Susan Bartell, Psy.D.
Of all the struggles parents can have with their kids, I’d say insufficient sleep is the most common. Children need a lot of sleep (see the box below), and very few get enough. And when they don’t, it affects every aspect of their lives—from the toddler who can’t control his behavior to the adolescent who has trouble concentrating in school. Often it can look like a child is having a major physical or emotional problem when the real culprit is lack of sleep.
And this in turn can affect the whole family. Parents have no alone time because the kids are going to bed late or the parents are spending two hours getting them to sleep every night. And if one sibling has a hard time going to sleep and the others don’t, those kids can become resentful because the one sibling gets so much attention. The “good sleepers” might begin to act out or even develop sleep problems of their own.
The fact is that the ability to soothe oneself to sleep is a life skill that children need to learn, starting in infancy. The first, and most frequent, way kids learn how to self-soothe is through sleep—and children who learn this skill are then better able to soothe themselves in other aspects of their lives, like when they don’t get chosen for a sports team or have an argument with a friend. My advice for being your child’s sleep teacher:
We all want to comfort our children when they cry, but when parents jump in every time their baby cries during the night, they’re taking away an opportunity for the baby to learn how to self-soothe.
The Ferber method (or “crying it out”) causes some parents anxiety because they feel they’re abandoning their child in a time of need. But even if you don’t feel comfortable with this approach—and many parents don’t—you do need to find a way to gradually teach your child to get back to sleep. Once your pediatrician tells you your baby is old enough to sleep through the night without a feeding, you can start by letting him cry for a couple of minutes before comforting him. And then gradually increase the time. Remember: Babies cry for a lot of reasons, sometimes just because they’re bored. So when they cry it doesn’t always mean they have a specific need that you can or must take care of.
Watch the clock.
Parents have good intentions when it comes to bedtime, but often the goal of getting the child to sleep by 8 or 8:30 is out the window by the time it arrives. Maybe something happens with one of your other kids or you get a phone call. Or you just don’t want to be the mean guy and make your child go to bed. As hard as it is to stick to that schedule, you really are doing your kids a favor if you do!
Have a relaxing routine.
After dinner kids should take a nice warm bath or shower, talk quietly, read a book, or even play a low-key board game. Keep things calm and pleasant, and avoid arguments before bed. If you’re upset about something your child did, discuss it earlier in the day or wait until morning.
Limit screen time.
Allowing too much screen time at night is a big issue—both because TV time can push into bedtime and because of how the light from the screen affects melatonin production, which can keep kids from getting tired. They should stop using electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed.
Don’t hold on for your own sake.
As kids get older, they should be able to get themselves to sleep without the nightly routine. Some parents feel conflicted about their kids’ growing independence—they love those sweet nighttime moments and are reluctant to give them up. I’m a parent too, so I understand this desire! But the important thing to remember is that getting to sleep is a vital life skill—and the best thing that can happen is for your child to be able to handle it on his own.
Susan Bartell, Psy.D., a member of KIWI’s editorial advisory board, is a nationally recognized psychologist and award-winning author. She treats children and families in her private practice in Port Washington, New York.