4-year-old may need a later bedtime

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 4, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara,
My four-year-old will not stay in her bed at bedtime. She is a wonderful sleeper, but until she falls asleep, she is constantly playing with her toys, rummaging through her dresser drawers, and basically re-arranging her room. We have tried taking toys away and letting her earn them back by good behavior, but it seems that after a few days we are right back where we started. Please help!

From: Lindsay, Portland

Hi Lindsay,

You don't say what time you are putting her into her bed, but I'm betting that whatever it is, it's too early for her. She probably just isn't sleepy. Tweak her bedtime so she's going in later.

The typical 4-year-old needs between 10 and 11 hours of sleep. Are you expecting too much sleep of her? Or is she one of those kids who functions on less? If she isn't cranky in the morning and she isn't demanding much of you in the time she is busy in her room, I'd say you need to make the whole thing a non-issue.

Figure out how much sleep she is getting -- that is, what time (about) does she actually fall asleep and when does she wake up? Then, rather than have a power struggle every night, put her into bed later, at a time that coincides more closely with when she is more likely to be sleepy. In addition, after you go through your bedtime routine, eliminate the struggle by giving her permission to get out of bed once or twice. I've known kids who, even at 4, were happy to read two books on their own before they were ready to fall asleep. Not a bad life-long habit, if you ask me!

I'm intrigued by your words, though, that she goes through her dresser and basically re-arranges her room. Is it possible she's a child who has specific ideas of what everything needs to be like. Some kids have tendencies toward perfectionism, meaning they have an idea in mind for the way things have to be and they can't accept anything less. What helps these kids is learning about the idea of something being "good enough." Ask her ask if she has an idea in her mind of how she likes her room to be in order for her to go to sleep. If she does -- bingo! -- you can incorporate that into your bedtime routine or simply acknowledge it and let her continue as she is.

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4 comments so far...
  1. Does she still nap in the afternoon? Maybe it's time to do away with that, so that she gets into the habit of having a good long sleep at night. That would also give you the evening to have some time for yourself, which all parents need.

    Posted by alien57 January 4, 11 02:00 PM
  1. My son is younger (3 next month), but we recently adjusted his bedtime later by only 1/2 hour for similar reasons. It worked like almost-magic, and has helped with too-early waking, too. So if you think this might be the issue, don't discount even small changes.

    Posted by carriefran January 4, 11 03:41 PM
  1. At about two years old, neither of my children required a nap during the day anymore. Every few days they would take one, but little by little they were making it through the day without one. If they did fall asleep during the day, bedtime was more than a challenge. They would be wide awake until 10:00 or 11:00 at night as opposed to 7:00 without a nap. I found this to be true of several children in my daycare as well.

    Does she wake up at the same time regardless of what time she goes to bed? If you want her in bed earlier at night but waking early doesn't bother you, then try waking her a little earlier so she'll be more tired the next night.

    If she has a hard time falling to sleep every night regardless of the time, then put her to bed a little earlier, but allow her to putter around and arrange her room etc. It may be a ritual for her before she is comfortable going to sleep or just part of her own bedtime routine.

    Posted by lmclellan January 5, 11 07:58 AM
  1. I disagree with the idea that letting her stay up later is the automatic solution. Both of my kids need a half hour or so to flip around in their beds, rearrange their stuffed animals, whatever...before they fall asleep. This is regardless of whether they go to bed "on time" or stay up later. Putting her to bed later may just make all of this occur...later.

    Posted by RH January 5, 11 05:17 PM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. Does she still nap in the afternoon? Maybe it's time to do away with that, so that she gets into the habit of having a good long sleep at night. That would also give you the evening to have some time for yourself, which all parents need.

    Posted by alien57 January 4, 11 02:00 PM
  1. My son is younger (3 next month), but we recently adjusted his bedtime later by only 1/2 hour for similar reasons. It worked like almost-magic, and has helped with too-early waking, too. So if you think this might be the issue, don't discount even small changes.

    Posted by carriefran January 4, 11 03:41 PM
  1. At about two years old, neither of my children required a nap during the day anymore. Every few days they would take one, but little by little they were making it through the day without one. If they did fall asleep during the day, bedtime was more than a challenge. They would be wide awake until 10:00 or 11:00 at night as opposed to 7:00 without a nap. I found this to be true of several children in my daycare as well.

    Does she wake up at the same time regardless of what time she goes to bed? If you want her in bed earlier at night but waking early doesn't bother you, then try waking her a little earlier so she'll be more tired the next night.

    If she has a hard time falling to sleep every night regardless of the time, then put her to bed a little earlier, but allow her to putter around and arrange her room etc. It may be a ritual for her before she is comfortable going to sleep or just part of her own bedtime routine.

    Posted by lmclellan January 5, 11 07:58 AM
  1. I disagree with the idea that letting her stay up later is the automatic solution. Both of my kids need a half hour or so to flip around in their beds, rearrange their stuffed animals, whatever...before they fall asleep. This is regardless of whether they go to bed "on time" or stay up later. Putting her to bed later may just make all of this occur...later.

    Posted by RH January 5, 11 05:17 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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