by Jonathan Bloomberg, M.D.
Getting any preschool age child into bed at night can be a nightmare. Although parents like to think that they give enough time to their children, many who work have only a quick dinner with their children and then put them to bed. All too often, this brief interaction becomes a battle that leaves children crying and screaming and parents feeling inadequate and guilty. Although parents may come home tired and exasperated by their day of work, children see their entrance through the front door as a signal that "quality time" will commence.
Making Bedtime Quality Time
A regular routine or ritual can provide a successful transition to bedtime that allows parents to avoid bedtime struggles and give the quality time their child needs. Routine and regularity provide a sense of safety and predictability for preschoolers. Using a bedtime ritual, therefore, dovetails nicely with where children this age are developmentally. Establishing a set bedtime is the most critical part of the bedtime ritual. It should be gently but firmly enforced. Allowing your child to help you devise the actual ritual gives him or her a sense of control. The ritual should be made into a picture chart and prominently displayed to eliminate arguments-a frequent obstacle in successful bedtime procedures.
Establishing a Rewarding Routine
The bedtime routine should, of course, involve getting into pajamas, using the toilet, brushing teeth, and getting a last drink. It should also involve a time element for carrying out each activity. Using an egg timer can provide a fun way for children to guage whether they are staying on schedule or not. Lastly, the bedtime ritual should include a pleasant quiet activity, such as a story, that serves to calm the child and reward him or her for complying with the rest of the routine. Try to avoid lying down with your child until he or she has fallen asleep. Children need to know that they are able, to settle themselves into bed. Being able to do so fosters feelings of self-reliance and confidence that carry over into future developmental milestones.
Tailoring a Routine
If you are the parent of a newly adopted child, you may have additional concerns to consider. Your child may associate going to sleep with another separation, arousing in him or her feelings of anxiety and fear. The bedtime ritual for your child may need to be devised over a longer time-one to one and a half hours as opposed to one-half hour, for example. Your child may also benefit from a transitional object. A recent move may make children feel a loss of control over what happens to them. Allowing them to choose the type or color of pillow or blanket they want or taking them to the bookstore to pick out books they want to read before going to sleep can give them back some control. If your child is recently adopted, you can also use the bedtime ritual to help foster bonding. You can ask your child about the best and worst parts of his or her day. This tells your child that you are interested in the good and the bad things that happen to him or her.
Jonathan Bloomberg, M.D., child psychiatrist, is chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Rockford Memorial Hospital and clinical assistant professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois School of Medicine.
Tips for Easing Bedtime Battles
o Establish a bedtime ritual.
o Avoid high-energy activities.
o Give your child a choice of transitional objects, i.e., blanket, pillow, or book.
o Focus on getting into bed, not on going to sleep.
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