Is your preschooler’s sleep (or lack of) driving you mad? Read our expert guide to finding the perfect bedtime routine for your little one
There are few moments more magical than watching children sleeping soundly in their beds. So, if your child has reached pre-school and still isn’t sleeping through, it can be easy to feel like giving up on ever getting a good night’s sleep again. But when it comes to your child’s sleep, it’s never too late to break bad habits and form good ones! So whether they’re struggling with their transition to a bigger bed, or they spend at least a solid hour cooking up reasons they can’t go to sleep (no, there’s definitely no monster in the wardrobe, and yes, they definitely had at least one “last wee” already) that perfect bedtime routine is still possible.
Mandy Gurney, founder of the Millpond Sleep Clinic has put together some preschooler trouble-shooting tips to help turn your child’s bedtime routine from a nightmare to a total dream. “From three to school-aged, children need roughly 11 to 12 hours’ sleep at night,” says Mandy. So, if they’re not getting a solid 11-12 hours, here are a few common problems, and how to tackle them.
Expert sleep tips for preschoolers
Bedtime battle 1: They’re having trouble transitioning from a cot to “big kid” bed
“The transition to a big bed is more difficult for some children than others. Some children love their new-found freedom and you may find they suddenly appear by your side after you’ve said goodnight or are shaking you awake in the small hours. In the weeks before you buy the toddler bed, talk to your child about the change and involve them in decisions about the new bed. Where will it be? What bedclothes will they have? Help to give your child a sense of occasion by, for example, putting special pictures on the wall by their bed and talk to them about it; mention friends of theirs who have made the shift. Use books and magazines to show them pictures of big children in nice beds and small babies in cots.
“In terms of safety, choose a bed that is low to the ground and has a safety guard and make sure you childproof the bedroom with safety catches on windows and doors and secure furniture to the walls. Clear toys and objects away at bedtime; especially things that could be used for climbing, such as a toy box or stool, and consider putting up a stairgate across the bedroom door the day you introduce the bed, to stop nighttime wandering.”
Bedtime battle 2: Your little one doesn’t want you to leave the room come bedtime
“Make sure you have a very quiet winding-down bedtime routine and don’t discuss fears or worries at bedtime, instead do this in the day. If your child gets anxious about you leaving at bedtime, offer a boring excuse as to why you need to briefly leave, e.g. explain that you are off to ‘have a wee’, ‘start the washing up’ etc., but that you will be back in a minute to check on him. Return after only a minute, and say, ‘brave boy, I’m now going to…’ and offer another boring excuse, Return after two to five minutes and from the doorway, briefly reassure your child. Keep repeating this until he goes to sleep or is happy for you leave. Repeat this technique each bedtime, making your time away gradually longer until your child goes to sleep while you are out of his room or becomes confident and happy for you leave when he’s settling for sleep.
“If your child is claiming they are ‘not tired’, re-visit your routine to make sure it is not too lively or stimulating, avoid discussing worries, try and keep bedtimes as a 1-2-1 activity if you have multiple children and make sure your child’s body clock is regulated with a set bedtime and wake time (those beloved weekend lie-ins may cause problems at bedtime!).”
Bedtime battle 3: Your preschooler is afraid of the dark
“Most children are reassured by the presence of a small nightlight in their bedroom. This should be a low-level red or amber light, so as not to prevent the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Receptors in the back of our eyes respond to dim light in the evening, triggering this sleep-inducing hormone. Having the wrong light at the wrong time of day can stop melatonin and affect our sleep.
“Look at your child’s bedroom with your child’s eyes. Are there toys that look fine in the day, but at night emit scary shadows? Talk to your child about their fears in the daytime, not at bedtime and ask them what they think would help them to feel more secure e.g. a special comforter or nightlight. Avoid responses like checking for monsters, as this is likely to reinforce that monsters may be hiding close by.
“Many children with fears are frightened to go into another room without a parent. To help build your child’s confidence in being in a room by themselves, try playing games such as hide and seek and treasure hunts. Once they have mastered this in the day, you could graduate to playing these games as it gets darker using torches. Having a security object in bed overnight such as a special cuddly toy can help your child feel more relaxed, too. Most children will grow out of these fears but while your child is frightened of the dark it is best to vet the stories and TV program they could be watching; many traditional bedtime stories feature scary wolves, witches and bears.”
Bedtime battle 4: Your preschooler is a very early riser
“For preschoolers, a reward system combined with a point of reference for when your child can get up may encourage them to stay in bed in the morning. Get a sleep clock or a lamp plugged into a digital timer switch and place it somewhere they can see from their bed. (Use a low wattage bulb in the lamp so it won’t wake your child if they are still asleep when it comes on.) Set the timer to the earliest time your child usually wakes. The lamp is a guide to when it is morning and when your child can come through to you. Explain to your child that to achieve their reward, they must stay in their bed until the lamp comes on. In small incremental steps of five minutes a day, gradually move the timer switch so the lamp comes on later. Repeat this until you reach your (lie-in) goal.