Tell Us How to Get Our Kid to Sleep

It’s topic number one on the mind of every new parent. It overshadows every other question in the parenting universe, beating out how to breastfeed and when the baby should be rolling over. Forget all that. Tell us how to get this kid to sleep. Let’s be honest: We want them to sleep because we want to sleep.

But when every night is a battle, a lot of parents feel like they’ll never sleep again. “It’s hard to parent if you haven’t had enough sleep,” agrees Annika Brindley, a Washington, D.C.-based sleep consultant, and mother of three. But like other experts, she promises that the bedtime battles can indeed be won. Read on to find out how.

Babies (Birth to 18 Months)

Young babies sleep between 12 and 13 hours total each day, falling to about 11 to 12 hours by about 6 months. Every baby is different, of course. Some sleep more, others less. “All babies want to sleep,” says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night (Collins). Helping them — by getting them on a schedule and teaching them how to self-soothe — is the best way to win baby’s bedtime battles.

baby yawning

Typical Bedtime Battle #1: Baby Doesn’t Sleep Through the Night

Solution: First of all, get over the notion that “through the night” means anything like eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Five or six hours is more realistic. A baby can, in theory, accomplish this by 3 or 4 months, assuming she is not hungry, wet, or sick. If you let her, that is. Problems start when parents, unable to bear what sounds like anguished cries from the nursery, rush in to pick her up, soothe her, rock her, or nurse. Every parent understands that impulse. But by doing this, you are unwittingly setting the stage for bad sleep habits that will plague the entire family going forward.

It starts with the bedtime routine. “Parents fall into the habit of cuddling their babies to sleep,” says Mindell. “What starts out as a warm, positive, snuggle session ends up a bad habit because now your baby can’t fall asleep without that cuddling.” If you’ve been rocking or nursing your baby to sleep for six months, don’t be surprised that Grandma or the sitter (or Daddy) can’t get her down, she says.

“Good” sleep habits entail putting the baby to sleep in her crib while she’s still awake, so she falls asleep on her own. Once she learns to do this, she can soothe herself back to sleep when she wakes up at night. If you’re currently rocking or nursing your baby to sleep, it will take a bit of work to help her nod off without your help. You can go in at whatever intervals you’re comfortable with (say, five minutes), reassure her that you’re there and everything is okay, but don’t pick her up.

For some parents, this process is harrowing, taking a few hours until the baby stops crying and goes to sleep. But for most, the worst is over after two or three nights, and after a week or so, the baby has learned how to self-soothe. When a baby cries during the night, you’ve got to follow the same protocol — after you’ve checked that she’s dry and you know she’s not hungry or in pain. If you can’t bear to be in another room listening to her cry, sit next to her and reassure her that you’re there. Slowly move out of the room, a little farther each night. It will take longer for her to learn to soothe herself on her own, but you’ll get there eventually.

family in bed

Typical Bedtime Battle #2: Baby Won’t Go Down

Solution: If you have a baby who can’t fall asleep at night, chances are it’s because he didn’t get enough sleep during the day and is now completely wired. You would think that if a baby skipped a nap and had a full day of play, he would conk out for the night, leaving his parents to wallow in blissful consecutive hours of sleep. Ah, but it doesn’t work this way. The weird but true fact is that the better baby sleeps during the day, the easier it will be to get him down at night.

This means that for bedtime to go smoothly, most babies need a regular nap routine. But if your baby doesn’t fall into a pattern on his own, how do you get him to nod off? Most babies are ready for a morning nap an hour and a half to two hours after they’ve woken up. So if your child gets up at 7, he may be ready for his morning nap as early as 8:30. Even if he doesn’t seem tired, try putting him down. If you wait until he’s rubbing his eyes, you may miss the window. Similarly, the afternoon nap should follow about two hours after he gets up from the morning one. So if he woke up at 10, you might feed him at 11:30 and put him down for a nap at noon. Don’t make the mistake of keeping the baby up too late at night. “Better to push bedtime forward, so baby is ready to go to sleep but not overtired,” says Brindley.

