Pre-School Children – Sleep Solutions

Most of us experience [and expect] sleepless nights with a small baby, but pre-school children often have difficulties with sleeping too.

Lots of pre-school aged children can’t get off to sleep alone or need to get into bed with a parent if they wake during the night.

Bedtime can become a time for everyone to dread, as children who don’t like to go to bed can get very upset when it’s time to say goodnight. They can put off going to sleep by using all kinds of delaying tactics. This is very hard on you when you know they’re tired and need to sleep. Also, you need some time to yourself in the evening to catch up with jobs, relax or just “re-boot” for the following day!

Over time, late nights and poor sleep habits can cause real problems for both your child and you.

Taking a long time to fall asleep

The major sleep problem for children in this age group is taking forever to fall asleep! Often they will need a parent to sit beside them too. Parents, who know that it takes their child a long time to fall asleep, often put them to bed very early. This is to give them the time that they need to go through the usual curtain calls, procrastinations and negotiations before eventually falling asleep. 

Although that approach might seem to make sense, it often compounds the problem. It can lead to a situation whereby a child goes to bed and doesn’t expect to go to sleep. They start to associate their bed with wakefulness, messing about, tears and procrastination.

Sleep biology

Young children are naturally ready to settle down for the night usually between about six and eight pm. To help them settle, they need to have been awake long enough to have built up sleep pressure. They also need to be producing plenty of melatonin, the sleep hormone. However, sometimes behavioural factors can override biological ones. If a child has built up a strong association with being awake in bed, then even if they are very tired, they will struggle! 

So why does this bedtime/sleep delay happen? Here are the main reasons:

  • Fears and anxiety
  • Delay in their production of Melatonin
  • Napping  – too long, too late or when they’re too old for a nap and an early bedtime.
  • Testing the limits and boundaries

If your child is frightened of going to sleep alone, please read my blog about children’s bedtime fears and anxiety.

Getting biology on their side

If your child does not seem to be anxious about getting to sleep and hasn’t expressed any fears about monsters or other things, but still takes a long time to go to sleep, there are a few very practical things that you can do to help them. The most important thing is to really encourage the plentiful production of their natural sleep hormone, melatonin. Here are some ways of doing this:

Exposure to daylight, especially pre-noon, will set your child’s internal circadian clock to sleep at night and increase their melatonin production.

Have your child’s bedroom as dark as possible, but if they need a night light, choose a dim one with a red glow.

Avoid too much screen time, particularly in the evening before bed. Lots of children will watch a little bit of gentle TV after dinner, almost as the beginning of their bedtime routine, and this is fine. Make a point of turning screens off before bedtime though. 

Don’t let them take a screen device to bed with them for distraction. It will only keep them awake for longer.

Recently, it has been suggested that having a warm bath promotes the production of melatonin. Even if it doesn’t, a warm bath is still a great sleep cue.

Give your child food which is rich in tryptophan, such as milk, cheese, tuna, turkey and bananas! Tryptophan is an amino acid which helps to make seratonin [another sleep hormone as well as a “feel good” hormone] and also, melatonin.

Avoid sweets and sugary drinks.

Napping and bedtime sleep

If your child is coming up to the age of three, and can only settle to sleep at a reasonable time when they haven’t had a nap, and yet without the nap, they are exhausted and tearful before bedtime, then you are in something of a dilemma. 

Be assured that this tricky period won’t last for long. They will soon build up enough stamina to be able to miss the nap and make it till bedtime. Until they do, you will need to consider having two different bedtimes. Have a 6pm [ish] bedtime when they haven’t napped and an 8pm [ish] bedtime when they have. 

Yes, all of the advice will tell you that a regular bedtime is important for a child’s sleep. To a large extent this is true, but respecting their own timing is also very important. It’s not fair to push a child on to their “set” bedtime when they haven’t napped and are on their little knees with exhaustion. Neither is it helpful to put them to bed when have napped and they are not tired enough to sleep again. This, as we know can lead to bedtime resistance, tears and conflict.

While it’s fine to vary the bedtime according whether they have napped or not, it is good to encourage some regularity by waking them at roughly the same time each morning, if they haven’t woken up of their own accord. And then get them out in the morning to benefit from that morning light exposure!

