dinner, does homework, and so on, sleep may become a forgotten priority. Or you might put off bedtime to avoid battles or in the hope that your child will crash, fall asleep without any intervention, and sleep in late. But this is folly, says Mindell, because when kids are overly tired, they get wired.
Good habit: Set regular bedtimes (and, if appropriate, nap times) and stick to them. And don’t wait until your kid is rubbing his eyes, yawning, or whining — that’s probably too late. Put him to bed earlier. Even 15 to 20 minutes of extra sleep can make a difference.
While every child is different, the National Sleep Foundation says that babies and toddlers typically need 12 hours of sleep during the night, preschoolers need up to 13 hours once they drop daytime naps, and older kids should get 10 to 11 hours. Figure out what time they need to be up in the morning and plan accordingly.
2. Mistake: Relying on motion
What parents haven’t breathed a sigh of relief watching their baby snooze in an infant swing or doze in the backseat of the car? Often these wonderful moments occur when you least expect it — and most need a break.
But some moms and dads fall into the trap of using motion to get their young kids to nap or fall asleep at night. “If the child is always sleeping in motion — in strollers or cars — he probably doesn’t get the deep, more restorative sleep due to the stimulation of motion,” says Weissbluth. He likens motion-induced sleep to the type of sleep an adult might get while flying in an airplane.
Good habit: Use motion for calming, not naps
Before you throw a tantrum at the notion of giving up the musical swing, listen to Weissbluth’s next bit of advice: It’s okay to use motion to soothe a cranky child. But once your child has fallen asleep, cut off the swing or park the stroller. “The child has better-quality sleep,” says Weissbluth. Guilt-free bonus: If you’re taking a long car ride and your child slumbers, just sit back and enjoy the moments of silence.
3. Mistake: Overstimulation in dreamland
Take the ubiquitous crib mobile (please): “I did what I thought all new moms are supposed to do — put a mobile on the crib,” says Kelly Ingevaldson, the mother of a toddler in Atlanta. But she soon learned that the mobile — with its rotating toys, sound, and lights — was too much of a distraction for her little one. “She wasn’t falling asleep with the mobile. There were so many bright colors, it was keeping her awake instead of teaching her it was nighttime.”
It’s not just babies who may be overstimulated at bedtime. If older kids have lots of toys in the bed or other distractions, they may not be getting the shut-eye they need.
Good habit: Keep it dark, and cut the action at nap time and nighttime
To maximize sleep, put infants and toddlers — who are too young to have developed nighttime fears — to sleep in nearly pitch-black rooms. “For babies to sleep well, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the darkest, the room should be an 8 or 9,” says Spivack. Use a fan or white noise machine to muffle any sounds from the street or the next room.
Older kids can have a soft night-light to soothe any fears, but no bedtime entertainment. Think long and hard before allowing a TV or computer in your child’s bedroom. Even kids who fall asleep with a favorite DVD on are probably losing a half hour or so of precious shut-eye — a loss that can affect their mood and behavior during the daytime — and it’s easier to keep the electronics out of the bedroom than negotiate the issue every night.
4. Mistake: Skipping the bedtime routine
With a baby, you might assume that a routine consisting of a bath, a book, and a lullaby isn’t yet necessary. But “having a series of calming, pleasing activities leading up to lights-out is very important,” says Judith Owens, director of the pediatric sleep disorders clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. It prepares your child for sleep, she explains.
Parents of big kids who used to have a bedtime routine may drop it because they mistakenly believe their child is too old or because they are too tired themselves to do it. But even adults benefit from having some kind of routine to wind down each night. “We can’t expect our kids to go from a busy day to lights off,” says Mindell. Plus, she adds, research has indicated that “school-age children who do not have a routine clearly do not get the sleep they need.”
Good habit: A comforting bedtime ritual
Regardless of your child’s age, the key is to have a predictable series of steps — or what Spivack calls “sleep cues” — that help him wind down from the day. For an infant, that might mean a simple change into pajamas and some cuddling; with older children, the routine might entail a bath, reading books, singing songs, or saying a prayer.
You can create your own ritual: “What we’re talking about is having consistent activities that happen in the same space, in the same order, at roughly the same time every night,” Spivack says.
5. Mistake: Inconsistency
A couple of times a week, when he’s really whiny, you lie down with your preschooler in his bed until he falls asleep. Or maybe you put your big kid down in his room but allow him to crawl into bed with you in the middle of the night.
The problem is not the sleep method but the inconsistent practice of it. Many parents don’t mind having their child in bed with them, but too often parents end up with a “family bed” that they didn’t plan on.
“Parents bring the child into bed but don’t want her to stay in bed with them,” says Owens. “The first couple of times the child gets up during the night, the parent will put her back in her own bed and around 3 a.m. let the child get into bed with them.” She says this scenario creates “intermittent reinforcement.”
“It essentially teaches the child to hold out and persist even longer, as she learns she will eventually get what she wants,” Owens explains.
Good habit: Set guidelines for where to sleep
Although it’s best to decide whether you want a family bed early on, it’s never too late to establish rules. Karen Tinsley-Kim of Oviedo, Florida, has a 3-year-old son who recently started waking up at 11 p.m. a few nights a week and finding his way into his parents’ bed. After a couple of months of night visits, sleep deprivation spurred Tinsley-Kim to take action.
Once Tinsley-Kim laid down the law, her preschooler stayed in his room. “I wouldn’t let him out of his toddler bed, telling him as gently but firmly as I could that it was time to sleep, and it was time to sleep in his bed,” she says.
There are exceptions, of course. If your child gets sick or is afraid of a loud storm, feel free to comfort him by staying with him in his bed or sleeping on an inflatable mattress in his room. But as soon as the illness passes or the storm subsides, return to your usual routine.
A child who has had the comfort of snuggling with Mom or Dad might protest, of course. In that case, Mindell suggests taking a few days to slowly ease yourself out — perhaps by standing in the doorway until your child falls asleep for a couple of nights before leaving altogether.
6. Mistake: Going from a crib to a big bed too early
Your child turns 2 — what a big guy! — and you want to celebrate by buying that cute toddler bed you saw on sale. But as soon as you make the switch, he starts getting up after lights out or waking up in the wee hours.
Why? Before the age of 3 or so, many kids are just not ready to leave the crib behind. “They don’t have the cognitive development and self-control to stay within the imaginary boundaries of a bed,” says Mindell.
Good habit: Wait till your child is ready for a big bed
When a child is close to 3 years of age, it might be time to move him to a bigger bed. Might is the operative word: If your preschooler has difficulty staying in bed at that age, you can always give it more time.
Much like temporarily going back to diapers after a few disastrous attempts at potty training, returning to a crib is not a failure. “If it’s not working out, there’s nothing wrong with switching back,” Mindell says. Your child will eventually be able to handle a big-kid bed — and may even ask for one. “There’s no child going to kindergarten who is still sleeping in a crib,” says Mindell.
For help deciding if the time is right, read our tips for when and how to make the switch.