How to Get Your Kids to Fall Asleep—Tonight!
Why Won't My Child Go to Sleep?
This is a common question all parents puzzle over at one time or another. Not only will kids find ways to avoid bedtime, they will often "go to bed" only to call your name and climb out of bed 10 minutes later. It can be so defeating for parents.
I've had some great luck with some extremely stubborn, sleep-aversive children. I'm referring to children ages 3 to 8. In my nannying days, I've had parents express shock over the fact that I actually got their son or daughter to go to bed! Here's what I figured out about the bedtime routine, and here's what I will share with you:
- Why You Should Stop Playing "the Adult"
- The Birthday Cake Technique
- Tips for an Easy Bedtime Routine
- Tips for Fearful Children
- Natural Foods to Help Your Child Sleep
Be imaginative when you speak to children. Make tasks feel like fun activities, not demands.
The Secret to Getting Your Child to Sleep
We've all heard of bedtime routines, story time, lullaby time, movie time, etc. These techniques are fine and all but the real secret starts with how you interact with your kid. Parents lose out on interaction with their children because they "play the adult" and forget to relate to children on a playful level.
Secret #1: Stop Acting Like an Adult
The first rule is to be your child's friend. Kids will sniff out authority the minute you start to watch the clock and get panicky as bedtime approaches. Instead, see your child as a friend. Speak to them with imagination. Make the bedtime task feel like an adventurous activity and not a demand.
Secret #2 The Birthday Cake Technique
I once had my favorite babysitter use "the birthday cake" technique on me to get me tucked into bed . . . and let me tell you, three decades later I still use it to put kids down. Here's how to use this technique (see below).
The Birthday Cake Bed: The Best Trick to Get Your Child to Sleep
One of my favorite babysitters used this technique on me when I was younger and I never forgot it! I've used it with all of the kids I've taken care of throughout the years and it works wonders. All kids want is love and special attention. Bedtime is THEIR moment, not ours. So, we have to give them a good sending off into dreamland. Here's how:
- Tell them excitedly, "Guess what? We are going to make a cake with your bed before we tuck you in." Let them climb into bed; have all of the sheets bundled up towards their feet.
- Ask them what their favorite flavor of cake is. If they say "chocolate" say, "Mmmm, chocolate, let's mix up the batter." As you "mix up the batter," swish your hands in the air above their bed. Show excitement as you do it! Your child should be resting with their head on the pillow.
- Next, say "What should we put in the center? Strawberries, blueberries? Vanilla frosting? Custard?" Once they answer, again, enthusiastically add, "Mmm custard!" and pull the flat sheet over the child and tuck them in nice and tight.
- Next, say "What should we put on top of the cake? What kind of frosting?" Once your child answers, take the comforter top and fluff it; pull it up to your child's chin. Tuck them in thoughtfully. Take your hands and pretend to spread the frosting all over the bed.
- Next, ask your child what sort of toppings should go on the cake. Find any stuffed animals and throw-pillows—say things like, "Sprinkles? Cookies? Chocolate Chips?" Use your child's favorite snuggly items as the decorations. Take a small pillow and say, "Here comes the sprinkles!"
- Once your child is completely tucked in, make sure the lights are dim and all other relaxing features in the bedroom are set. Exit strategically and thoughtfully.
The Theory Behind "The Birthday Cake" Technique
Most kids will not want to "ruin the cake!" I found that the cake activity is so special and comforting that kids often stay in bed (as long as there aren't any extra-bedtime interruptions). You can couple this activity with other suggested techniques below.
Additional Ideas for Bedtime Routines
Get All of the Excitatory Activities Out of the Way Early
You know your kid. Maybe he or she gets locked on to their favorite game after dinner, wants to watch their favorite movie, wants a book read, wants to play with their favorite toy set. If this is the case, keep an organized evening schedule (including dinner) and designate time for this activity. If bath time is in 20 minutes, start the bath and lay out the pajamas before it's go time.
Make the Transition Between Activities Exciting
One of the little girls I used to care for was extremely stubborn and spirited and wonderful nonetheless. She was very smart and needed a "gateway" in between activities. If this meant alluding to a cool feature at bath time—like a flashy bath toy, bubbles, sing-a-longs, storytelling, you name it—I did it. Allude to something exciting in the next activity. That could be something like, "Hey sweetie, I'm so excited because there's something fun for bath time. We get to draw with bath-time markers! Let's go draw a treasure map!"
Use Baths to Your Advantage
Baths are great for bedtime transitions. Heat aids relaxation, so consider using a kid-friendly soothing lavender bubble bath. Some essential oils are known for inducing sleep and may help your child settle down—not all are child-safe, however, so be sure to check your products.
Have Everything Organized Ahead of Time
I like to set out a fluffy towel and pajamas in the bathroom before even walking in for bath time. This way, there's no unsafe pause between getting out of the bath, draining water, and fishing for pajamas. Kids want to feel cozy and comfy—so help them get into their FAVORITE pajamas (let them pick them out). Have the toothbrush and yummy-flavored toothpaste ready, too.
Trouble brushing teeth? Consider a teeth brushing calendar. There's nothing more fun than having a calendar on the wall to track progress. Every child likes stickers—they can be used for keeping a tally.
Transform the Room Into a Magical Space
Most children will like to be read to in bed. Keep the lights dim while reading. You can use string lights, a remote floor lamp, etc. but make sure that the overhead light is off. Work with the child to select the books you two will be reading ahead of time.
When you are ready to say goodnight, be sure to compliment how cozy the bed is. If your child still sleeps in a crib but is mobile (perhaps at the age of 3+), consider allowing them to drape blankets in the crib to create a safe and cozy fort, castle, or nest.
I like to leave star mobiles on to help children fall asleep (one with automatic settings). The child falls asleep almost meditatively to the stars on their ceiling and the soft music (if available) helps to drown out any sounds that might awaken them in the house.
How Do I Get My Child to Not Be Scared at Night and to Sleep Alone?
- Ask them what they want to dream about—and make it positive
- Let them build a safety fort
- Let them sleep with their guardian stuffed animals
- Use lights and soothing music
- Form a shield around their bed with a special object
- If you have a household animal (cat or dog), let them sleep with your child (in the bed or on an animal bed)
Help Them Dream
You can coach the child into imagining some pretty magnificent things. That is, help them paint their dreams with positive visions and beautiful things. Let the child tell you about their prospective dream and praise them along the way. Say things like "Wow, what will it look like?" and encourage them to get imaginative and to use positive imagery.
It is important to never lead on when you intend to leave the room. If you must, play some soothing sounds—perhaps lullabies—and sit in the dark room beside them until they settle down. BE PRESENT.
Foods That Will Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night
So many foods contain natural tryptophan and melatonin. Many of us are familiar with that sleepy feeling we get after eating turkey. You would be surprised to find just how many tryptophan-rich foods are out there and just how many can benefit your child.
Consider striking a healthy balance between some of these foods and your child's regular dinner. Mind all dietary restrictions before proceeding; the following foods are rich in tryptophan and/or melatonin:
- cherry juice
- low-fat yogurt
- ginger root
When a Toddler or Child Won't Go to Bed
The techniques mentioned above should work well in combination, but some situations may require professional insight. I always recommend working with your pediatrician for solutions. Some children require more attention. Sleep is so important for a child's development, so it's definitely worth the extra effort to preserve and encourage a happy and healthy family dynamic. Best of luck!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Layne Holmes