At 7:30 PM you hand-hold your preschooler to bed, give a kiss, turn down the light, and crack the door just enough to alleviate his aloneness. But how long before he’s at your knees begging he cannot sleep or wants a drink of water for what seems like the ten thousandth night in a row? You blow him another kiss and wish him a good night’s sleep — for his sake, you say to yourself, but in reality also for your own.
Most every parent has experienced the claustrophobic dread that takes over the room while trying to convince a child to lie down, close his eyes, and stay still long enough to fall asleep. We console and cajole, we beg and plead, but he is not at all compelled hearing about the importance of good sleep for his health and happiness tomorrow.
Evidence tells us that the impact of disrupted sleep can be extensive and follow a child through life. It can have deleterious effects on cognitive development, mood, and the ability to pay attention and behave. Studies show it may even impact parental health and well-being, as an infant or toddler who cannot sleep through the night is a potential cause of maternal depression.
There’s no doubt about it: Bedtime epitomizes all the demands and challenges inherent to parenting. We (hopefully) remain calm on the outside, churn on the inside and muster all of our resources only to discover, when nightfall calls, that once again we cannot control everything after all.
And yet, evidence also tells us that getting our little ones — even infants — to fall asleep by themselves and rest through the night is more than wishful thinking. We can actually influence the odds our children sleep well. It spite of concerns sometimes raised, sleep training itself has been shown to be not only safe for children’s emotional development but effective. It requires only two parental disciplines: Establishing a set routine and implementing it consistently
Researchers reporting in the journal Pediatric Sleep came to this conclusion after reviewing 52 studies involving various sleep-time approaches on more than 2,500 children from infancy to age five. They found that virtually all pediatrician-sanctioned approaches should work, even after just a few days. The one consistent finding was … consistency! As long as parents stick with a plan, no matter how challenging, most children develop healthy sleep habits.
To Sleep, Perchance to Sleep
Establishing consistent routines makes parenting easier. Any habit established in early childhood is likely to persist into adolescence and beyond. It is far easier to teach your toddler how to calm down and fall asleep than to convince a media-addled, sleep-deprived teen to turn it all off and get under the covers.
Establishing habits in children as early as possible is a parenting benchmark and a cornerstone of adult self-care. When children push nighttime boundaries, parents become chronically over-tired. That makes them less likely to maintain the necessary routines in the first place, which sets up a vicious cycle. He cries and pleads and we’re too tired to wait for it to stop. But “just tonight” does not mean much to a child, and joining you in bed or acting like a “jack-in-the-box” for two hours takes on a life its own.
Here are some guidelines for establishing a bedtime routine. As you will see, it all comes down to new habits and consistency.