Reclaim the night
There were three in the bed and the little one said ‘Roll over, roll over’, and mum said ‘Get back in your own bed!’ In your dreams, Mum. It’s 4 o’clock in the morning and the little one is just not budging! So how do you get them to stay put? Sally Morrell asks the experts.
Your four-year old is always happy to go to bed. He just loves snuggling in to the doona, just adores his bedtime story and wouldn’t miss that last ‘Goodnight Hug’. Only problem is that he’s out again 15 minutes later wanting you to repeat the whole performance. And 15 minutes later he’s up again.
‘I want some milk’, ‘I’m lonely’ or ‘I want to watch a video’. The words might change each night but the message is the same. Once again your evening is not your own.
When you’re up all night with your newborn, you daydream about the time when, in a few months, you will be able to reclaim your nights. But here you are two, three or even four years down the track and you still go to sleep only a few minutes after your child.
Tweddle Child and Family Health Service education network co-ordinator, Rosey Cummings, says the first thing to remember is that it is only a problem if you think it is a problem.
If you work long hours and enjoy this late night interaction then just ignore the people that ‘tut-tut’. Although you probably should wait until 10pm or whatever time you are happy with to put them to bed, rather than allowing them to boomerang back and forth each night.
‘Problems are not problems unless the parents see them as such. So many people tell parents what they should and shouldn’t be doing. If they are happy with the situation, why change it?’ Cummings says. ‘But if the bedtime routine is not working for the child, the parents’ relationship with the child or their relationship with each other, then they need to do something about it.’
Although, Cummings says change is never easy, especially if it involves breaking habits. ‘It’s a bit like smoking,’ she says. ‘People know it is bad for them but it’s not that easy to break a long-standing habit. It takes a lot of determination.’
So what do you do if you decide you are determined to break the bedtime cycle?
Cummings says it is important that whatever method the parents decide to use, they agree on the method and provide a united front. ‘To make the change a success they both have to be committed to the change and both be on the same track. It’s not going to be easy, there are going to be tough nights and the more they work together the easier it will be.’
Setting a clear bedtime routine seems to be the most successful way to break a bad bedtime cycle. ‘Whatever routine you decide you have to stick to it. It is non-negotiable.
And it doesn’t have to involve 49 toys to kiss goodnight. Two or three toys are fine. But it’s you that set the boundaries, not the child,’ Cummings says. ‘It can’t keep changing, they can’t keep adding toys or adding stories. You have to stick to the boundaries you have set. You have to do what you say you are going to do, so your child realises that you mean what you say. And if they bounce back out again, you simply have to keep putting them back to bed with no fuss and no fun.’
Some parents place a small gate across the bedroom door for children that keep coming back. It’s better than a closed door, which can be frightening for a small child, but it’s even better if they simply learn to stay in bed. But, as with all change, nothing happens overnight.
Cummings says if you really stick hard to your plan you should see a definite improvement anywhere between three days and three weeks. ‘But, of course, there will be hiccups along the way. Obviously when they are unwell you are up with them during the night to comfort them and so often you have to start from scratch when they are well again,’ she says.
The importance of a good bedtime routine has been proven with research. According to a recent report in the British Medical Journal, one in five toddlers have problems getting to sleep, or waking up soon after dropping off.
But they say medical help is rarely needed – routine is the best way to solve the problem. It could be a 20-minute wind-down before bed with a set routine of getting dressed into pyjamas, a brush of the teeth, a bed-time story and then straight to bed.
The research found that child sedatives only worked in the short term and a behavioural change was what was needed. Cummings is also wary of relying on those ‘mother’s little helpers’ to settle your child.
‘We don’t recommend using drugs as they don’t change the child’s behaviour. They might give parents a few nights sleep but the children will revert back to their usual pattern after that,’ she says.
‘They have their place under the supervision of a doctor or health professional but they are not going to alter the long-term behaviour of the child. It is better to simply set the boundaries and stick to them.’
