Bedtime Solutions for the Science-Minded Parent

The most common bedtime problems among toddlers and school-aged children are:

• Difficulty falling asleep within a reasonable time (e.g., 30-60 minutes)

• Bedtime “resistance” (i.e., refusing to go to bed when instructed).

Just how common are these problems? According to parent surveys, 20-30% of young children have significant problems going to bed and/or awakening during the night (Mindell et al 2006). Rates may be even higher among school-aged children, because many parents are unaware that their older children are having sleep problems (Gregory et al 2006).

Pediatric sleep specialists often advise parents to tackle sleep problems by putting their children through sleep training. Several training programs have been scientifically tested, and, in general, parents who stick with these programs report improvements in bedtime behaviors.

However, before you try sleep training, it’s important to understand why your child won’t sleep. Kids may resist bedtime for a variety of reasons. Once you identify your child’s personal sleep issues, you’ll find it easier to choose a sleep training program that’s well-suited to your child’s needs.

Just as important, you might discover that you don’t need to try sleep training at all. Some bedtime problems have relatively simple remedies. This article reviews the common causes of bedtime troubles, and suggests practical solutions for coping with them.

Understanding your child’s bedtime problems

According to researchers, bedtime problems arise in at least two ways.

First, kids may learn to associate falling asleep with certain forms of stimulation—like parental soothing or a particular sleep environment. If they don’t receive these forms of stimulation, these kids have difficulty falling and/or staying asleep (Moore et al 2006).

Second, as kids become more independent, they may begin testing their parents’ limits. Bedtime resistance strategies may run the gamut from charming attempts to stall (“one more hug”) to major tantrums (Moore et al 2007). If bedtime rules are unclear or inconsistently enforced, bedtime resistance becomes a major problem in the family.

In both cases, kids suffer from what sleep experts call the “behavioral insomnia of childhood,” or BIC (American Academy of Sleep Medicine 2005). But there is more to childhood insomnia than sleep associations and poorly-enforced bedtime rules. Kids may have trouble falling asleep for a variety of reasons. Here are some of common triggers of bedtime problems—and ways to cope with them.

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