Last Modified: September 13, 2023 | Published: September 5, 2023
Are you struggling to get your child to sleep through the night?
It is 9 p.m., and you are exhausted and tired. You think to yourself, “Does bedtime have to be this hard?”
I have great news for you. It doesn’t have to be that hard!
Sleep is essential to your child’s mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, a lack of sleep in childhood can mimic the appearance of many mental health concerns, such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD. A lack of sleep can also exasperate pre-existing mental health challenges.
A lack of sleep can decrease your child’s academic performance, make it harder for them to focus and pay attention in school, and cause an increase in behavioral problems.
One of the first steps to protecting your child’s mental health is to ensure your child is getting enough sleep. In this blog, we will go through eleven strategies for getting your child to sleep through the night and alone. These strategies will work for children of many ages, from toddlers to teenagers.
#1: Have a consistent bedtime: the 1 hour window
Your child’s bedtime should not vary by more than an hour. Sleep research consistently finds that you have about a 1-hour window to get your child to sleep. Once you go outside that window, you are competing with your child’s natural circadian rhythms.
If your child’s bedtime is 9:00, then 8:30 is the earliest your child can fall asleep, and 9:30 is the latest. Pushing past your child’s bedtime or requiring your child to go to bed too early can create sleep challenges and unnecessary power struggles.
The consistency of your child’s bedtime and wake time creates a sleep-wake-cycle. Too much variation in a child’s sleep schedule, even on weekends and holidays, can be disruptive to your child’s mood, appetite, and mental health.
Taken together, take your child’s bedtime seriously. Even as your child approaches middle and high school, you will want to monitor and support a consistent bedtime.
Determine what time your child needs to be awake in the morning. Then, count back to what bedtime works for your family. Keep in mind how your schedule might vary during the week compared to the weekend. Having your school-aged child up much later on the weekends might be tempting, but doing so could make the weekdays harder.
Older kids and teens will want parents to believe that their phones are not disrupting their sleep. Do not believe them! Phones and other electronic devices are extremely disruptive to sleep. If you do nothing else, get those phones out of there at bedtime. See this sleep video from Dr. Marcy Willard about how to do this.
#2: Try a calming activity an hour before bed
Kids need time to calm their minds and bodies before going to sleep. This is important at any age, regardless of if your child is 5 or 12 years old.
Pick an activity your child would enjoy. Join your child for a part of this time when possible. It can be a great way to connect with your child. Research shows the quality of time we spend with our children is what matters most.
Activities to consider:
- puzzles and brain games
- board game
- blow bubbles
- puppet show
- finger knitting
To help ease the transition into a calming activity, try adding a timer to your routines. Set a timer for 15 minutes and give your child a 15-minute warning and then a five-minute warning.
You would say to your child, “Mia, this is your 15-minute warning.” “In 15 minutes, you will need to turn off your computer and be ready to do a calming activity.”
Then, when there are 5 minutes left, you would give your child one more warning. “Mia, you have five minutes, and then you will turn off your computer and start your calming activity.”
#3: Turn off all screens an hour before bedtime
Screens wake up your child’s brain. If your child watches TV or plays on the computer before bed, it may take them longer to fall asleep. A study of kids ages 7 to 9 found that using electronics before bed made it harder for them to fall asleep.
Get the screens out of the room: Parents report that getting the screens out of their child’s room is one of the hardest things they have to do. As clinicians, we get it. This is hard work for this generation of parents. However, getting that phone out of the room is one of the most important things you can do for your child’s physical AND mental health. Start early and often. Have a charging area in your house for all devices. Require your child; even through high school, to put the phone on the charger each night at bedtime.
If you do nothing else but get the phones and devices out of the bedroom, your child’s sleep and mental health will see dramatic improvement.
Another reason to make sure your child gets off the screens before bed is improved behavior the next day. Research has shown that kids who sleep better have improved attention and emotional regulation during the day.
