How to Get Kids (of Any Age) to Sleep
Getting your baby to sleep through the night is a major win—but it can be just the beginning of an ongoing battle for bedtime. From toddlers fighting lights-out to overscheduled teens racing against the clock, there’s always something stealing kids’—and parents’—rest. Here’s how everyone can get the heck to sleep.
Toddlers (Ages 2 to 4)
The Battle: They’re stalling.
Preschoolers are infamous for delaying bedtime by begging for one more kiss or one more story. It’s one of the many ways they test their parents’ limits. “They know exactly which buttons to push and how much to push them to get their parents’ attention,” says Iqbal Rashid, MD, assistant professor of sleep medicine at UCLA. But stalling reduces lights-out time, meaning less total sleep (which can make your toddler even crankier in the morning) and less time for your child’s brain to convert what he learned that day into a long-term memory. “Your 3-year-old is going to function better at preschool the next day if he’s able to make those neural connections at night,” says Brooke Nalle, a pediatric sleep consultant at the Seleni Institute in New York City.
The Fix: Make a bedtime chart—and stick with it.
A standard routine can reduce the chaos of bedtime: “Repeating the same three or four activities in order every single night will help keep kids on track,” says Jodi Mindell, PhD, professor of psychology at Saint Joseph’s University and associate director of sleep medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Establish the routine with a chart on which you check off tasks like taking a bath, brushing teeth, and reading a story, so when your child asks for a last-minute Lego session, you can kindly point out that—oh, well!—it’s not on the chart. Maggie Strong, a mom of three in Charlottesville, Virginia, has another trick to keep her 3-year-old from stalling endlessly: bedtime passes (index cards decorated with stickers). “One pass is for the bathroom before bed, and one is for a hug,” says Strong. “Once she uses the passes, she can’t leave her bed again.” Bedtime passes can also provide extra motivation for kids to stay put: If they don’t use the passes at night, they can redeem them in the morning for a small treat. That stash of toys from the dollar store will be so worth it.
The Battle: They go to bed but refuse to stay there.
There’s nothing like waking at 2 a.m. to see your toddler peering at you in the dark. Many little escape artists leave their rooms because, suddenly, they can. Blame the independence that comes from moving from a crib to a “big kid” bed. “It takes a high level of development to understand the imaginary boundaries of a bed,” says Mindell. Other kids wake up and can’t fall back asleep without Mom’s help. “Parents tell me, “I have to hold my child’s hand so he can fall asleep, and then he’s up every other hour at night looking for my hand,”” says Nalle.
The Fix: Make them comfy sleeping on their own.
It’s tempting to let your kid crawl into bed with you. “But if you give in, you reinforce that behavior,” says Rashid. Quietly walk your child back to her room. It might take a few painful nights, but it’s important to be consistent, says Rashid. (If she really won’t stay put, you can install a safety gate in her bedroom door to discourage wandering.) Try finishing the night with “sweet talk”—recapping your favorite parts of the day or talking about what you’re looking forward to—“so you end on a positive note,” says Harvey Karp, MD, author of the Happiest Baby on the Block books.
Big Kids (Ages 5 to 10)
The Battle: Your sleep schedules are completely out of sync.
Says Rashid, “Some of us are morning larks, and others are night owls, and sometimes there’s a mismatch in the family.” You might have a third grader who wants to party past 9 p.m. and sleep through breakfast, messing with your “Early to bed, early to rise” motto. Or you might be a night owl, but your kids are cock-a-doodle-doing at 5 a.m., stealing your precious prework shut-eye.
The Fix: Shift the schedule—then keep it consistent.
“You can try to shape their schedule so it’s more in line with yours,” says Nalle. Gradually push back (or bring forward) meals, baths, and bedtime, first by 15 minutes, then 30, then 45, then 60. This can be a month-long process, but it could help oversleepers perk up earlier or buy you an extra hour of z’s in the morning. Some families invest in blackout curtains to shield their kids’ rooms from early-a.m. sun. For kids who might be tempted to bounce on your bed as soon as their eyes open, Mindell suggests putting a night-light on a timer and saying, “When the light switches on, that’s when you can wake us up.” Until then, they can quietly play in their room or watch TV. Once you develop a schedule that works for everyone’s sleep needs, it’s crucial to stick with it, even on weekends, says Nalle. “If kids really want to sleep late, let them do so on Saturday, but by Sunday, return to your regular wake and sleep times.” Exposure to sunlight resets your body clock, so taking a brisk walk on Sunday morning or having breakfast in the sunniest spot in the kitchen should keep everyone on schedule.