What about if the problem is not going to bed and going to sleep but rather waking up and sneaking in to Mum and Dad’s bed for the rest of the night - often, because they are scared? Again, it’s only a problem if you think it is a problem.
But most relationships counsellors warn that if you have a child who stays up late and then creeps into the marital bed there is little time left for Mum and Dad to be alone and keep their own relationship healthy.
Cummings says that while nightmares and monsters can be a real factor in nightly visits to Mum and Dad’s bed you have to be sure that is the real reason. ‘Monsters and nightmares can be the problem and if that is the problem then you should comfort them,’ she says. ‘But sometimes children learn to say that they have seen a monster because they know that saying that is going to get them in the bed. They soon learn what works.’
Child psychologist Dr Janet Hall, the author of How you can be Boss of Bedtime, says re-claiming the marital bed – short of putting a lock on the door - is all about training your child to stay in their own bed. ‘You have to be firm and explain that they must stay in their own bed unless they are in danger. And you have to explain what you mean by danger, it doesn’t just mean they are scared,’ she says.
‘During the day, practice ways they might stay in bed. A tape of Mum and Dad’s voice is a good thing to have around that they can put on if they are scared. A nightlight is also great. They might also need some coaching on how to be brave.’
Dr Hall says there are many children’s books available where their characters overcome their fear of being alone at night. Her favourite is Franklin in the Dark, featuring the friendly TV tortoise.
She also suggests that you pre-empt any ‘needs’ that might arise during the night, such as making sure they go to the toilet and have a small drink before bed. ‘It’s all about over-learning. If you teach them the tools they need to stay in bed and teach them again and again it will become like driving. When we drive a car we don’t think about everything we are doing all the time. It just becomes a habit. Make it a habit for them,’ she says.
Dr Hall says it easy for parents to give in when there is stress at home, whether from a new baby, a new house or something else. ‘But if you give in then you are making a rod for your own back. You are only going to have to start all over again,’ she says.
How much sleep?
- When babies are born they need about 18 hours of sleep a day.
- By the time they are one they should be sleeping between 12 and 14 hours.
- At two they need between 10 and 11 hours of sleep.
- By the time they are six they need only eight to 10 hours sleep.
Babies usually need two naps a day, but by the time they are one they need only one nap. Some children still nap until they are three, while others drop off the nap after their second birthday.
Each child is different and has his or her own particular sleep needs. The important thing is to tune into your own child and make sure you read well any signs that they are tired.
Starting school and kindergarten can be tiring for a child and they might need extra sleep until they get into the rhythms of their new life. Sickness, stress and holidays can also change the number of hours of sleep a child needs.
How early is too early?
In your BC days you used to be woken by the alarm clock during the week and spend the weekend mornings lazing in bed until you could make the effort to get out and get dressed. But that was Before Children.
Now you find yourself rewinding the Thomas the Tank Engine video at 5.15am to entertain your toddler while you grab yourself a much needed coffee – QUICKLY! Is there anything you can do to keep your child in bed until at least the sun is up?
‘Not terribly much,’ says Rosey Cummings, of the Tweedle Child and Family Health Service. ‘They are too young to really understand.’
Sadly, putting them to bed later rarely helps. They just wake up tired and grumpy at exactly the same time. But it does get better as they get older. ‘Once they are old enough to say understand the hands of the clock then you can tell them they have to stay in bed until the big hand is wherever,’ she says.
By Sally Morrell
Useful books and websites:
Books Before Bedtime has a list of books with themes that will help children settle before bedtime, as well as wall charts and activity sheets to download.
Suggested titles include:
Can You Cuddle like a Koala? John Butler
Goodnight Me, Andrew Daddo and Emma Quay
Charlie and Lola: I am not sleepy and will not go to bed, Lauren Child.
All from Books Before Bedtime
The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers, Elizabeth Pantley, McGraw-Hill, 2005
Extracts and sleep logs also available at The Pantleys.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, September 2001. Updated July 2009.