This study also discovered that kids who had screen time before bed were more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses. These children also had difficulty focusing and were less productive during the day. If you are wondering what activities you can do before bed, check out tip #2.
Start this routine when your child is young, between the ages of 2 and 5. You will have the most success in helping your child start healthy bedtime routines the earlier you start! If your older kids are struggling with this, check out this short video playlist from Dr. Willard on sleep.
Think about your child’s bedtime, count an hour earlier, and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to have screens off for your children. If you use Alexa or Google home, you could have a family announcement play at the right time.
#4: Have a bedtime routine
Have a predictable nighttime routine each night for your child. Your child knows that each night before bed, they put their toys away, brush their teeth, get on their pajamas, and you read a story together.
Have the routine start at the same time each night and go in the same order, such as from the kitchen, to the bathroom, to their bedroom. It may help create a chart showing your child what to expect at bedtime.
This sample reward chart is for a bedtime routine.
Learn more about bedtime routines in the Cadey app. Explore what works best for your schedule. Encourage your child to participate in the routine by following along on a visual schedule.
#5: Turn out the lights
As discussed, one of the most important aspects of getting your child to sleep is the sleep-wake cycle. Animals have circadian rhythms that regulate the time for eating and sleeping. The more consistent we are, the more likely we are to fall asleep naturally and easily.
Our human evolution has conditioned us to associate darkness with sleep and light with wakefulness. So, our modern world makes it even more difficult to get our kids, and ourselves for that matter, to sleep.
Yes, you can have a nightlight if your child really needs that. Ideally, the morning sun wakes us up, coming in through the window and we fall asleep, just after the sun goes down. Obviously, our modern lives don’t often allow for that. However, we can foster those conditions in our home. Keep in mind that the ‘blue light’ coming out of your child’s devices is waking up your child’s brain. Even the TV screen has an alerting effect on our brains.
Pro tip: To read more in depth about teaching your child healthy sleep habits, see this Cadey sleep article. The tips in this article are recommended by some of the top sleep specialists in the country. You will learn about improving the sleep environment, maintaining a healthy sleep-wake cycle, and more. Or, read on; this article has a list of helpful techniques to get your child some zzz’s.
Do a little ‘light audit’ around your house. How much light is coming into your child’s room? Are there street lights shining into the window? Is there a computer light that stays on all the time? Does your child have a device charging right by them at night?
Do your best to eliminate all of these lights and distractions at bedtime. Yes, it is a lot of work and your child will push back. Yes, make sure your child is comfortable and safe. Beyond that though, how much light can you eliminate? Try to get most of the lights out of their sleep environment. Be patient and persistent. This will pay big dividends in improved sleep and mental health for your whole household.
#6: Create a soothing sleep environment
Have your child’s bed be just for sleeping. Create a cozy place for your child to sleep with warm and cozy blankets, maybe with some stuffed animals that they can cuddle.
Sleep onset association: There is a great deal of research on something called ‘sleep onset association.’ This term means that people naturally associate certain objects and situations with sleep. For example, the bed or the pillow may be associated with sleep; whereas, tennis shoes and backpacks are not. Here’s where it gets tricky. In order to keep this association, you can’t allow the backpacks to make it into the bed. You want to keep sleep stuff with sleep and awake stuff in a different location. For example:
- Pillows and blanket: keep the same pillows and blanket on the bed each night
- Sleep in the bed: have your child sleep in their bed and not in a different bed or on the couch
- Keep other items off the bed: if your child has trouble sleeping, you don’t want to allow homework or snacks in the bed either. Beds are for sleeping
- Sensory items: a sound machine, or bedtime story can signal sleep. Soothing smells like lavender can support this process too
Want to geek out on sleep onset association? Check out Dr. Willard’s video here.
