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Make Your Kid's Bedtime Battle-Free

Experts share tips for establishing a bedtime routine for your children that will allow them to go to sleep easily.

Most parents can trade war stories about their kid's bedtime. Christine Althoff sits in her daughter Claire's doorway every night until she falls asleep. She's been doing this for more than five years.

Until her twin sisters were born, Claire, now 7, was rocked to sleep. In an effort to get Claire to fall asleep on her own, Althoff began sitting at her bedside every night. The doorway is as far as she got in trying to work her way out of her daughter's bedroom.

"I don't like it," says Althoff, a Little Rock, Ark. attorney, "but I know that I created it."

A battle-free bedtime is the goal of every parent, says Jennifer Waldburger, co-founder of Sleepy Planet, a Los Angeles-based child sleep consultation firm. She tells WebMD many parents fall short because they don't see the bigger picture.

The key in establishing a child's bedtime routine is to delineate between what your child needs and what she wants, she says. "What she needs is some time with you and good sleep. There's a whole war between a parent's head and heart that keeps them from doing [the right things]."

The stakes are high. Insufficient sleep not only affects a child's development, behavior, and emotions, says Waldburger, it has been linked to a greater incidence of obesity.

Here are 10 tips for creating a bedtime routine and ritual that can help take the battle out of your kid's bedtime.

Make Sure Your Child's Bedtime Is Early Enough

Parents will often tell Waldburger their child doesn't seem tired at bedtime so they allow him to stay up longer. Big mistake, she says. "Once a child is overtired, a stress hormone called cortisol is released, which makes it hard to settle in and causes a child to wake up more throughout the night and wake up too early [in the morning.]"

If your child is overtired, says Nicholas Long, PhD, a child psychologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, it may actually take her longer to fall asleep. Moving her bedtime up by 30 minutes may get your child to bed before she becomes overtired.

Keep Your Child's Bedtime Consistent

Don't stray too far from what you establish as the appropriate bedtime, says Waldburger. Consistency is crucial. That means that bedtime stays the same even on the weekends and during the summer when days are longer.

And when, as inevitably happens, your child does go to bed later than usual, try to get him up about the same time, says Long, who is also the director of the Center for Effective Parenting in Little Rock. It's important not to let your child sleep in sometimes and not others, so he doesn't start shifting his sleep pattern.

Let Your Child Wind Down

Just as adults can't go right from the busyness and activity of the day into sleep, neither can your child. She needs a transition to relax and settle down. "There should be no vigorous activity between a half hour and an hour before bedtime," says Jennifer Shu, MD, a pediatrician with Children's Medical Group in Atlanta. Shu is also co-author of Heading Homewith Your Newborn.

Establish a Routine for Your Child's Bedtime

Shu calls this the Four B's: bath, brushing teeth, books, and bed. The routine should start somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour before you want your child to be asleep, she says.

It's important that your child's routine be predictable, says Waldburger. Do the same things in the same order. "Over time, just doing the routine will make a child sleepy," she says.

And it works in reverse too. Soon, when your child feels tired, she will start asking for bath and books, Shu says.

With older kids, who get themselves ready for bed, Long suggests playing beat the clock. Make a deal with them that they if they get ready before the timer rings, they get an extra story or five extra minutes to read to themselves.

Offer Lots of Choices for Kid's Bedtime

Make them simple yes/no choices, though, not open-ended choices that will frustrate both of you, says Waldburger. The options are endless.

  • Would you like to skip or walk to the bath?
  • Would you like to wear the green pajamas or the blue ones?
  • Do you want to read two or three stories?
  • Would you like three kisses or five?

Take Charge and Set Limits

Children want us to run the show, says Waldburger. "A developmental task of a toddler is to push and test," she says, "Our job is to set healthy boundaries for them."Knowing that someone's in charge actually makes your child feel more comfortable." Children seem like they want the sun, the moon, and the stars," she says, "but when they get it, it's weird. It makes them feel unsafe when we don't set limits."

Too often, Waldburger says, parents worry that giving their child limits will upset the child and make them less close, but this isn't the case.

"Never once have I had a parent say that the child was less attached, less bonded [from the parents setting limits]" says Waldburger. "They always say the opposite. Once the child is getting that rest, [he or she is] thriving."

Provide a Transitional Object

Bedtime means separation andthat can be hard on a child.Help your child cope by finding something that can substitute as you when you leave the room, says Waldburger. Take your child to the store and pick out mommy bear (or whatever stuffed animal he or she wants). Have mommy bear help make dinner, take a bath, and read books. "Then at bedtime, you say, 'Mommy can't stay but mommy bear will be here with you,'" says Waldburger. "It gives a child a piece of you to help cuddle up with when you're not there."

Create a Comfortable Sleep Environment

Particularly for older kids, keep distractions out of the bedroom, says Shu. Electronics like TVs, video games, cell phones, and computers are sleep distractions and can be hard to control once you close the bedroom door.

Teach Your Kids to Fall Asleep on Their Own

Every parent knows this is the hardest job of all. But most sleep problems stem from this inability. Children associate certain conditions with being asleep, says Waldburger. During their lighter sleep phases, they will subconsciously check their environment for the same conditions they went to sleep with in the first place. If you were there when they fell asleep, they think you need to be there when they wake.

"The reason children wake up is not the issue," says Long. "The issue is learning to fall back to sleep on their own."

If children learn to fall asleep on their own, says Shu, then they'll be able to put themselves to sleep that way -- without going and waking you -- when they wake up in the middle of the night.

Be Consistent

When dealing with a sleep problem, many parents will do the same thing for several nights trying to create consistency, and then fall off. Sometimes, something comes up. Sometimes, the child has just been crying one minute too long and a parent just gives in and gives up.

"The consistency in their response to their child is the key," says Waldburger. It's like the slot machine effect, she says. Put in a quarter, get nothing. Put in a quarter, get nothing. Put in a quarter, get $50. Yeah, the child thinks. I'm going to try that again.

"It hardly ever happens that it takes one night of adjusting to change," she says. "But the consistency in your response will get your result more quickly. It is critical to minimizing the child's frustration and getting through the process quickly."

"It doesn't matter how far you've gotten off track," says Waldburger. "Just be consistent. Once you've set the boundary, they relax into it."

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