Maybe you’re a first-time parent of a less-than-one-year-old. Maybe your kiddo is going through a sleep cycle shift. The switch to summer vacation and longer daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere can leave even veteran parents wondering how to get your kid to go to sleep.
And as seasoned parents know, you will find yourself asking this question more than once over the course of your children’s lifetimes. Different ages and stages bring different challenges.
However, knowing you’re not the first parent to face a given challenge is small comfort when it’s YOUR kid that refuses to sleep (and thereby deprives you of your own shuteye) on a given night.
If you’re stuck wondering how to get your kid to go to sleep, here’s what I’ve learned on my long journey with this problem.
My street cred on sleepless kids
This post is NOT a guaranteed sure-fire solution for your child’s every sleep problem. Rather, it’s more a checklist of bases to cover, drawn from extensive research born out of desperation:
- My girls were never good nappers. It was all I could do to get them to take one nap a day before they gave them up altogether, each well before her third birthday.
- Hence, when my friend Jennica asked recently how we handled the two-naps-to-one transition when the girls were toddlers, my first reaction was to laugh with envy.
- But as I soon realized, all the reading and research I’d done on how to get your kid to go to sleep was still relevant.
As always, I am far from an expert on this topic – but here’s what the real experts say on how to get your kid to go to sleep, along with tips on how we’ve implemented their advice in our own home.
How To Get Your Kid To Go To Sleep: Bases to Cover
If you’re early on this journey of desperation, everything I’ve learned about how to get your kid to go to sleep can be boiled down into two big checklists:
- One involves the setting, or the sleep environment around your kiddo;
- The other involves your child’s bedtime routine (and yes, routines matter, whether your child is age 18 months or 18 years).
1. Check the setting
Check the bedroom first. A few simple adjustments could solve the problem:
A. Is the room dark enough?
A lot of children are very sensitive to light, as are lots of grown-ups.
- If your child’s room doesn’t already have them, invest in good blinds or room-darkening shades.
- Still not dark enough? Add some blackout drapes as well.
For south-facing rooms, outside street lamps, or Alaskan summers, try this final step: a layer of black landscaping fabric between the window glass and the screen. It looks odd, but it’s inexpensive, and it works.
B. What’s the background noise like?
Too much background noise from the street outside? Or from the TV blaring downstairs, or the baby sibling crying next door?
- Try a good noise machine, so you can drown out background sounds. Bonus: they’re small enough to take along when you travel.
- Or add a fan or air filter to the room, which will also add a layer of “dull roar” to the background.
- The cheapest alternative: set a clock radio between stations on the AM dial, for instant white noise.
C. Too hot? Too cold?
Too hot, and your kiddo won’t go to sleep. Too cold, and you’ll get a wakeup call in the middle of the night.
- Dress infants in warm layers of sleep sacks (NEVER loose blankets, which have been linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
- Toddlers do well with heavyweight footed pajamas in the winter; as active sleepers, they’ll kick off blankets.
- Older kiddos may enjoy cool rooms plus layers of blankets. Even some adults like the weight of blankets on them; the heaviness of layers mimics being swaddled as a baby, and promotes better sleep.
- For infants in the summer, fans are better than air-conditioning. Add a muslin sleep sack for infants, or muslin blankets for toddlers.
- Consider investing in a ceiling fan, for year-round comfort for all ages.
2. Check your routine
If your kid’s sleep space checks out, see if your sleepytime routine needs a reboot:
A. Do you have a routine?
- For babies under one, options include a bath, massage, last bottle or nursing, gum-wiping or tooth-brushing (DON’T let your kid sleep with a bottle!), lullabies, and rocking.
- For toddlers and preschoolers, add in tooth-brushing and one last trip to the toilet or potty.
- As your child gets older, you might include picking up their room, choosing the next day’s school outfit, reading a story, deep breathing or other relaxation techniques, talking about their day, or bedtime prayers.
B. Are you consistent?
Doing it EXACTLY the same EVERY night is not what matters; doing it MOSTLY the same, MOST nights, is what counts.
- This also means a consistent bedtime. Don’t make it later on weekends. They’ll still wake up early, you’ll all suffer from crabby overtired kids all weekend, and then they won’t be able to go to sleep on Sunday night before school.
- Be consistent when traveling, too. Sleeping in a strange place is hard; use your familiar routine from home to cue your kiddo’s body to the fact that it’s time to go to sleep.
- If you can, pack a favorite story, your child’s noise machine, and whatever else will help you keep the routine intact while you’re away.
It can be hard to sleep when you’re in a strange place, so sticking to your regular routine will help cue your kiddo’s body to the fact that it’s bedtime.
C. Does your routine need tweaking?
Routines change over time, as kiddos grow and change.
- A child going through a growth spurt may appreciate a little gentle massaging on sore muscles and joints, even if the same child hated massages as a baby.
- New baby in the house? Maybe it’s time to add – or bring back – a noise machine.
- Switching to a big-kid bed may call for a new step to the old routine, to help your former crib-dweller get used to the new surroundings.
On the other hand, maybe something else in your kiddo’s environment has messed up the sleep routine.
- Longer days of summer approaching? Maybe now’s the time for room-darkening shades.
- Sibling rivalry spilling over? Working in more one-on-one time during the day with your insomniac may help.
- Or have your kids fallen into the unhealthy habit of screen time before bed? The experts all agree that this is a bad idea for good sleep. Eliminate all pre-bed screen time, and get its sources out of your kids’ bedroom.
Kid still won’t sleep?
If your child still won’t sleep, here are three books to try. The first two will help you get your point across to your little insomniac:
- Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney
- Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! by Dr. Seuss (OK, so not explicitly about going to sleep, but as a parent, I suspect that a child’s refusal to do so was what planted this story in Theodor Geisel’s mind)
- If your kiddo STILL refuses to sleep, then shut the door, put in some earplugs, pour yourself a glass of nice wine, find a comfy chair, and read this book to yourself. It is NOT fit to read to your offspring, but it will make you feel oh-so-much better to know you’re the latest in a very long line of parents who’ve faced this struggle.
Seriously, good luck – and remember that this, too, will pass.
Only to rear its ugly head later when you least expect it.
When it does (say, during the teenage years), revisit book suggestion #3 above as needed, and remind yourself that at least you know where they are!