It’s late. The lights are out and shades are drawn. The thermostat has been lowered and you’ve slipped into an oversized t-shirt or shorts. A book is in your hand, or Netflix is on TV. And, for a few moments, all’s right with the world. This is “me” time at it’s finest. Self-care is its purest form. But then you hear the creeping and creaking. Someone is walking down the hall, toward your room, and you know: Me time is about to turn to “we” time. Your queen sized bed just got two sizes too small. Why? Because you have a sleepless child. Because you are one of millions of moms and dads who (like me) has a kid who refuses to stay in their own fucking room — and it’s frustrating as all hell.
“While there are many reasons why toddlers get up in the middle of the night, one of the primary reasons is because we [as humans] are biologically hardwired to wake up throughout the night as a survival mechanism,” Courtney Bolton — a child and family psychologist — tells Scary Mommy. “When this happens, children may experience hunger, thirst, fear of the dark, or go looking for mom or dad, especially if they fell asleep in their arms… the good news is that children usually outgrow their fear of the dark around seven or eight, when they are in first or second grade.” However, three or four sleepless years is, well, a lot.
Here are eight tips, tricks, and strategies to help you reclaim your comforter and keep your little love bug in their own room.
Create a bedtime routine.
While most of us know the importance of having a solid routine, did you know bedtime routines can make or break your kiddos’ evening? It’s true. “Creating routines at night can provide security for toddlers,” Bolton says. It helps them feel safe and protected and lets them know what to expect. But what does a good bedtime routine look like? “You may want to read a story, turn off the lights, sing a song, say prayers, or recall the good things about the day,” Bolton says. Baths before bed are also clutch, as they help young ones wind down. But the details don’t matter. Not really. What matters is that you are persistent and consistent.
Get a night light.
From Elsa and Anna to Spiderman, Minnie Mouse, and the characters from Cars, there are thousands of different night lights on the market. The options are (seemingly) endless. But the best choice may not be your first choice. “Children (and adults) wake up naturally several times throughout the night, and any light can interrupt the sleep cycle,” Bolton tells Scary Mommy. “We normally return to sleep in the dark more easily until morning light peeks in. If you are going to get a light, keep it very dim and avoid anything with blue light.”
You may also want to consider purchasing a “wake up light” for your little one. “Using a digital clock or a red light/green light clock will help your child differentiate between the morning and evening,” Whitney Roban — a clinical psychologist and family sleep specialist — tells Scary Mommy. “Using color, this device will let your child know when it’s time to wake up.”
Most of us know about the detrimental effects of blue light. Blue light can negatively impact our vision and suppress melatonin, a key hormone for sleep. But there are numerous reasons why children should avoid screens before bed. “Watching TV can deplete a preschooler’s resources to rationally think through fears and reason, even if the subject matter isn’t scary. Even if the cartoon is benign. It also can lead to an overly excited mind,” Bolton tells Scary Mommy.
To avoid this, turn off the TV — and shut down screens — at least one hour before bed.
Make sure your child’s room is dark, quiet, and cool.
Pretty obvious, but worth noting.
Put your child to bed groggy but not asleep.
While the condition of your child’s room is important, so too is the state of their physical being and mind. “Do not let your child fall asleep on you or with you, as this can turn into a habit and interrupt sleep patterns,” Bolton says. “It’s better to leave the room and check in or leave the room and return them to bed than to let them fall asleep holding you each night.”
Create a sleep plan.
One of the greatest things you can do to help your child — and yourself — is to create a sleep plan. “Create a strategy for how you will approach night wakings and make sure all caregivers are on the same page as to how to handle the night waking,” Roban tells Scary Mommy. “A popular sleep training method for toddlers — out of a crib — and older children is ‘the silent return,’ where you walk your child back to his or her bed at every waking, with no verbal or physical engagement or reinforcement.”
“Make sure all caregivers are 100% consistent with the sleep plan you create so your child knows that all adults are on the same page and the adults are in control of what happens at night, not the child,” Roban adds. “When the child has a consistent sleep schedule, sleep routine, and sleep plan, the child will feel a sense of control over bedtime and sleep”
If your child is afraid of the dark or experiencing night terrors, you should help them confront their fears. After all, the only way to overcome fear is to face it. But how can you help a child who is afraid of the dark? Well, you can get creative. “One thing we like to do in my house is look for shadow shapes, such as puppies, clouds and other objects in the shadows,” Bolton explains. “The goal is to lessen the fear and link being in the dark with fun — but not overly exciting — activities. However, it’s important to note that anything too exciting can have the undesirable effect of keeping your kids awake when they should be sleeping.” Keep nighttime activities quiet and (relatively) calm.
When all else fails, try bargaining and (a little bit of) bribery.
If you’re at your wits’ end or simply looking for (yet another) solution to your sleep struggles, you may want to consider bribery — also known as a reward system. “Implementing a reward system … will help give children external motivation to stay in their bed at night,” Roban explains. This typically works for children two and up.
Keeping your kids in their own beds at night may take a little work at first, but the reward will be worth it when everyone gets better rest. Now if we could just stop having to get up to pee …