The Battle: Their nightmares wake everyone up.
As children get older, “fears can become a big thing,” says Karp. “They start listening to your conversations and hearing the news. They realize there’s an entire world out there.” If they were scared by something they saw on TV, says Rashid, kids can reconstruct it during sleep in the form of nightmares, which usually happen in the late-night-to-early-morning hours. Nightmares are not to be confused with night terrors, which typically happen an hour or so after kids zonk out—though they are frightening to watch, kids usually don’t remember them in the morning.
The Fix: Use night “magic”.
Sleep deprivation and poor-quality sleep are common causes of both nightmares and terrors, so first make sure your child is getting enough rest. Then use creativity to fight the demons. For younger kids, Karp suggests putting "magic" water in a bottle and spraying it at night to keep monsters away. Rashid recommends that older children write down nightmares in a notebook, in as much detail as they can remember, but with alternative, happy endings. For example, if your child dreamed she was drowning, she could write an ending in which she becomes a mermaid. If nightmares are constantly getting in the way of daily functioning, consult your pediatrician to see if something else—like bullying—is going on.
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Tweens and Teens
The Battle: They’re over-scheduled and skimping on sleep.
With soccer, debate team, band practice, and dance—not to mention endless homework—it’s no wonder tweens and teens are constantly sleep-deprived. Plus, raging hormones and social stresses, like fitting in with friends and dating, can keep teens up at night. “Anxiety trickles into bedtime,” says Nalle. “Whatever they were carrying around all day suddenly floods their minds.”
The Fix: Hack the routine.
Puberty shifts the internal clock toward a later sleep time, says Rashid. So instead of trying to enforce a too-early bedtime, adjust schedules however you can. One mom drives her daughter to school in the morning rather than waking her for the earlier bus, which gives her daughter an extra 45 minutes of sleep. Others find that if their kids do homework during lunch or even before school, it means they get to bed by 11 p.m. rather than 1 a.m. To de-stress after busy days, teens can try showering 30 to 45 minutes before bed, flipping through a magazine, or doing 10 minutes of meditation (the free Headspace app can help) to clear their minds for better sleep.
The Battle: They’re staying up late, staring at their screens like zombies.
The phenomenon of teens staying up all night watching YouTube and Snapping with their friends has been called “vamping,” as in acting like a nocturnal vampire. The screens themselves add to the problem: The blue light beaming from phones and tablets “is strong enough to block a good chunk of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy,” says Jess P. Shatkin, MD, author of Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe. Sleep deprivation is particularly dangerous to teens because it blurs their ability to concentrate, which can lead to risky behaviors like drowsy driving or drug and alcohol use, says Mindell. And a 2017 study in the journal Development Psychology found that children with TVs or video-game consoles in their rooms did worse in school and weighed more.
The Fix: Remove the temptation.
Make it a family rule that everyone’s phones and tablets be put to bed—that is, plugged into a communal charging station—on the kitchen counter at least 30 minutes before lights-out, suggests Mindell. To make sure stealthy teens don’t hide their laptops under the covers, some parents switch off the household Wi-Fi, making it harder to get online. Alyceson Weinfeld- Reyman, a mom of two in New York City, literally takes matters into her own hands: She takes her 16-year-old son’s phone away at 10:30 on weeknights and keeps it in her room so he can’t grab it back.
You can also help wean teens off that sleep-stealing screen glare by enabling the “grayscale” function on Androids and Night Shift mode on iPhones (both found under Settings) and adding the f.lux download to computers. All three reduce blue light, so melatonin is allowed to flow, says Shatkin. To help transition from the digital world to the dream world, encourage bedtime rituals (drinking decaf tea, reading) to prep for sleep. “Bedtime routines aren’t just for toddlers,” says Nalle.