For this age group, the bedtime routine is typically the most challenging part of the day. Now that your child is older, you may want to modify her routine a little but make sure it remains soothing and predictable. Bedtime preparations should be in her room (or perhaps the early stage can be in a younger sibling's room), not all over the house. Include stories, songs, or games that soothe, not stimulate. Make sure the rules for how many stories, or how long you will read, are completely clear and nonnegotiable. Avoid wild, fast-moving games and scary stories.
Leave plenty of time, at least a half hour, for her to unwind, and to get the attention from you she needs. If you rush it, she'll be more likely to run out of bed or stall or manipulate you into staying longer. If she starts bargaining for an even longer time with you, more stories or more songs, blame the clock. Tell her the clock says you have to stop reading at eight, so you have 10 minutes. If two parents take turns at bedtime, you don't have to follow an identical script but you should have a similar routine, style, and response to bedtime power plays, fears, or manipulation.
It's often a good idea to warn your children a minute or two before lights out: "We have a few more pages in this book, and then Mommy is going to turn out the light." Sometimes they like to turn out the light themselves. It's another way they can "own" bedtime. You might want to blame bedtime on the clock."Oh, look! The clock says eight. Lights-out time. We can't read any more books tonight. We'll have to get upstairs earlier tomorrow night so that we can read more books."
If your child doesn't respond to the sight of numbers, you might try a clock radio or a timer. "Oh, the music went on" or "Oh, the bell rang, it's time for bed." If the clock ploy doesn't work, feel free to blame me! "It's eight. The Sleep Lady says we have to turn out the lights now." Some children will say, "I can't do it; I can't put myself to sleep." Explain that everyone has trouble going to sleep sometimes, even Mommy and Daddy, and then teach them some simple relaxation techniques and creative visualization. Children have such wonderfully active imaginations, they are actually better at visualization than we are. They may not understand the word visualization, but they certainly get pretend and imagine. They can learn how to think relaxing thoughts at bedtime, how to close their eyes and imagine playing at the beach, building a snowman, taking a summer walk with their cousins in Vermont.
Try to build on the images in their favorite illustrated book and have them imagine entering the book to play with the characters (as long as there are no scary themes). My own girls loved playing "in" Angelina Ballerina. The mouse house illustrations were so inviting and warm. Your children will come up with their own suggestions and will pleasantly surprise you with their creativity. You might also want to teach your child deep relaxation techniques, the kind you do at the end of a good exercise class or before going into labor! Have her relax her toes, her feet, her ankles, shins, knees, and so forth, all the way up her body. If you don't want to do this yourself, you can play a relaxation CD.
Children also like applying their imaginations to a dream agenda. "Tonight I'll dream about playing basketball." Or "Tonight I will dream about building a sand castle." Or "Tonight I will dream about being a beautiful ballerina." It helps them feel more in control of what happens to them after they fall asleep, particularly if they are worried about having nightmares. My "Dream Cards" (also on my website) might help children feel in control of their dreams. The cards guide children through a progressive relaxation exercise and have several images for dream ideas such as a tree house, a beach scene, a field of flowers, and a rainbow. I based them on my experiences with creating dreams with my own daughters.
The above is an excerpt adapted from the book The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight: Gentle Proven Solutions to Help Your Child Sleep Well and Wake Up Happy by Kim West, LCSW-C.
Copyright 2009 Kim West, LCSW-C with Joanne Kenen, authors of The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight: Gentle Proven Solutions to Help Your Child Sleep Well and Wake Up Happy.
Kim West, LCSW-C, known as The Sleep Lady, has helped thousands of tired parents gently teach their babies and children how to go to sleep and stay asleep. West has appeared on Dr. Phil, the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America, TLC's Bringing Home Baby, and CNN, and has been written about in a number of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Parents, Baby Talk, Parenting, the Baltimore Sun, USA Today, and the Washington Post.
In addition to The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight, West is also the author of 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies and the upcoming, Good Night, Sleep Tight Workbook.
Visit Kim West at www.sleeplady.com.
Joanne Kenen is a journalist, writer, and mother of two who met Kim West while seeking a remedy for her younger son's sleep difficulties. She graduated from Harvard, reported from Latin America, the Caribbean, New York and Miami, and is now a Washington-based writer, specializing in U.S. politics, health care and health policy. She lives with her family in the Washington, D.C. area.
For more information about the book, please visit www.goodnightsleeptightbook.com