Kids That Go Bump in the Night

6 strategies to set up good sleep habits and discourage midnight drop-ins

By Aviva Patz

kids_bump_in_the_nightYou've survived the up-every-two-hours newborn period, and you're finally slumbering peacefully through the night. Out of nowhere, your toddler starts showing up like an uninvited guest at all hours. "I lost my blankie," she says. "I'm thirsty." "I wanted to give you one more hug." There's a million reasons your merry wanderer may give for crawling out of bed, but there's only one thing you need to know at that time of night: It's critical to get your child back to sleep for the full 12 or so hours she needs.

"Families need to make sleep a priority because it affects every aspect of a child's well being -- health, behavior, development and the ability to learn," says Saint Joseph's University psychology professor Jodi Mindell, PhD, author of Sleeping Through the Night (Collins) and Sleep Deprived No More (Marlowe & Company). "If children don't get enough sleep, they're cranky and irritable, they're more likely to have behavioral problems, and they're more likely to get sick because sleep deprivation compromises the immune system." You're more likely to get cranky, too, especially when your child's third curtain call of the night is at 3 a.m.

Why do toddlers develop nocturnal wanderlust? Often it's because they switched from the crib to the bed too early and are suddenly free to roam. "Before age three, they don't have the self-control to stay in bed, and they're not yet capable of grasping the imaginary confines of a bed," says Mindell. Parents can make things worse. "When kids won't stay put in bed, parents get into the habit of hanging out until they fall asleep, so then when kids wake up, they're primed to seek out their parents to help them fall back to sleep."

Here are six strategies to set up good sleep habits and discourage midnight drop-ins:

Delay the switch from crib to bed until your child is three
If you've got a climber, use a crib tent to keep your tot safe and snug -- and contained -- in bed.

Set a few clear nighttime rules and enforce them
Rules might be: When lights go out, you need to stay in bed until morning. And, you may call with a request --for water or another hug, for example -- only once.

Define morning Some children understand that morning means seeing the sun through their window. For those who don't, Mindell recommends putting a nightlight on a timer and setting it to turn on at the desired wake-up time. Children should know that when the good morning light comes on, they can get out of bed.

Kick them out If you're not a fan of the family bed, be clear and consistent about sending your child back to her own room when she tries to crawl in beside you. Unlike babies, toddlers can sneak in quietly and slide under the covers without disturbing you. Put a bell on your doorknob so you'll wake up if your child enters.

Don't reward nighttime awakenings with fun or cuddles If your child shows up and wants to play or hang out with you, don't allow it. If you do, it's an incentive for her to repeat the performance another night. Instead, send her back to bed. If she claims she can't sleep, suggest that she sing to herself, daydream or take a book or toy into bed.

Do reward a full night's sleep by using a sticker chart Give your child a sticker in the morning for staying in bed all night. Have reasonable goals that you reinforce every day: If your child earns three stickers, she gets a prize. It could be a bike ride with you, a trip to the library, or maybe he gets to choose what's for dinner or an activity for the weekend. "It doesn't have to feel like a bribe, or cost money or be materialistic," Mindell says. "It's simply compensation -- and we get it at work all the time."

More about toddlers and sleep: Man. aging Your Toddler's 5 a.m. Wake-up Call

Aviva Patz has written for numerous national publications including Parents, Parenting, Health, Self, Redbook and Marie Claire.

From KIDCOMPLISHMENT, a program made possible by Studio One Networks. KIDCOMPLISHMENT provides parents of toddlers, ranging from two to four years old, with information, resources and solutions necessary to make this time as carefree as possible.

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