Pro tip: Dr. Willard plays soothing ocean sounds each night to signal her own sleep, and her dog to sleep at night. She has used sleep sounds in her kids’ rooms to help them fall asleep. Other ideas include soothing apps like Calm and Moshi for sleep stories and music.
Explore what you can do to increase the cozy factor where your child sleeps. Depending on your child’s age, include them on this mission. This way, you are including their preferences, and they will feel comforted knowing you want them to have such a relaxing place to rest.
#7: If your child has nighttime anxiety, have a small container of calming activities nearby
If you have an anxious child, bedtime can be tough for your child as they are alone with their thoughts. For an older child starting at the age of 5, allow your child to have some calming activities near them that they can use.
These activities may include pen and paper that your child can use to write down their worried thoughts. Have a bucket filled with books they can read, soft and comfy stuffed animals, coloring books, and other calming activities.
It may also help to play a bedtime sleep story. As your child tries to fall asleep when they start to worry, they can focus on the story instead of their thoughts. The Calm app has several bedtime stories that can be great for kids. These are generally about 30 minutes long and often you will find the kiddo is snoring before the story ends.
Look at your child’s sleeping space. Decide where it makes sense to put some calming activities. You want your child to reach them without getting out of bed. Make a note on your phone to look at their bedside every week or so and see what needs to be replaced or updated. For more ideas to help an anxious child get some rest, see this video from Dr. Willard on anxiety and sleep.
Tip # 8: If your child keeps coming out of their room, keep the check-in brief and boring
If your child comes in reporting that they can’t sleep, comfort your child briefly and put them back to bed. This approach may take many attempts before they go to sleep on their own.
Yet, a quick and simple ‘good night, honey’ and kiss on the cheek sends the message to your child that they are just fine. You are being consistent in your expectations and follow-through.
Some researchers recommend using a ‘bedtime pass’, which is like tickets. Let’s say your child has 3 tickets each night. The first one can be used for a chat or a hug. Maybe they use the next one for a drink of water. The final would could be a word of comfort and encouragement. Once the tickets are all used up, they need to stay in their bed for the rest of the night.
Pro tip: Give your child extra stickers for not using all their bedtime passes. Any leftover passes could be exchanged for toys, rewards, or a fun activity.
Think in advance about what your ‘brief and boring’ routine will look like. Are you going to give your child a snack? If so, I recommend you keep it bland and boring. Dr. Willard used to only offer up a piece of toast or a glass of milk. Her theory was if they were really that hungry, they would eat something bland. If not, this can wait until breakfast.
Will you walk your child back to bed? If so, will you just say goodnight or stick around for a couple of minutes? This is entirely up to you, but it will pay off in a big way if you are consistent with it. Keep your routine brief and boring.
Tip #9: Have your child earn a sticker for each night they sleep alone in their room
If your child struggles with bedtime and staying in their room, reward them with a sticker. After your child earns so many stickers, they earn a prize.
Here are the steps to implementing a sticker chart with your 5 to 9-year-old child for sleeping in their own room.
- Create a chart. Refer to the chart here for a sample.
- Decide on a reward. It can help to start small. For example, after three nights of sleeping alone, you make ice cream sundaes together as a family. Then, slowly increase the number of stars it takes to earn a reward.
Once your child has had a few successes, make the reward more exciting and increase the number of stars they need to earn. It can help to get your child’s input on what they want to earn.
- Next, clearly share the expectations of their new bedtime routine. For example, share the new expectation of sleeping alone in their room. Let your child know this is a great opportunity to earn some rewards.
- See tip #10 for more ideas if you are battling to get your child to sleep on their own.
- If your child earns a sticker, they do not lose the sticker. If you take away the incentive for your child to sleep alone, this strategy will backfire on you. If your child cannot sleep alone or stay in their bedroom, they simply do not earn a sticker.
- Praise your child. When your child sleeps alone in their room, make a big deal about it and add a sticker to their sticker chart. If your child was unsuccessful, keep it positive and say we will try again tonight.
