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How Childhood Sleep Problems Start in the First Place

Two Mistakes Parents May Be Making at Bedtime

This is an excerpt from the upcoming book Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor’s 5-Step Guide, Ages 3-10. The book is available for pre-order and will ship on or around September 3.

Before we review how you can use the five-step guide in this book to help your child become a great sleeper, let’s first explore how bedtime problems begin in the first place.

Five-year old Amanda needed a dozen stuffed animals and the sound of her father’s voice reading to her for more than an hour to fall asleep each night. Before Amanda’s father became a parent, he may have imagined a simple, cozy bedtime routine. Perhaps he envisioned serving milk and warm peanut butter cookies in the kitchen, helping his daughter put on cozy flannel pajamas, and then spending a few minutes curled up together reading her favorite story. Her eyelids would soon begin to droop, and he would tuck her in, tiptoe out of her room, and join his wife in the living room for a glass of wine and a movie.

The reality in Amanda’s home, and yours, may look far different, however. Your current routine may last hours, beginning with stalling and protesting as soon as it is time to go upstairs after the bedtime snack. Once your child has finished a bath, it might be quite the struggle to get him or her to put on pajamas. And once your child is in bed, he or she might insist on a long back rub until he or she is deeply asleep. If you do manage to slip out once your child seems to have drifted off, you may find that he or she soon wakes and begins calling you back for what often seems like an almost infinite variety of requests: another drink of water, a bigger stuffed animal, or a closet “monster check.”

Once you finally do get your child to sleep and you settle into your favorite spot on the living room sofa, you have learned from past experience that your child is likely to come and find you to ask for “one more thing.” He or she is sure to tell you that he or she really, really, really misses you and needs one more hug and kiss. You always quickly comply, thinking that if you grant all your child’s requests, he or she will finally be able to fall asleep. But as you probably suspect, and may have experienced, this is usually not the case.

You might also have found that if you do try to set limits at bedtime, your child becomes angry or distressed, and since you do not want him or her to be upset just before falling asleep, you give up and give in, night after night.

Bedtime problems and limit-setting issues are even more common if a child has any type of special need or medical issue, or if parents feel a bit guilty about the quantity or quality of time they are able to spend with their children. Finally, many parents are not sure how to set consistent limits at bedtime if their child is hyperactive or anxious.

Why Does My Child Have Sleep Problems?

Before you begin coaching your child to be a great sleeper, let’s examine the two most common mistakes you might be making at bedtime:

• staying with your child until he or she falls completely and deeply asleep

• not setting clear limits at bedtime by allowing too many extra requests or trips out of the room after the bedtime routine is over

You might be making these mistakes with all of the right intentions, of course, but they can result in a child who is a very poor sleeper. Let’s explore why.

Mistake #1: Staying with Your Child Until He or She Falls Completely Asleep

All parents know and love the joys of bedtime snuggling. However, the first mistake you might be making is staying with your child every night (or almost every night) until he or she falls completely asleep instead of gradually teaching your child how to self-comfort and fall asleep independently.

Staying with your child at bedtime teaches your child to depend on your presence in order to fall asleep. Sometimes you might provide even more than just your presence. You might be offering many additional comforting behaviors such as holding your child’s hand, singing a certain song over and over, or rubbing your child’s back for long periods. Since these behaviors help your child fall asleep and eventually become necessary each and every night, they are sometimes called “sleep crutches” or “sleep props” (or even the unwieldy “negative sleep-onset associations”).

No matter what these are called, they all refer to the fact that your child has not learned to fall asleep independently. For example, your child may have learned to fall asleep easily while you read a book aloud. Or perhaps your child can fall asleep quickly if allowed to twirl a strand of your hair or hold your hand. Your child may have learned to fall asleep only on the living room couch while you and your spouse watch a show, or your preschool child may have learned to fall asleep only while drinking milk from a cup or bottle you frequently refill for her.

Children who have become used to this type of comforting often have a difficult time falling asleep at bedtime. This is because sometimes you might try to leave before your child is fully asleep, and your child must stay “on guard” to make sure you remain nearby. Because you might try to leave before your child is deeply asleep, he or she might also ask to do things that involve a physical connection with you so that it is much more difficult for you to slip away too soon (like asking to hold your hand).

This type of comforting at bedtime is also problematic because most children wake up several times during the night, usually at the end of a sleep cycle. Since your child has become used to falling asleep only with your help, your child will have a problem getting back to sleep whenever he or she awakens, whether this happens the first time you try to slip out, or later during the night.

When your child awakens and you are no longer available, your child doesn’t have what he or she needs to fall back to sleep. If you are no longer nearby to provide the back rub or the hand-holding he or she requires, your child will call out or come to find you. He or she must try to recreate the same conditions that were present at bedtime.