Toddlers (18 months to 2 1/2 years)

Any toddler worth her froggy boots will try her best to avoid bedtime. Even if she’s been a good sleeper, your toddler’s newfound sense of independence is going to interfere with calling it a day. There’s too much going on in the world that she doesn’t want to miss, even if it’s seemingly dull things like you vacuuming and doing the dinner dishes. But even though they’re hard-wired to be contrary, toddlers need routine more than ever.

Typical Bedtime Battle #3: Your Tot Won’t Stay in Bed

These are the years when children typically transfer from the crib into a big-kid bed. A big deal, to be sure. But it can be an even bigger headache for parents hoping to get some much-needed shut-eye.

Solution: Consider holding off on the big-kid bed. Developmentally, some children are simply not ready for a bed until their third birthday. They might not even understand the idea of staying put. Kids who were great sleepers in a crib often fall apart when expected to stay in a bed with no restraints. Of course, if he’s climbing out and you’re worried about his safety, or you need the crib for number two, well, you have to do what you have to do. Expect that the novelty of being in a big-kid bed will cause some after-bed activity. How do you keep a toddler in bed? The answer may depend on what he’s doing out of bed. If he leaves her room, you’ll need to calmly escort him back, giving as little attention as possible. (Any excitement will cause him to keep doing it.) If he stays in his room, pulling out books and toys, you may choose to ignore it, depending on how long he stays up. Jodie Mathies, of Oakland, California, says that when her daughter was 2, she let her play after her official bedtime as long as she was quiet and stayed in her room. “I would generally check on her an hour or so later. She would be asleep, often wearing different clothes and sometimes fairy wings.”

Preschoolers (3 to 5 years old)

Call them professional toddlers. They’re bigger, better, smarter, and less likely to do your bidding unless they’ve been well trained otherwise.

child in pajamas holding teddy

Typical Bedtime Battle #4: Endless Curtain Calls

Solution: Create a lean, mean, bedtime routine and execute it without fail, every night, so your toddler knows exactly what to expect. Mindell suggests a tight 30 to 40 minutes of activities that don’t change from night to night. Give your toddler a sense of control by letting him pick certain elements. Bath first, or book? Which two books do you want? Try announcing a five-minute pre-bedtime reprieve, and setting the timer. When the time dings, it’s time to start the routine. Be consistent. You’ll be surprised at how your child clings to the routine, even as he protests that he’s not sleepy. And when you’re done, you’re done. What if your preschooler tries to prolong the routine with another book, another cup of water, and one more song?

A bedtime chart can be a handy tool, capitalizing on a preschooler’s love of rules. Incorporate every possible stalling tactic you can think of, and write it down on the chart. When your preschooler demands the third book, refer him to the chart. “It doesn’t call for a third book, darling.” You can also issue your child a bedtime pass, which he can use to redeem one more book or cup of water. Your call as to how often he gets it — anywhere from once a night to once a week. Letting him have a small win will result in a much bigger win for you.

Everything looks harder than it is when you’re not getting enough sleep. Try these tips, and your outlook should improve. Then you’ll have the energy and brain cells to tackle your next big parenting challenge!

Transitioning from the Family Bed

The family-bed thing was nice for a while. But now you’ve got a toddler or preschooler and, well, you and your husband would like your bed back, if not for a little privacy, then simply for sleep without a small pair of feet in your back every night.

Bide your time. Wait until life is calm with no big changes on the horizon: there are no new siblings on the scene; she’s potty trained; she’s used to her preschool schedule.

Start with small changes. Encourage her to nap in her own bed during the less intimidating daylight hours.

Let her stay in your room — but not in your bed. Sleep expert Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., recommends setting a futon or air mattress at the foot of your bed. Tell her that for now, the futon is her special bed in your room, until she’s ready to go to her own bed in her own room. Or put the mattress in her room, and you sleep on it, staying there until she’s used to staying on her own. Be patient. Work over the course of a week or two.

When she inevitably shows up in your room in the middle of the night, put her down on the futon or walk her back to her room with as little fuss as possible.

Julie Tilsner is a mom of two and the author of three humor books on parenting. Visit her Web site at

Originally published in American Baby magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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