Ask Dr. Marla: Establishing Night-time Routines for Children

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I have three children, ages two, four and six, and lately none of them will sleep through the night. We are waking up in the morning with all three in our bed. The oldest and the youngest are the worst because they seem to crave human contact. They all have a regular bedtime routine, they all have a nightlight and we’ve tried everything from bribing them to putting a sleeping bag beside our bed to be used when they wake up and come into our room. How can I encourage them to stay in their own beds so we can all get some sleep?

A. You have established a night time routine with your children, which is important. As parents however, sometimes we have a difficult time at limit setting. These kinds of limit-setting problems usually happen after age two. Examples of limit setting would be a child who refuses to go to bed or stalls and makes it hard for you to leave the room. This kind of limit setting problems can happen when your child wakes up in the middle of the night as well.
It would seem that you have actually encouraged your children to come into your room by rationalizing why it is done (craving human contact) and putting a sleeping bag beside your bed which confirms to the children that it is OK to come into the room at night.
There is a disorder called behavioural insomnia of childhood. This disorder occurs in children who have no trouble falling asleep with an enforced bedtime but will stay awake as long as they can if the bedtime is not enforced. You may note that your child has a lot of stall tactics. Often as parents we allow the sleep patterns to occur and may not even know how it all began.
Somewhere along the way, you allowed the established behaviour to occur and now it has become a ritual.
Set firm limits. Sleep specialists talk about an awards system as an incentive or removing things the child enjoys if they cannot comply. Here the goals are outlined clearly to the child. A study reviewing all the current scientific research on behavioural insomnia published in the journal Sleep showed that 94 percent of studies found that behavioural treatments for bedtime problems are very successful. Speak to your doctor if these sleep problems persist.

Published in March 2011.

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