As a parent, you’ve probably been talking about sleep in some form or another since your child was born. I know I have and it isn’t just because I’m a sleep consultant. As a mom, especially of an infant, the idea of your child sleeping through the night can be all consuming. Some parents choose to sleep train, others wait it out, and still others have amazing sleepers right off the bat (oh, how I envy thee!). But once you pass the infant stage and your child still isn’t sleeping, it becomes a little harder to decide how to proceed. So how do you deal with an older child—I’m talking a child who is in their own bed and can open their bedroom door---who still isn’t sleeping?
First and foremost, I like to look at the child’s daytime schedule.
Is my 6 year-old really ready to go all day without a nap and a 9 PM bedtime? Probably not. That’s a really late bedtime especially for children who don’t nap. Does my 4 year-old still need a two-hour nap in the middle of the day? If it means too late of a bedtime or too early of a wakeup, then possibly not. Some children do still nap through kindergarten, but you have to make sure they aren’t getting too much daytime sleep causing them to shorten their nights.
Look at the light.
A few hours before bedtime, dim the lights and remove all electronic devices. Easier said than done for sure, but dimming the lights stimulates the melatonin production (the hormone responsible in part for sleep) and helps their bodies start to wind down and get sleepier. In terms of electronics, as per the National Sleep Foundation, “The blue light that’s emitted from these screens can delay the release of sleep-inducing melatonin, increase alertness, and reset the body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm ) to a later schedule.”
In order to have your child go a full night (sometimes 12 hours) without needing to eat, you need to make sure they get plenty of protein and carbohydrates throughout the day. Especially for those with picky diets, it might be challenging to get enough food to help them not wake up hungry. There are also some sneaky ways to incorporate melatonin-inducing food into a pre-bedtime snack. Banana is a super food for sleep. Try a peanut butter and banana snack slightly before bedtime (not too close as you don’t want digestion to interfere with sleep) or try some tart cherry juice at night. There are many foods that boost melatonin production. However, a common misnomer is that milk helps with sleep and that’s actually not true. The only time that milk has been shown to have an adequate amount of melatonin is when the cows are milked at night. So unless you can guarantee when those cow’s have been milked, you might be better off with some other melatonin-inducing snacks. (see reference here)
Stop the Stalling.
The common phrase from my child lately is, “Mom, I need a drink of water.” While this is great for the first cup, it often turns into a battle of wills. I always allow my children 3 stalls-a cup of water, a bathroom run, a hug or kiss, etc. After that however, it’s in bed and lights out. The longer you respond to the constant questions and asking for one more drink or one more book, the harder it will be to find a time to cut it off. This ends up delaying bedtime sometimes into overtired territory as well.
Gentle Sleep Training.
When all else fails, for this age, you may need to attempt a form of sleep training. I use that word lightly here because it’s not as simple as doing a form of CIO or just leaving the room. Older children need to feel secure (especially if that’s part of the reason they are waking) as well to have clear cut boundaries. I never advocate locking a child in their room because not only can that be a hazard but that can ultimately hurt their trust in you as their parent. Rather, try the Pop In-Pop Out method. This can be sitting in a chair next to their bed and then “popping out” to go get a drink or go to the bathroom…anything where you give them an excuse as to why you are leaving. After a few minutes return to the bedside. Each night extend the amount of time where you have “popped out” so that you are in the room less and less. Another sleep training method that’s great for older children is Kim West’s “Sleep Lady Shuffle” where you sit in a chair next to the bed and slowly, over the course of two weeks move your chair out of the room.
Older children have been used to a certain pattern of behavior from you for some time, so don’t expect their sleep issues to resolve overnight. Make sure you are very consistent in any technique you use, give it ample time to work (a few weeks to a month) and set clear boundaries with your child. Combining the changes in environment, diet, and parental response is the best way to get your older child sleeping through the night.
Nicole Cannon is the mom of 3 boys, and a Certified Sleep Consultant. You can see her other posts about sleep training here, or visit her website The Sleepy Mama for more information.