- Once your child has earned the designated number of stickers, try and follow through with the reward during the same day. Check out the CadeyLite app for more tips and tricks on reward charts.
Learn more about reward charts in the CadeyLite app. Think about what motivates your child. If you need ideas for rewards, take your child to the dollar store and have them pick out a few items. Explain how they can win these items by getting stickers on their reward chart. Having these items where your child can see them is likely to increase motivation.
Tip #10: Decide where your child will be sleeping
It strikes me a bit funny to say this, but where your child sleeps can be the most contentious part of parenting for a couple. Let’s imagine your child is sleeping in your bed and you would like them to sleep in their own bed.
I would venture a guess that you and your partner have differing views on this. Maybe the wife is fine with the kid in the bed but the husband wants the kid out of there. It could be that your spouse would like the bedroom to be a little more private, if you know what I mean.
Or it could be, that one partner doesn’t mind having the kid in bed, but the other partner can’t sleep well when a kiddo is present. In Dr. In Willard’s case, she can’t sleep with a kiddo flopping around in the bed, so she took this seriously with her own kids.
Is sleeping in your bed bad? In psychology research, there has been a ton of debate about whether it is okay to have your kid sleep in your bed. There used to be several items on developmental screeners that were noted as ‘critical items’ or risk factors when a child is still sleeping with parents. Essentially, psychologists used to believe that sleeping in the parent’s bed was a risk factor for other behavior or mental health problems.
Attachment-style clinicians say it’s fine. Now, there’s the attachment literature that flies in the face of the previous research on sleep. Most attachment or trauma informed therapists would say it’s okay to have the kid sleep in your bed as it can support the attachment relationship.
We say, it could go either way. In this article, we aren’t coming in so intensely on this issue. For the most part, both Dr. Willard and I have no serious concerns about a child sleeping in your bed. Generally, this will eventually wear out on its own…you are unlikely to find your high school kid asking to sleep in your bed.
However, here are a few reasons you may want to work on getting the kiddo back into their own bed.
- You and your partner are arguing about it. If your kiddo keeps popping in each night and you and your partner are getting into heated arguments about what to do, it is important to handle this.
- No one is getting sleep. If you, your partner, or your kiddo aren’t sleeping well, this isn’t working. Are you or your partner getting kicked in the head? Waking up pissed off and bleary eyed? It’s time to take action on this.
- Boundaries problem. Sometimes this is a matter of boundaries. If your child is coming into your bed every night and you don’t want the kid there, but you aren’t stopping the behavior, you have fuzzy boundaries on this. Fuzzy boundaries aren’t good for either of you. It is time to make a decision. Is it okay for your child to sleep in your bed or not?
So, what can you do? Let’s decide if you are ready to move your kid into their own bed. Here’s some conditions that have to be met before this is going to work.
- Your kiddo has to be old enough. There are whole books written on this, most of which I disagree with, regarding how old your kid needs to be to sleep through the night in their own bed. For the purpose of this article, we are going to start with a kid who is old enough to understand your words, “Get into your bed” and is able to get into their bed on their own. Babies and younger toddlers are beyond the scope of this article. For sake of clarity, let’s say your child is 2 years old – 8 years old. When you say, “get into your bed” they know exactly what you mean.
- You and your partner have to be on the same page. These battles are often won or lost long before the sun goes down. If you OR your partner are just fine with the kid sleeping in your bed, that’s where they will be. This is critical. Get on the same page with your partner or don’t bother trying to get the kiddo into their own bed.
- You have a place for your child to sleep. In order to be successful with this, you have to decide where your child will sleep. It is fine for your child to have a bed anywhere safe in your home, or even in your room if you want, just so long as it is clear. Then, take active steps to ensure it’s a good sleep environment. Make sure your child has all their ‘sleep onset association tools’ like blankets and pillows, in their bed.
