By Kim West, LCSW-C, The Sleep Lady®
All of the energy and independence of a preschooler can either snowball into a bad situation at bedtime or be deftly managed to become a peaceful path toward slumber.
I’m just going to assume you want a peaceful bedtime routine for the sake of this article (no one wants to deal with preschooler bedtime battles). While this can seem overwhelming, it’s really all about having a good, flexible routine and sticking to it.
If You Want to Eliminate Preschooler Bedtime Battles, Start With A Consistent Routine
Even if you have never had a solid bedtime routine for your preschooler, there is no time like the present to start one. Getting used to a new routine will take a few days for your child to adjust to. Your child should adapt quite quickly and will soon crave the new routine.
If you forget or try to skip a step one night, you will probably hear about it! This is because consistent routines provide a sense of security, stability, and safety for young children. When a child has the sense that he can predict what comes next (even if he puts up a fuss about it), he feels a little more in control of life. It is the opposite of chaos for them.
Keeping to a set bedtime routine will also provide the structure you need when you are exhausted. At the end of a long day, you will appreciate a chart (either a mental list or one hanging on your wall) that tells YOU what the next step is! Soon, you will also be able to use the routine as a gentle guide away from anything NOT on the list.
“Sweetie, I would love to see all of your mega block creations but we cannot do that right now. Let’s look and see what is next on your chart. When you wake up in the morning we can look at those wonderful creations!”
The Elements Of A Great Bedtime Routine
Think about the basics first:
- teeth brushing,
- a potty stop,
- comfort (snuggles and bedtime kisses),
- getting tucked into bed, and
- lights out.
Now back up from there and add in the things that are important to you and your child. Do you want to include a time to pick up toys? This is a terrific habit for your child to learn. But it may or may not fit into your bedtime routine.
Should you put a bedtime snack on the chart? This may help a child who tends to get in bed and declare he is “hungry.” Nothing will derail a good bedtime groove like a whining, hungry child in bed. If they have had a healthy snack and some water then you know that their declaration of hunger or thirst is either a stalling tactic or something they just need to deal with till breakfast comes along! Having a small bedtime snack just makes it easier to say, “No, you had your snack and now it is time to settle into bed.”
To Bathe Or Not To Bathe, That is The Question
Bath time is not a calming event for some children because they have a fear of water on their heads or they play so excitedly in the bathtub. But, it is a classic element of a soothing bedtime routine for many. If it does not work for your child, don’t sweat it. Just find a better time to fit it into your days.
Fluids and Bedtime
If your child tends to wet the bed, often has a leaky diaper, or gets up to go potty in the middle of the night, it is a good idea to limit liquids of all kinds after dinner time. But this means that it is super important to hydrate them during the day.
Then, at bedtime, you can possibly have one small dixie cup of water available in the bathroom. When it is empty they are finished drinking for the night.
Power Down For Better Sleep
Helping your child wind down from the day is important. Power down or turn off all electronic devices for your child an hour before bedtime. This may feel like a hard rule to follow but if you give it a try you will see a difference in your child’s ability to calm himself down for bed. It is not a cure-all for every bedtime woe, but it certainly is an important factor backed up by good science.
Some studies have shown that tvs, laptops, and even our small electronic devices emit sufficient light to miscue the brain and promote wakefulness. They can throw off our circadian rhythms enough to disrupt sleep patterns, especially in children.
It is tempting to think of gadgets for children as a help in our parenting. But after dinnertime they could be a hindrance to your bedtime goals. Power down in order to get to sleep on time.
The Human Touch
Almost all children prefer to snuggle and be close toward bedtime. I think that some of your best parenting memories can be made during this time of your day. Find a spot that is easy to transition them from snuggling to their bed. Maybe it is on your bed or a couch nearby. Once you find a good spot, stick with it. The consistency will help you keep to your routine. Then be sure you snuggle, hug, cuddle, and let your child hear your words of love and affirmation.
Read Aloud and Make Some Memories
Bedtime is synonymous with reading books for many families. Let your child choose a favorite book or two (not the longest ones) and read aloud to them in a gentle voice. Save the scary stories and dramatic voices for daytime! In preschool, children learn so much through repetition. They are actually geared toward repeating the very stories they love the most because with each reading they are learning more and cementing the concepts in their minds. At bedtime I recommend going with the book that seems the most comforting to them, even if you feel like a droid repeating the same thing over and over again!
As your child(ren) approach elementary school age you can choose a longer chapter book and read a chapter or part of a chapter each night. Your children may begin to look forward to bedtime in a new way at that age because they want to hear what comes next! If this reading time takes on a life of its own (too long for bedtime or too much excitement), you may want to move it to earlier in the evening in the living room and then shorten the bedtime routine.
Make a Final Pit Stop
If you like to read to your child before bed, take a moment for a final bathroom break and a final sip of water from the dixie cup (if that applies). After this point you will just need to use your parenting wisdom to determine if your child really needs to go potty again or is looking for an excuse to get out of bed!
Slip Into a Cozy Bed
Lastly, you tuck your child into their bed. Be sure the sheets are tucked in properly, the covers suit the temperature, the room is dark enough, and the closets closed (trust me on this one)! As an aside, the cleaner and neater the room is, the better for settling their minds at night. Granted, some children will not care about neatness for many years but some do care and may not be able to verbalize their preference at a young age. Say 1-3 positive things about your day….studies also show ending your day on a positive note is a good thing!
Give hugs and kisses, maybe sing a short song, and say goodnight. Beginning and ending the day with your child creates a safe and secure environment for them. If at all possible, have each parent say goodnight even when one parent is shouldering more of the routine load.
A Sample Routine
- Bedtime snack
- Pick up toys
- Put on pajamas
- Brush teeth
- Read a book
- Bathroom break
- Slip into bed
Make sure all of the harder tasks happen before the reward of reading and snuggling and singing! This will help you keep them on track if they tend to get distracted.
The Sleep Lady Shuffle
If you stick to a new bedtime routine for a few weeks your child is struggling to go to sleep, you can revisit The Shuffle. Take care not to linger too long in one spot by moving every three days. See my book if you need a refresher on how to implement The Shuffle for preschool-aged children.
Use a Sleep Manners Chart
If your child loves stamps and stickers, consider making a sleep manners chart. You can do this easily, and involve your child. Choose 3 to 4 sleep manners, and word them in a positive manner, such as “stay in your own bed all night long”.
At bedtime, draw attention and talk about your child’s chart, even if they seem to be “tuning out.” Be clear about the behaviors you wish to see more of. In the morning, make sure that you supply plenty of hugs and praise in addition to the stickers or stamps.
From The Sleep Lady: The role of the sleep manner chart is to set expectations and review the behavior you and your child are working on to improve or change. I realize that stickers and stars in and of themselves is not enough motivation to change a child’s behavior, but using the chart as reinforcement is a good way to remind you both of how bedtime looks.
Stick With It
My best advice for you is to stick with the routine you develop. Tweak it as you need to, and flex when life dictates, but don’t abandon it when it seems inconvenient. Finishing the day well with your preschooler is very important to them and how they sleep each night. You are helping them settle down and enter into restful, deep sleep more quickly than they would without the comfort of a routine.