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Bedtime Rituals

By Marybeth Lambe, M.D.



Just when you have congratulated yourself for getting your baby to sleep through the night, along come the preschool years. If your adopted son or daughter joined your family as an older child, you may face additional nighttime hurdles. Recently adopted children often experience sleep difficulties because of grief, attachment issues, or culture shock.

During the preschool years, children push for greater independence from parents. This desire, however, is balanced by fears of the unknown and a yearning for order. This ambivalence is most obvious at nighttime. Children at this age need rituals and routines, says childhood expert Dr. George Gesell. Routines console toddlers and preschoolers who are going through a period of rapid growth and learning. The comfort of rituals is important at transitional times such as meals, bedtimes, or during stress.

Children this age show a fierce prediliction for sameness. A child may insist that songs be sung just so, stories be told in a certain order, and stuffed toys be arranged to exacting standards.

Young children need help shifting gears from the excitement of their day to the quiet of bedtime. Bedtime routines and rituals can help provide reassurance that all is well and that your child will be safe when you leave him alone for the night.

Routines shouldn’t be extensive. In fact, parents must avoid giving in to ever-longer lists of requests. A short, happy routine is far better than one that exhausts the caregiver. Avoid television in the evening. Researchers report that children who watch a lot of television, especially at bedtime, are more likely to resist going to bed, have difficulty falling asleep, and wake up more during the night. Likewise, rough horseplay or exercise right before bed makes it difficult for a child to relax into sleep.

  • Nightly Tasks: Washing hands and face, tooth brushing, a trip to the potty, and putting on pajamas signal the approach of bedtime.
  • Bathtime: Sitting in warm water is relaxing, although some children dislike baths at bedtime. In those cases, wait until morning.
  • Games: Play a quiet game before bed. Puzzles and card games are great. And the game may be as simple as counting toys on a shelf.
  • A Quiet Visit: Bedtime is a chance to spend time talking about the day, discussing worries, planning a future event, or saying prayers.
  • Step Outside: Stand on the porch for a moment and wave goodnight to the moon or count the stars.
  • Read or Tell a Story: Read a bedtime story. Or weave a tale, together, just for the two of you.
  • Massage: Gentle massage is soothing and relaxing.
  • Songs: Singing a lullaby is a gentle way to help a sleepy child drift off.
  • Play Music: Turn on a favorite tape as you leave your child’s room to help his transition to sleep.

    By Marybeth Lambe, M.D. is a family practitioner in Seattle. She and her husband are the parents of eight children.

    ©2002 Adoptive Families magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
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