Tip #11: Getting your child to sleep in their own bed in just 3 weeks
Okay, now you are ready. Let’s say you and your partner have agreed that your child will sleep in their own bed. Your child is old enough to understand what you want them to do. Your child’s bed is all set up and ready for a peaceful night’s sleep.
Here’s the steps to take to get your child to sleep in their own bed. If you are consistent, this can take less than 3 weeks and can work for their whole childhood. Before you begin, you and your partner need to commit to this process and then explain it to your child. There is no sense in trying to ‘ease into’ a new sleep routine. It doesn’t happen that way in nature. If your child wants to be in your room, they will be, unless you are very structured and clear about your plan. Here’s how to do this.
We are going to use something called the ‘gradual release’ approach to getting your child to sleep in their own bed. When children are little, they need help to self-soothe and go to sleep. As they get older, they can learn how to do more and more of this on their own.
This gradual release approach is akin to teaching your child to swim. You start with holding your child and asking them to kick their feet or put their face in the water briefly. That’s the I DO phase. Then, you have your child swim to you in short distances. That’s the WE DO phase. Finally, they are ready to swim on their own. That’s the YOU DO phase. This same method can be applied to getting your child to sleep in their own bed. See below to do this in just 3 weeks.
WEEK #1 (I do phase): YOU SLEEP IN CHILD’S ROOM
If your child is coming in for your comfort, go ahead and offer that. Ideally, for week #1, you go in and sleep in your child’s room. Maybe you can put an extra mattress or an air mattress on the floor next to your child’s bed. Read your bedtime stories, tuck your child into bed. Then, simply go to bed in the same room with your child. If you want to chatter a bit before you fall asleep, just fine. Let your child know that you will be there all night.
Pro tip: Give the child a sticker each night they sleep in their own bed, even during week 1. At the end of each week, they earn a prize for sleeping in their own bed. This will give your child a sense of accomplishment and increase your momentum.
WEEK #2 (we do phase): YOU SLEEP IN EITHER ROOM
For the next week, you keep up the routine. You do a calming activity each night. You make sure the sleep environment is set up for sleep. You turn off screens, you turn down lights in the house. You read your stories, and tuck your child in for bed. But this time, you will sleep in your own bed and your child in theirs. You let your child know, “I’m going to sleep in my own bed tonight. You will sleep here. But if you need me, just come in and I will be there to help you.” Then, if the child comes into your room, patiently get up and walk them back to their room. Then, you sleep on the bed on the floor in their room after that. Why do this? Why not just let them come into your room? Because we are teaching your child that they are safe and comfortable in their own room.
Pro tip: Give extra stickers for making it through the whole night without getting you up. Still reward them for sleeping in their own bed no matter what. But give extra credit for going through the whole night on their own. Remember, we are working on progress, not perfection.
WEEK 3 (you do): YOU SLEEP IN YOUR OWN ROOM AND CHILD IN THEIRS
For the next week, you do the same bedtime routine with another tweak. This time, you put the child in their own bed and say, “Okay, you are ready to sleep in your own bed. I will see you in the morning.” This time, you do not sleep in the child’s room. If the child gets up and needs your attention, you keep it brief and boring. You give the child a hug and a quick statement of support like, “I love you Honey. You can do it. Good night.” And walk your child back to bed.
Pro tip: If things don’t go well on week #3, and your child is in and out of your room constantly, just bump back to the ‘We Do’ phase you did in week #2. You can go in and sleep on their floor until they feel more comfortable sleeping through the night. HOWEVER, you do not let them back in your bed. Period. Hold that boundary. If your kid makes it back to your bed, you will need to start the whole process over again.
Although this is obviously a lot of work, we have seen most clients have huge success with this technique. And what is 3 weeks to save your sleep and everyone else in the household’s sleep worth to you? It’s probably worth a lot. If you are consistent and persistent, it will work over time. You’ve got this. Cadey is here to help.