How to win the battle over bedtime with kids aged 3 to 5

It’s late. After a tiring day of learning, playing and exploring, your little boy or girl should be able to toddle off happily to bed with a yawn and a kiss.

Yet, every night, something goes wrong. As you climb the stairs for the umpteenth time to answer the cries or squelch the horseplay, you wonder why bedtime has to be bad time.

Battles over bedtime are exhausting for parents and kids alike, and they are very common: 52 percent of children from about ages 3 to 5 stall at bedtime, according to a 2004 National Sleep Foundation study.

But new research by Douglas M. Teti, a professor of human development, psychology and pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University, shows that, if you can stay calm and remain attentive to your child’s needs at bedtime, it can pay off at all times of the day.

Teti and several other researchers used cameras to study bedtime behavior in 45 homes with children ages 6 to 24 months over a span of about 18 months. They visited each family for a week and found that children of parents who were good at detecting drowsiness, didn’t get hostile and structured the nighttime routine carefully were more likely to drift off easily and sleep through the night. While Teti’s research was on very young children, the same approach can also benefit older children, he says.

“Try to be sensitive and warm,” Teti says. “What’s the alternative? To lose your temper? I don’t see that helping anything.”

Teti and other experts on sleeping and child psychology offer these tips for helping your nighttime monsters get the 11 to 13 hours of sleep recommended by the National Sleep Foundation for ages 3 to 5.

  • In the last hour before bed, turn to quiet and relaxing activities, and make it the same each night. A soothing bath, a snack, some favorite books, cuddle time, soft music and quiet conversation can help nudge a child toward sleep.

  • Unplug. The nighttime schedule should not involve television, computer games or surfing the Internet, says Judith A. Owens, an associate professor of pediatrics at Brown University and author of “Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep” (Marlowe, 2005). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents keep televisions and computers out of kids’ bedrooms.

  • Give up the afternoon nap, or shift bedtime a little later to better suit your child’s internal clock. Children often stop napping sometime between ages 3 and 4, experts say. If they are having trouble getting to sleep at night, they might be ready to kiss the afternoon siesta goodbye.

  • Issue a hall pass. To eliminate the curtain calls for one last drink of water, hug or trip to the bathroom after lights-out, Owens suggests giving your child a cardboard pass to get up once. Take it away after it has been used. “It’s a very tangible, concrete message that this is the limit on what you’re allowed to do,” she says.

  • Use positive reinforcement. Small rewards and especially verbal praise can go a long way toward easing bedtime woes. Aim for two or three uneventful bedtimes in a row, and keep increasing the goal.

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