In the Parenthood

Tips for keeping your kids in their beds at night

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  April 8, 2010 12:37 PM

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My youngest child -- age 3 -- has never been big on sleep. When he was as a baby, he'd refuse to nap and would struggle to stay awake even when he was falling-down tired. Bedtime itself is better now, but every so often he likes to creep around the house at night. He usually heads to our bedroom around 6 in the morning, carrying an armload of stuffed animals, and slides under the covers to cuddle before facing the day for real.

I'm fine with that. But sometimes, he detours through the rest of the house first. "Hi, Mama!" he chirped when he traipsed into the kitchen at midnight recently, happy to see me on my laptop at the table. "I was jus' tip-toein' awound!" Another night he woke me at 2 a.m. to report that his older sisters were all asleep -- our 16-year-old later said she thought she was dreaming when she saw his little face at the side of her bed in the dark -- and that the dog was on the couch downstairs. Last night, he had to go to the bathroom at 11 p.m., was looking for his older brother at 1 a.m., and ran into my room at 5:30 a.m. to see if my clock read "7" yet.

A friend of mine is having problems with her toddler daughter sleeping through the night; her child hollars for Mama loud and clear around 4 a.m., waking the entire household. "Any ideas for a fix?" she asks.

It's a common problem: A 2004 study by the National Sleep Foundation found that 69 percent of children younger than 10 have problems staying asleep several times a week. Modern Mom suggests that parents try to create a consistent bedtime routine, use a patterned sound (like a white noise machine or a small fan) to block out noises that might keep your child awake, make sure his bedroom is a comfortable temperature, and consider implementing a rewards system.

I think it's also important to try to figure out why your child is calling you at 4 a.m. or exploring the house in the middle of the night. Is she scared? Is he bored? Does your toddler still take a long nap during the day and simply isn't sleepy anymore by 4 or 5 a.m.? Does the sound of the TV seem more interesting than the silence in her room?

All five of our kids wandered for a while when they were little, each for different reasons. One child needed to make sure her room was monster-free; a spritz of flowery perfume on her pillow and another into her closet made her feel safe (she reasoned that scary things are afraid of pleasant things, so a monster wouldn't like the pretty smell of the perfume). Another kept getting up for bathroom breaks; eliminating that last glass of water did the trick. Another slept better while wearing one of Daddy's gigantic T-shirts. And permission to turn on a small light and read helped keep middle-of-the-night boredom at bay. (Youngest boy may get a digital clock soon, so he can stop coming in to check mine.)

When I was a nanny, I used to wear several bangles specifically so I could leave them on the kids' bedside tables after I tucked them in; if the bangles were gone when the kids woke up, they knew I'd been in to check on them, and they didn't feel a need to get up to look for me at night.

Readers weighed in on what worked for them here; please add your tips below! (A tired parent might thank you for it!)

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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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