Your child cannot fall asleep independently without these things, and only you can provide them. This problem results in extended bedtime routines as well as frequent and long night awakenings. This situation also leads to exhausted parents and frustrated children.

Adults have preferred ways of falling asleep, too, of course. You probably like a certain type of pillow or want to sleep on a certain side of the bed. If you woke up at night and your pillow was gone or you found yourself in a different place, you might also have difficulty returning to sleep. If your child awakens and you are gone, he or she will have the same kind of difficulty returning to sleep, too. If your child fears that you will leave before he or she is asleep, your child will try to remain alert and watchful just as you would if you feared that someone might take your pillow as you were trying to fall asleep.

However, this type of parental comforting can be gradually replaced with behaviors that allow your child to self-soothe and with security objects that can always be present for your child. If you woke up and found that your pillow was gone but you could easily reach over and find it again, you would retrieve it quickly and fall right back to sleep. If your child wakes up and finds that he or she has everything necessary to self-comfort, your child will soon be able to fall back to sleep quickly and independently, too, after some coaching and practice.

It’s also important to put a child to bed each night in his or her own room. Your child might be able to fall asleep quickly in your bed, even without you in it, because he or she knows you will be coming to bed later. Your child also might be able to fall asleep easily on the living room sofa while you do chores in the kitchen or watch TV nearby, but when he or she wakes up in his or her own bed later after being carried there, your child will almost always call out or come to find you. Sometimes your child might even go back to the living room sofa during the night after an awakening and turn on the TV again to try to get back to sleep. Your child has had no practice falling asleep in his or her own cozy and quiet room. It would be disconcerting for you to wake up somewhere other than where you fell asleep, so be sure to teach your child to fall asleep only in his or her own room.

Mistake #2: Not Setting Clear Limits by Allowing Too Many Extra Requests

If your child doesn’t know how to fall asleep independently, he or she will try to put off falling asleep as long as possible. So, the second mistake you might be making is allowing too many extra requests or trips out of the room after the bedtime routine ends. In this book, these extra requests are referred to as “callbacks,” and these trips out of the room are referred to as “curtain calls.”

Callbacks refer to all of those additional requests or demands your child makes when the bedtime routine is supposed to be over. Your child might want to tell you one more story about the day or ask for one more glass of water. Your child might want multiple escorted trips to the bathroom or ask to give you another hug and kiss. Your child might tell you something hurts, even when nothing seemed to be bothering him or her just before bedtime. Your child might begin to make lots of noise or jump up and down on the bed so you will come quickly back to his or her room. Your child might even exhibit fearful behaviors such as clinging, crying, or talking about seeing monsters (or other frightening things).

Curtain calls are those trips out of the room your child makes to find you in order to make these same types of requests. Your child might want to give you one more hug, let you know that he or she already misses you, or tell you a funny story about something that happened at school that day.

You might be allowing these callbacks and curtain calls in the mistaken belief that once your child has everything he or she needs, your child will finally fall asleep. In reality, your child learns there is no clear endpoint to the bedtime routine. When you keep responding to all these requests, you are actually (but unintentionally, of course) rewarding your child for staying awake!

Your child loves being with you and naturally wants as much time with you as possible (even when it’s long past time to go to sleep). When you combine this with the fact that your child does not yet know how to fall asleep independently, your child will try to extend the bedtime routine as long as possible (far past the point of exhaustion) in order to put off the task of learning to fall asleep independently.

Note that these kinds of behaviors usually do not indicate that your child has some kind of anxiety-related issue. Instead, your child is just demonstrating that he or she does not yet know how to fall asleep independently. Your child will try all of these behaviors to keep you nearby because that’s the only way he or she knows how to get the job done.

Typical callbacks and curtain calls might include the following:

• asking for one more story, one more hug, or one more blanket tuck

• bypassing a water cup in the bathroom to ask you for water

• asking for something else to eat, even after having a substantial bedtime snack

• asking for one more escorted trip to the bathroom • reporting a bad dream after only a brief period of sleep

• reporting a monster sighting or a strange noise

• telling you that he or she feels sick or that something hurts (when nothing seemed to be the matter just before bedtime)

• making so much noise with a sibling that you have to come back to their room

• insisting on falling asleep next to you on the sofa or in your bed.

Until you teach your child to fall asleep independently, and until you set consistent limits at bedtime, your child will have difficulty falling and staying asleep.

Sleep coaches often work with families on these issues, but sleep coaches can be expensive. Instead of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars for sleep training, you can learn how to teach your child to become a great sleeper by addressing these two mistakes with the easy five step plan in Part II of this book.

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