Our five-year-old’s bedtime routine usually goes smoothly, at first. He's cooperative, but when it's time for lights out, the trouble starts. He just won't fall asleep. Some nights it takes an hour, sometimes two. He calls us into his room to bring him water, tuck him in again, or give another hug. It’s beyond frustrating. Help!
Almost every child has trouble falling asleep from time to time. But the nightly tuck-in shouldn’t leave you tuckered out. If your child regularly takes longer than 15-20 minutes to fall asleep at night, he’s trying to tell you something. It’s worth your time to figure out what’s going on.
Your first order of business is checking out your child’s bedtime routine. Is it truly routine, in every sense of the word? Your child’s brain is wired to associate a certain sequence of events with sleep. This is a scientifically-demonstrated phenomenon seen in both animals and humans. In the words of sleep specialist Dr. Susan Rausch, M.D., “A+B+C+D equals sleep.”
So, to make your bedtime routine effective, make it ironclad. Always do the same things, in the same order, spending roughly the same amount of time on each part of the routine, night after night. If you usually spend fifteen minutes reading stories, stick to that timeframe. Don’t swing between five minutes and forty-five minutes. If you usually brush your child’s teeth before stories but after snacktime, stick to that order.
But even the best routine won’t lull your child into dreamland if he’s not tired enough to fall asleep. Regular trouble falling asleep is a sign that bedtime may need to be adjusted. For children two and under, it’s usually a sign of overtiredness, and an indication that bedtime should be earlier. Many older toddlers and preschoolers, however, may need a later bedtime—or a shorter afternoon nap— in order to feel tired enough to zonk out at bedtime.
My advice: after examining and adjusting your nightly routine, get serious about when your child goes to sleep. Because your child is five, and can get by just fine without an afternoon nap, I recommend eliminating any naps he still takes. (For a child younger than four, I’d recommend shortening the afternoon nap, instead of eliminating it.) Then, move bedtime 30 minutes later for at least three nights to see if bedtime improves. If your child still has trouble falling asleep, or begins displaying signs of overtiredness, go the other direction: move bedtime earlier for a few nights. Yes, sometimes it’s trial and error. But your reward is a speedier bedtime and more time for yourself at night—a worthy goal, I’d say.
I also recommend checking out my ebook Ready, Set, Sleep: 50 Ways to Help Your Child Sleep, So You Can Sleep Too. It’s chock-full of ways to prime your child for sleep that will improve bedtime. And that makes everyone happier!