Testing the boundaries – “I don’t want to go to bed!”

One of the most common reasons why children resist going to sleep at bedtime is simply because they don’t want to. They don’t want to stop what they are doing, and the fun that they are having. They may be sufficiently tired and biologically ready to sleep, and they may have had a lovely, familiar bedtime routine, but because they are tired, they are struggling with controlling their emotions around being made to “switch off” for the day.

This is where loving boundaries really come into their own. Letting your child know what the boundaries are, without telling them off or making them feel humiliated, is the best possible way to manage bedtime resistance and challenging behaviour. Bedtime is the time of day when the way that you communicate with your child really matters most. It is also the time when you are tired you might not be feeling able to be super positive. 

a mother with her kid in kitchen

How to manage bedtime

  • Have a few minutes of precious “you and me” time, cuddling/reading or chatting together before starting the bedtime routine. You might have to share this with more than one child, and it will still be lovely!
  • Follow a predictable bedtime routine with a clear and recognisable series of steps leading up to bedtime. 
  • The sequence is more important than the timing. So you can start the routine about half an hour before you feel your child is ready to sleep. You don’t have to have a time that is set in stone.
  • Don’t let your child become over tired, as this makes them even less able to manage their emotions. It’s more likely that they will have a tantrum when they’re very tired.
  • Give them warnings about what’s happening next – for example, “Five more minutes drawing and then it’s bath time.”
  • Give directions rather than ask questions. Instead of “Would you like to clean your teeth?” Say, “Let’s clean your teeth now!”
  • Don’t ask your child to do more than one thing at a time. Saying, “Put your toys away, come for your bath and bring your teddy” is too much! 
  • Start with “Put your toys away, my love” then stand quietly, watch and wait until they move towards doing it. It might take a while for them to do as you ask, but try just waiting it out, standing very still and not repeating the instruction. As soon as they start to move towards picking up a toy, you can start the warm praise, saying something like, “Brilliant! What lovely tidying!” 
  • If you haven’t got time to wait, then you can say, “I can help you, then.” Tidy up together and praise them when they put something away. Try not to behave in a cross and sulky way that mirrors their own behaviour. Remember that you are the grown up and you are in charge.

Tantrums

  • If they have a tantrum, realise that tantrums are a normal part of their development at this age, and it is not their fault. Stay quiet but present until it passes over, then give them a cuddle, reassure them that they are ok and carry on with the routine. 
  • During any bedtime tantrums, don’t raise your voice over theirs. If you start shouting, your child will feel even more out of control. Don’t ask them any questions, or try and appease them with suggestions like, “Do you need a drink/a biscuit?” If they are having a tantrum because you’ve said that they can’t have something or do something, try not to give in. If you do this, you will teach them that having a tantrum is the way to getting what they want.
  • If they are not having a tantrum but simply don’t want to have a bath/clean their teeth/put their pyjamas on it’s ok, so long as you feel in charge, to say, ”Just have a little paddle in the water then.” Or, “Just a lick of the toothpaste, then, tonight!” Or “OK, a nappy and cuddly blanket it is!” This might look like giving in, but another way of looking at it is as you granting permission. Quite honestly, with little children, you need to ask yourself how much their refusal to co-operate in a particular situation matters. If their refusal is about something relatively minor, then rather than having an unnecessary battle, at the end of which they are humiliated and you feel awful, it is better sometimes to accept their refusal with grace, as the kind and loving adult. You are there to guide them and nurture them, but you don’t want to be constantly on their case, denying their individual preferences.
  • Remember always that you are the adult, and try not to respond to them as an equal. If they hit or bite you, they are struggling with their feelings. Don’t hit or bite them back as a way of showing them how it feels to be hit or bitten. It is much better to tell them that you don’t want them to hit or bite you. Restrain them from doing it again, tell them, “You must be feeling very upset if you want to bite me.” Recognise that it is just them feeling tired/overwhelmed/frustrated. 

Young children struggle with stopping one activity and moving on to another. You’ll see this difficulty played out many times during the day, and bedtime is often the toughest transition of the day. This is case for children and parents alike and if you can be the leader, keeping them safe and guiding them, then their bedtime will be calmer, quicker and more enjoyable.

