Child sleep: Put preschool bedtime problems to rest

Learn what to do about bedtime problems for preschoolers, kids ages 3 to 5. Your whole family might end up getting a better night's sleep.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

You're past middle-of-the-night feedings and diaper changes. But a good night's sleep is still out of reach for your 3- to 5-year-old. Maybe bedtime has turned into a battle of wills. Or maybe you're having trouble getting your little one to stay in bed all night.

Put the most common bedtime problems to rest with these tips.

The problem: Bedtime is chaos

The scenario: You feel rushed or stressed when you put your child to bed.

The solution: Set up a calming bedtime routine for you and your child. The routine could include anything that calms down your child. Some ideas are to:

  • Give your child a bath.
  • Read stories.
  • Talk about the day.
  • Play soothing bedtime music.

About an hour before bedtime, it helps to turn off any electronic devices that you let your child use during the day. That includes tablets, TVs and other devices with screens. It's a good idea to keep these devices out of the bedroom too.

Also, you might want to put off any playtime before bed. Active play, such as running around, can boost a child's energy.

Tuck your child into bed drowsy but awake. Then say good night.

Try different things to find a routine that works best for you. Once you choose a routine, follow it every night. Try to keep the bedtime at the same time each night too. This will help your child know what to expect and set up healthy sleep patterns.

The problem: Your child doesn't want to go to bed

The scenario: It's bedtime, but your child wants to stay up.

The solution: Try to keep the entire home quieter and calm in the evening. Your child might be more willing to go to sleep if everyone in the family slows down before bedtime.

But your child will probably want to stay up if your child can hear talking, laughing or sounds from other rooms.

Letting children stay up too late often makes them feel more energetic. But they could end up tired and groggy the next day. Kids 3 to 5 years old need to sleep for about 10 to 13 hours a day, which includes naps. Children at these ages often wake up early in the morning. That's why an early enough bedtime is very important to make sure they get enough sleep.

Try to be firm if your child doesn't want to go to bed. Calmly let your child know that bedtime means bedtime. Be consistent about it too.

The problem: Your child stays up too late

The scenario: Your child's bedtime is 8:30 p.m. But by the time your child is ready to sleep, it's usually past your own bedtime.

The solution: If your child isn't tired at bedtime, daytime naps might have something to do with it. Try to keep naps at least four hours apart. And don't let your child nap late in the day.

Try to get your child to nap, go to bed and wake up around the same times each day too. Many children give up naps at some point during this time period.

The problem: Your child won't fall asleep alone

The scenario: Your child wants you to stay in the room until your child falls asleep.

The solution: Help your child feel secure. Start with a calming bedtime routine. Then offer a favorite stuffed animal, blanket or toy. Make sure the item doesn't have buttons, loose ribbons or other things that a child could choke on.

Turn on a night light or leave the bedroom door open if it will help your child feel secure. Then make sure your child is safe and well.

After you take those basic steps, you can try one of a few different ways to help your child get used to falling asleep alone. Choose a method that you can do each night. Any of these methods will only work if you can stick with it:

  • Leave the room. If your child calls out to you after you leave or during the night, you can try to let them figure out how to get to sleep.

    If you keep returning to their bedside or if you climb into bed with them, that might be what your child remembers. And they may expect you to do the same thing the next night.

    You can try to wean your child from your support. Each time you check on your child, wait longer before you go into the bedroom. Keep the visit to a minute or two. You can reassure your child and give a light pat, but no cuddling.

  • Use "bedtime fading." If this doesn't work, you could try a method that's almost the opposite. It's known as bedtime fading.

    You start by putting your child to bed a bit later than usual, when your child is sleepy. If the child falls asleep at the later bedtime, put the child to bed earlier over the course of a few weeks. Have your child wake up at the usual time throughout this process.

    If your child doesn't fall asleep quickly at the later bedtime, you could try taking your child out of the bedroom for 15 to 30 minutes before you put them back to bed. This might help your child link the bedroom with sleep.

  • Sit farther away. For this technique, you sit near your child and give calm comfort until the child is asleep. Over the course of weeks to months, you move the chair you sit on father away from the bed, until it's out of the room.

Whichever method you choose, be aware that your child's frustration may get worse before it gets better. That's why it's important to be consistent and stick to the method every night.

The problem: Your child won't stay in bed

The scenario: You put your child to bed, only to find the child trailing you down the hall.

The solution: If your child often gets out of bed to ask for water, a snack or a stuffed animal, start to take care of those needs during the bedtime routine. Let your child know what to expect. You could say, "This is the last snack for the night." Or "this is the last time to go potty."

If your child still gets up for these things, calmly take the child right back to bed. You may need to do that many times. And it's important for you to respond the same way each time.

You also can use the technique of sitting in a chair by your child's bed and slowly moving the chair out of the room over time.

The problem: Your child has a bad dream

The scenario: Your child has a nightmare and cries or gets upset.

The solution: Go to your child as quickly as you can and provide comfort:

  • Say that everything is OK.
  • Talk about the dream. Let the child know that dreams aren't real.
  • Let your child keep a light on if it lessens fear.
  • Try to lull your child back to sleep when the child is ready.

Nightmares are more common in school-age children, who are about 6 to 12 years old. But children who are younger than 6 also can have sleep terrors. These aren't the same as nightmares.

With sleep terrors, a sleeping child suddenly gets scared or panicked. The child might scream or sit upright in bed. Some children even jump out of bed. But most of the time, the child won't fully wake up or remember what was scary the next day.

If your child has sleep terrors, research suggests that you shouldn't try to wake your child up. Doing so could confuse or scare your little one even more.

The problem: You're frustrated with your child's bedtime problems

The scenario: You're tired of your child's whining, so you get angry with your child. Or you give up and let your child fall asleep in front of the TV or in your bed.

The solution: Bedtime battles can test your willpower. But you won't solve the problems if you give in to your child's demands or if you act annoyed or upset.

Try to remember that you're teaching your child an important skill, even if it puts your patience to the test.

When your child behaves well during bedtime, give a reward. For example, you could make a sticker chart to keep track of good nights. Set a bedtime or sleep goal that your child can reach. If the child meets the goal, add a sticker first thing in the morning. Over time, you can set bigger goals.

You also might wonder if there's an app that helps children get better sleep. The developers of many sleep apps say they aim to do that, but they often don't use methods that are backed by research. If you want to try an app, ask your child's health care provider to help you choose.

Some companies also make wearable sleep trackers for children. But many of these devices aren't meant to be used by kids under 5 years old. Wait until your child is older, and a tracker might help the child understand patterns of sleep.

Sleep trackers include devices worn on the wrist. They may be able to give you a sense of how long and how soundly someone sleeps. Trackers that measure movement and things like heart rate may give more-accurate results than do older trackers that measure only motion.

Still, some researchers say to be careful about reading too much into a sleep tracker's results.

Sleep is an important skill for your child to learn. The key is to find a bedtime routine that works. Then stick with it. The payoff will be a good night's sleep for everyone.

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Jan. 14, 2023 See more In-depth