Q. How do I get my three-year-old to sleep when she is put to bed?
Bedtime is 7:30pm but she can stay awake until 11pm some nights even after we’ve had a busy day. She does play for a bit at bedtime and other times she will sit chatting to her teddy or reading a book in the dark! She shares a room with her six-year-old sister, as we don’t have an extra room. There are times both girls play a little at bedtime but the six-year-old is generally asleep fairly quickly. Both children wake between 7:30am and 8:30am. My three-year-old stopped napping at aged two.
Unfortunately you can’t make a person sleep. With children in this age group you want them to have healthy sleep habits; to fall asleep independently and in a timely fashion. To help this happen you need to create the right environment at the right time.
Your daughter seems to finds it difficult to switch off. This is creating an overtired cycle, with a late bedtime asleep and a normal wake time, which means that some nights she is only getting 7-9 hours overnight when she will probably need 10.5-12 hours. With a child stuck in a late sleep phase and becoming increasingly overtired, you will need to concentrate on a few key areas detailed below:
– A regular wake time of 7.30am, despite the time she went to sleep. This will reset the body clock and help establish an age appropriate bedtime of ideally in bed asleep between 7-8pm.
– Ensure high level activity, ideally outdoors, weather permitting, for about one hour a day between morning and afternoon.
– Observe a healthy balanced diet, reducing and eliminating processed or high sugar orientated food. Make sure vitamins are taken first thing in the day. Avoid eating food too close to sleep time.
– Stay well hydrated to assist production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
– Minimise screen/electronic media time, especially in the two hours or one hour at the very least before bedtime to help the brain relax in advance of sleep. This action alone can correct a late sleep phase.
– Make sure both girls have ground rules for room sharing. For example no talking or playing once lights out. Both ladies need to co-operate here.
One hour before bedtime, wind the house down. Darken the rooms, turn down the lighting. Give your child a 20-30 minutes wind-down in the bedroom, timed so that she is not becoming overtired in advance of bedtime.
At the start I would begin this practise by 6.30pm aiming for her to be asleep between 7-8pm. This time should be spent in the bedroom and again needs to be low key: close curtains, dim lights, get into sleep clothes. Read stories and chat about the day; all outside of the bed. Some gentle stretching exercises can also help wind her down and prepare her body for sleep.
Once lights out time arrives, then you should encourage no more talking or playing. You may need to remove the distractions to facilitate cooperation. Make sure the room is dark enough.
Making all these changes nearly always help sleep to come sooner and more easily for a child. It won’t happen immediately, but over three to four weeks you are likely to see an improvement.
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children.