Putting them to bed and saying goodnight

Because sleep happens in cycles and it’s normal to wake up during the night, children need to fall asleep alone. If you’re sitting beside them as they fall asleep, they will notice your absence when they wake and you’re not there.

Here’s how to put them to bed and leave.

Help your child to bed. Have a loving cuddle and introduce a spoken goodnight ritual. Kiss goodnight, tell them you’re going to do some jobs and will come back to check on them. Then go but leave their door a little bit open! 

If they’re not happy about you leaving, let them hear your voice outside. You can make a fake phone call if you like. 

Return every 2 minutes to praise and briefly reassure them. 

If your child gets out of bed, put them back again and leave as quickly as you can. If they seem frightened, you need to remain calm. Explain that you are close by, can hear them  and will come back to see them in a few minutes. 

Make sure that you do go back; your child needs to trust you. Praise them for staying in bed and if necessary, keep going back until they fall asleep during one of your absences. 

If they try to delay you by asking for more cuddles/stories/food or wanting to talk to you, you need to kindly and firmly say, “We’ll talk about that/do that/see to that etc. in the morning” then leave with confidence and do go back several times and praise them if they are laying nicely in bed. 

If they won’t go back to bed, you can try the “Standing Quietly” technique that I describe in my book, Gentle Sleep Solutions for Toddlers. 

Remain standing quietly in the room with them. Tell them just once to go to bed and then wait in silence until they move towards the bed [it might take a while!] Don’t repeat the instruction, but you can say, “I’m waiting, my love.” Then when they show even the slightest signs of going back to bed, praise them warmly to encourage them and let them know that you are proud of them. 

Don’t nag, bribe or get involved in any procrastination or delaying conversation.

If you’re in a couple, it’s a good idea for both parents if possible to alternate going in and settling/praising them.

You can expect it to take longer than normal for them to go to sleep, and this is natural because children like things to be predictable and familiar. The changes that you are making may make them uneasy and wakeful at first. 

If they can’t stay in bed

If your child really does struggle to stay in bed, and you are worried about them wondering about at night, you could consider fitting a safety gate to their bedroom door. If you introduce it in a positive manner, “This is your gate, to keep you safe!”

You will also need to have some kind of soft lighting to keep them safe if they DO wander in the night. Choose one with a red glow which will not limit their sleep hormone [melatonin] production.

If they wake up during the night

If they wake and call for you during the night, if they seem ok, don’t ask them what’s wrong. If you do this, they will think that something must be wrong! Just tell them that it’s still nighttime and put them back to bed. 

Go to them every few minutes if they are upset and keep getting up. Try not to be in the room as they settle off to sleep, as this is very likely to then become a habit.

In the morning, find something positive about the night before and offer them lots of specific praise. “You slept in your lovely bed!” “You went back to bed when I asked you to!”

Give a sticker or star. All children want their parents’ approval, even if they seem like they don’t care! Your praise helps them to learn in a wonderful and positive way. 

Further help

If you’re struggling with your baby’s sleep either now or in the future, I am here to help you.

My books

My bestselling books give you the tools to help your baby and yourself get a good night’s sleep. They are full of expert, practical advice and case studies. Each book teaches you to create your baby or child’s personal sleep plan and is written in a clear and accessible style.

They are available in all formats from Amazon and other booksellers.

My courses

When your baby is a bit older if you need help with their sleep, have a look at my sleep courses.

My courses are a mix of video, graphics and easy-to-read text. They are a great way to access my expert help – from your phone, tablet or laptop. The courses have no expiry date and are updated frequently. The Gentle Sleep Course is very comprehensive, easy to dip in and out of and is very empowering.

The Early Waking Course is concise and accessible – it takes around an hour to complete and it may be the best hour you’ve ever spent!

Both of the courses contain helpful schedules for day and night time sleep.

My 1:1 consultations

If you choose to book a one-to-one consultation with me, you will receive my expert advice along with a copy of my Gentle Sleep Solutions book and four follow up support emails.

You will be in very safe, experienced hands and I treat every parent and child with kindness. As a qualified health professional, I can help if your baby or you have medical needs. I have helped over 15,000 families from all over the world to get a good night’s sleep.

See my reviews on Trustpilot

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