A received the following question in an email from a parent: “Our son is three years old and for the past three months he has not been sleeping well. Depending on the night, it can take numerous attempts to get him to go to sleep and then when he does, he wakes up every 3 hours or so and it can take a while for him to go back to sleep. He never had any issues with sleep prior to this. His father and I are married and have a great loving relationship and nothing has changed in our family at all over the past year. What thoughts do you have for us in dealing with his sleep issues?”
Here is my reply to this parent: Children go through different phases throughout their childhood and sometimes their behavior doesn’t make sense to us. They could see something scary quickly, hear adults talking about something alarming or a friend at school might tell them something that bothers them. The most important thing for you to do is to remain calm around this issue. When children see their parents acting calm and not appearing anxious, it can actually help them calm down as well. Here are a few things you can do right away.
DO SOMETHING AS A FAMILY IN THE HOUR OR TWO BEFORE HIS BEDTIME. I know it can be difficult for working parents, but make time for it anyway. Spend time together reading a book, playing a quiet game, or talking. This loving activity will help him to feel loved and know that his family is OK.
IDENTIFY THE PRIMARY ACTIVITIES AT BEDTIME AND SEE THAT THEY HAPPEN. With him, create a visual list of what he needs to do: potty, get PJs on, a story, teeth brushing, and a drink of water. Creating a visual list will help create sameness and routine. Children with more sameness and routine in their lives feel more comforted and calm. I love the product called SCHKIDULES (http://www.schkidules.com) because they allow parents to create visual routines for little and big children.
GUIDE HIM BACK SILENTLY EACH TIME HE GETS OUT OF BED. Tell him in advance that starting tonight, after he gets tucked into bed, one parent will guide him back to his bed and they will not be able to speak to him. Role play this. Make believe to tuck him into bed and then when he gets out, calmly and lovingly (without speaking) guide him back to his bed and leave the room immediately.
Remember, no talking to the child when he gets out of bed after being officially tucked in. But be sure and smile and lovingly return him to his bed immediately and then leave his room. Do this whether he wakes while you’re up or after you go to sleep. Your job is to create sameness, routine and to draw boundaries and follow through.