Sleepless Nights…Beyond the Crib (Pedcast)

Sleep problems are common with preschoolers as well as elementary age children. Here is a simple but effective strategy to deal with the majority of children who have separation difficulties at night. Sweet dreams!

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Sleep problems in older children

It is very common for children who are out of the crib to have sleep problems; it probably stems from our tribal roots. Children don’t like to be separated from their parents, especially at night. Their very survival depended on staying with the tribe! One of our most primal fears is fear of abandonment. Add to that a vivid imagination that develops at around 2 years of age and you have a recipe for serious trouble with regards to sleep. Sleep problems are an everyday problem presented to most pediatricians; I have a lot of experience with this problem. Today, I plan to discuss my dos and don’ts for helping children with nighttime fears. I will give you a practical strategy to smooth nighttimes with preschool and young children. If you already have sleep problems, today’s pedcast is definitely for you. Pay close attention. If not, maybe we can avoid many sleepless nights.

Let me remind my listeners that by listening to this podcast, you are agreeing to my terms of use posted at my website, This podcast is intended to provide information that is general and not specific advice for an individual child.

If your child is begging you to stay with them until they fall asleep, the skill they are lacking is laying down and falling asleep without you. “Daddy, I need to potty, Mommy, I need some water, Daddy, just one more story. Mommy, I’m scared.” What your child is really saying is, “Sleep with me or can I sleep with you, because I don’t want to separate from you, Mommy.” In other words, the tribe might move on! Here is a strategy to help your child become more independent at night and overcome the challenge of separating from his/her parents for sleep. I am going to show you how to get Janie or Johnny to calmly go to bed without raising your voice, locking doors, or disrupting the entire neighborhood.

So, let’s get started.

Step one…Ritualize bedtime: cut out magazine pictures of a child eating, reading, bathing, and then getting into bed. Post these on the refrigerator door (one of the central communication devices for parents) and refer to them every night to decide what is the next step in the bedtime routine. Make sure you use it to direct your child’s bedtime.

Step 2…Make “The Deal.” Here is the agreement you will have with your child: if they are quiet and stay in their bed playing, reading, or whatever, you will come and check on them frequently. By doing so, everyone gets what they want out of this deal.  The child does not get left to themselves because you are visiting frequently, and you get a child in their bed where they will eventually fall asleep without you. MAGIC!

Step three…Put the plan into motion and BE CONSISTENT and PATIENT. Don’t forget to praise success and ignore failure.

In your child’s mind, you are not gone, but in reality, they are falling asleep without you and getting comfortable with that…just like riding a bike or learning to swim…you are right there to assist, but they are learning to do this independently. If books are the entertainment in their bed, they become literate to boot!

I recommend that you DON’T, even once in a while, do the following:

-Lay down with your child

-Sit in the room

-Let them get drowsy or fall asleep somewhere other than their bed and then take them to bed

-Use a TV or videogame  as a surrogate parent

-Put them in your bed

If your child is sick or there is an unusual circumstance such as frightening weather, break the rules. All bets are off. Help them get to sleep, but get back to your routine as soon as things are normal.

Question:   OH, OH, DocSmo, what do I do if my Janie wakes up in the middle of the night and comes running??

I’m glad you asked.

Simply do the exactly same thing.

If your child is sneaky and creeps out of their room to sleep on your floor or get into your bed at night, I recommend that you put a bell on their door so you can hear them if they are out of their bed.  Some parents put the bell on the child instead.

Question: But Doc Smo, how long will this process take?

Probably about 2 weeks to become smooth, 2 months to become the new reality.

Question: Doc Smo, what do I do when we go to grandma’s and sleep… Sharp audience today, good questions. I recommend  the same ritual.

Question: How  about when we all sleep in a hotel? That’s tough. Not many choices when you are all in the same room. Just retrain when you get home.

Question: Doc Smo. What if I did everything you said and this training doesn’t work after two weeks?

Under those circumstances, you need to consider the possibility that your child may have delayed emotional development, trouble with anxiety, ADD, or a myriad of other reasons they don’t sleep well. Consult your child’s pediatrician; they know you and your child best.

Let’s review the steps to help children with sleep separation:

-Ritualize bedtime and be consistent.  I recommend the refrigerator picture method.

-Reassure your child that you are there to help them with a task that they find difficult with the “frequent checking” method.

-Keep the ritual simple, and you are NOT going to do the following:

—Lay down with them.

—Sit in the room.

—Let them fall asleep somewhere else and take them to bed.

—Use a TV or videogame as a surrogate for you.

—Or put them in bed with you.

You can break the rules for unusual circumstances, but the more consistency the better.

Thanks for joining me today. I hope you found that talk useful if you have little ones who resist sleep. Your comments are welcome on the blog. Start a conversation. This is your host, Dr. Paul Smolen, broadcasting in full digital splendor from studio 1E in Charlotte, NC hoping your children get a good nights sleep without as much as a  peep.


Until next time.

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