When Your Child Won’t Go To Sleep

If your child has difficulty falling and staying asleep, it can be tremendously frustrating. That’s because if your child is awake during the night, you will be, too. If your tranquil evenings are constantly interrupted by a child who gets out of bed, cries, or insists on sleeping with Mom and Dad, things can get miserable fast. Special needs children are especially prone to sleeping difficulties.

Here are some tips to help your child get to sleep:

1. Don’t allow your child to have sugary foods or drinks at least two hours before bedtime. If your child has bedwetting problems, avoid giving liquids before bed.

2. Have your child put his pajamas on RIGHT BEFORE starting his bedtime routine. Do not allow him to play all evening in his pajamas. Pajamas should become his “sleeping uniform,” where he makes a clear connection that “pajamas on” means bedtime routine begins.

3. Create a precise bedtime routine that you follow, at least initially, to the letter. This is very important, especially for children with mental disabilities. However, any child will benefit from a structured bedtime schedule. Here is an example of a good routine:

a) Pajamas on.

b) Brush teeth.

c) Two bedtime stories.

d) Mom’s special lullaby.

e) Prayer or soft conversation.

f) Tuck in with favorite comfort toy/blanket, and goodnight kiss.

It’s not tremendously important what you do in your routine, but it is very important that you follow it in the exact order, every night. (So don’t make it too complicated.) Even disabled children learn patterns very well. Mixing up or varying the routine can be confusing and cause anxiety for your son or daughter.

4. Offer reassurances with gradually increasing intervals. If your child screams or cries at your departure, calmly say, “If you stay in bed, I’ll be right back to check on you.” Go out of the room, and wait a few minutes. If she has remained in bed, re-enter the room, and comfort your child. “Mommy loves you. I’m so glad you’re staying in bed, good job.” Give your child a hug, again saying, “Goodnight, and I’ll come back to check on you.” Leave the room, waiting several minutes longer than the previous time. Re-enter the room, give brief words of reassurance, and leave again. Continue to do this, slightly increasing the interval between your returns each time.

5. If your child gets out of bed, you must be firm. Now your tone should change from soothing to calmly stern.

The idea is that:

Staying in bed = attention and soothing words from Mom or Dad.

Getting out of bed = almost no attention, and stern words.

Firmly say, “It’s bedtime. You must stay in your bed.” Take your child by the hand, without hugging or holding him, and quietly escort him back to bed. If he tantrums; ignore it. Do not make eye contact with your child or converse with him. Put him in bed, without hugs or kisses, saying, “If you stay in bed, I’ll come back to check on you.” Say nothing else and leave. In a few minutes, if your child has remained in bed, return with soothing words, reassurance, and a hug.

6. Make leaving the door open a privilege. If your child repeatedly gets out of bed, say, “If you stay in bed, I will leave your door open.” If the child still gets out of bed, she should be escorted back, and then you leave and close her door. Hold it shut firmly for a few minutes. Then open the door, saying, “You can have the door open if you stay in bed.”

7. Repeat this pattern, rewarding your child with reassurances for good behavior, and giving firm responses with very little attention for bad behavior. Gradually, you should be able to decrease the number of return visits to her room for reassurance until they are not needed at all.

Final thoughts…

With minor adaptations, this technique can work on children of just about any age or disability. I have used this method on nearly all of my children, including my oldest son when he was eight months old. He didn’t have the problem of getting out of bed, because he was still very young and slept in a crib. But he would scream mercilessly when our bedtime routine ended and he was put down. So I would wait a few minutes outside his door, then return to reassure him. I would hug him as he wailed in his crib, but did not get him out of bed. Each time I left, I increased the time before returning.

With each of my children, it took about three or four nights of my following the above steps, and then miraculously they would fall asleep at the end of the bedtime routine, without needing me to check back. The screaming or getting out of bed stopped entirely. (Of course, all children occasionally have a bad night.) Consistency is the key to helping your child go to bed and fall easily to sleep.

If the above technique offers no improvement, check with your pediatrician. It’s possible your child may have a physical condition causing the sleep problems, requiring medication or treatment.

If your child is waking in the night with strange behavior or terrible screams of fright, she may be experiencing night terrors. Read my blog about night terrors by clicking here.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.