This summer, right around the time I found out I was pregnant, my three-year-old son stopped sleeping.
The timing of his sleep regression (and the associated crankiness that led to some fairly atrocious behaviour and night-time meltdowns ... ask me about the time he whipped an entire rocking horse at my husband) could not have been worse, but that’s kids for you.
Obviously, I got my morning sickness at night, so to say I was desperate would be a slight understatement. There’s nothing like barfing your brains out at 9:45 p.m. while listening to your kid scream “NOOOOOOOOO!!!” followed by a loud bang and your husband screaming “OMG WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY PHONE?!” to really make you question your life choices, you know?
Anyway, after a few months of this nonsense, I emerged from the bathroom one night, wiped my mouth on my sleeve, and decided enough was enough. I was going to fix my son’s sleep, meltdowns, and maybe even my life, once and for all.
Why we all need more sleep
Sleep deprivation affects everything from your health to your relationships to your mood. Poor sleep quality has been linked with postpartum depression, and a recent Canadian study found that even just worrying about your ability to manage your child’s sleep is associated with higher rates of depression for both moms and dads.
Plus, when bedtime start creeping later and later, you lose out on the downtime you need to recharge, do your own thing, and re-connect with your partner.
And kids need more sleep, too. The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) recommends 11-14 hours per night for toddlers, 10-13 hours for kids age three to five, and nine-12 hours for kids age six to 12. (Babies are a whole other kettle of fish, and if you want to learn more about baby sleep I recommend reading this piece on sleep training).
Getting a good sleep is important to a child’s health and wellbeing, and those who don’t may have trouble functioning during the day, CPS adds.
“If your child is fussy, cranky or has difficulty staying asleep at night it might be because he isn’t getting enough naptime or isn’t getting to bed early enough,” the society explains.
But they also add that kids can have night-time fears and experience anxiety and insecurities at these tender ages, which should not be ignored. In other words, if your kid is having a nightmare: comfort them.
OK, but how do I get my kid to bed earlier?
Allow me to impart my own wisdom, which came from much research, expert advice, and trial by error.
And if you’re asking, “Who is this person and why should I listen to her?” let me just say that we went from nightly screaming fits, terrible behaviours, bedtime as late as 10 p.m., wakeups in the night and early mornings, to peaceful night routines and lights out by 7:30 in a few short weeks.
So, listen up. Here’s how to fix your kid’s bedtime.
1. Talk to them
Revolutionary, I know. But sometimes part of the problem might be easier to solve than you think, especially if it has to do with insecurities or anxieties.
In my case, straight-up asking my three-year-old why he didn’t want to go to bed didn’t give me immediate answers (“I don’t want Daddy to make me sleep”), but some probing (“Is it because you’re mad at Daddy? Is it because Daddy is putting you to bed when you’re not ready? Is it because you’re scared? Yes, you are scared?”) led to an ah-ha! moment: my son had suddenly developed a fear of the dark.
Leaving a dim light on overnight was the first step in getting him to sleep better.
2. Set limits and do not budge
If your kid is doing the bedtime creep, demanding one more story, snack, song over and over until you’re both so overtired you’re ready to snap, you need to set some hard and fast limits.
“You need to take the control back at bedtime,” the Goodnight Sleepsite notes.
“Once we make it optional – ‘OK, you can miss your nap today’ or ‘Fine, one more cartoon but then it’s time for bed’ – they will treat the days where you are trying to be firm with naptime or bedtime as a joke.”
Depending on how out of control your bedtime routine is, you can limit everything from the number of stories you read, to rules about snacks and staying in their room. The important thing is to be consistent, have consequences, and communicate with your kid. These, along with control, are the “Four Cs” of setting bedtime limits, the Goodnight Sleepsite adds.
As an example, I started with the following limits to curb my son’s worst bedtime behaviours: No snacks in his room (he would demand more and more all night), only one parent puts him to bed at a time (he would always try to get both of us in there, swap us out, etc.), and once he’s in his room, he stays put unless he has to go pee (he would bust out all evening looking for snacks, toys, etc.). No exceptions.
WATCH: How to get your toddler to listen. Story continues below.
My husband and I would explain these rules to him calmly every night before we started bed routine to make sure he understood. And to avoid those angry meltdowns, we would use careful language and avoid saying the triggering “No.” (Instead, we’d say “I can’t let you leave your room because those are the rules now.”)
As a consequence, if he broke the rules, that meant less time for stories or songs.
3. Set a consistent, calming bedtime
Kids thrive on routine and knowing what’s coming next. So set a calming bedtime routine that you follow every single night. It could be as simple as: bath, PJs, snack, stories, songs, lights out. But stick to it every night.
Kids also need time to wind down.
“Moving from a busy day to a sleep state is a huge transition,” Healthline notes.
“Try swapping any activities that stimulate your child with ones that will help them relax, especially in the half hour before bed. This may be as easy as switching off the television, stopping the wrestling or tickling matches, and skipping the sugary snack foods.”
I also recommend keeping the house dim before bed, and investing in blackout curtains.
4. Remind your kid constantly of what’s coming next
Kids have trouble with transitions, but knowing what’s coming next can help keep them calm. Every single night, we remind our son of his routine, which can get verrrry repetitive, but works wonders.
At dinner, we remind him that after dinner he gets in the bath. In the bath, we remind him snack and PJs are next. While we’re cuddling and eating snack, we tell him exactly how long until we go to his room (sometimes we even set a timer). And in his room, whoever is putting him to bed tells him how long he has for stories and songs before lights out.
Even though we sound like a broken record, this move has basically eliminated his nightly meltdowns and anger.
5. Have dinner earrrrrrly
This can be a hard one for some parents, especially if you enjoy meals out, activities after daycare/work, or having relaxing, long dinners. But if you want to get your kid to bed earlier, you need to start your nightly routine earlier, and that starts with dinner.
We eat at 5 p.m. now. To accomplish this, we either pre-make meals we can just heat up after work, embrace slow cooker life, or simply feed our son a simple dinner like a snack plate because it’s quick and easy (and if he goes to bed on time, we can eat later).
An early dinner means an early bath, etc. etc. etc. all the way to bedtime.
But one tip: don’t tell your kid it’s early. Just make it the new norm. And if your kid seems extra tired, just move everything up as much as you can, and again, just don’t tell that what time it is. You just might get your kid to bed at 6:45, and then THE NIGHT IS YOURS.
6. Make sacrifices for sleep
Another hard one for parents. Early bed-times take commitment, which can mean sacrifices for you all when it comes to habits and activities.
For instance, we used to go out for dinner as a family every Friday, and it was a lot of fun. My son would get pizza, I’d get wine, everybody won! ... until we’d get home around 6:30 or 7, and our son was a blubbering, screaming, overtired mess.
Now we make pizza at home on Friday, which is still a treat, but doesn’t affect bedtime.
To commit to an early bedtime, you may need to shift activities such as swimming lessons from weeknights to weekends, stop going out for meals, and limit evening family visits ... but what’s more important than a good night’s sleep, anyway?
7. Hire a consultant
If you can afford it, and DIY isn’t working out, call in a pro. Sleep consultants are basically angels sent to this earth to fix your life. While I didn’t hire one with this most recent sleep regression, I did when my son was six months old and it was a game-changer.
You can go with an in-person consultant, or sign up for a program.
Here are a few I recommend:
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