Solving Preschooler Sleep Problems

Sleep is a pretty precious commodity. Preschoolers need a lot of sleep in order to develop properly – but getting them to bed can sometimes be next to impossible. Some parents can get their child to sleep, only to have him or her waking through the night. Preschoolers can be notoriously early risers too (no matter what time they go to bed). All of this nocturnal activity adds up to some awfully tired – and desperate – parents. What to do?

A Southern Elephant Seal Yawning - Photographic PrintA harried mom of four preschoolers admits that her pre-kid corporate talent for brainstorming and coming up with creative solutions to complex problems has completely gone by the wayside. Why? With lack of sleep, she’s lost the ability to focus and think imaginatively.

Still, when your preschooler has trouble either getting to bed or staying there, it becomes imperative to problem-solve. The situation becomes especially acute if there are other preschoolers at home or you are unable to get a nap in during the day.

Sleep deprivation isn’t just about crankiness or loss of concentration, as if that weren’t enough. It can make you fat too. Really! A 2005 UK study shows there’s a link between preschoolers who don’t get enough sleep and obesity. Too little sleep actually changes their body mechanisms (and preschoolers can require up to twelve hours sleep in one 24-hour cycle). Adults getting less than five hours a night mess up their bodies as well, and even get false hunger signals sent from a tired stomach.

The Bedtime Routine

Most parents understand that children function best when they know what to expect. As your preschooler develops, the time s/he goes to bed will change. However, the routine shouldn’t alter much. Preferably wind up every evening with one or both parents involved in calming activities with the child such as reading stories or coloring together. A light snack, easy to digest with a small drink, bath time, and it’s off to bed.

You’ll need to be disciplined about it and aware of the clock. Preschoolers accept announcements like: “It’s seven-thirty. Would you like Daddy to read this book or would you like to color?” Always rushing the routine or starting it too late defeats the purpose. Once in a while, though, life will interfere and you can use that as a teaching moment. (“I know you’re sad we didn’t get to color together tonight, but we’ll do a special picture tomorrow morning.”)

Getting Out of Bed

There are many reasons why children wake up and get out of bed after falling asleep, and you’ll have to go through a process of elimination specific to your child.

By the way, if it’s simply a bathroom pit-stop, keep the nightlights burning instead of turning on the hallway and bathroom overhead lights. Hopefully your child won’t wake up completely, and you’ll be able to lead him or her straight back to bed.

However, if getting up has become a nightly practice, not related to being sick or having nightmares, review your preschooler’s pre-bed snack. It may be too large or energy-dense to encourage sleep. It might be something external, like the weather: a string of rainy days may mean your child hasn’t had the opportunity to run off all that preschooler energy, and so doesn’t need as much sleep as usual.

Perhaps your child, once awake, doesn’t know how to go back to sleep without your presence. If that’s the case, try using an object to replace you. One parent had great success when she gave her daughter a soft doll she’d owned as a child. Even if you haven’t got an old Raggedy Ann lying about, you can pick out a stuffed toy to be used just for that purpose.

If you’re too tired to implement any of the foregoing, take heart. You can’t get them to sleep now – but soon, when they’re teenagers, you won’t be able to get them out of bed til noon!