How to help your preschooler establish healthy sleep habits
Typical sleep at this age

Between ages 2 and 4, kids need about 10 to 14 hours of sleep per day, including an afternoon nap. While most children this age still conk out for one to three hours each afternoon, some kids at the older end of this range no longer need an afternoon nap. Most children this age go to bed between 7:30 and 9 p.m. and wake up between 6:30 and 8 a.m.

But normal developmental changes at this age can interfere with your child getting a good night’s sleep. For example, a combination of her growing imagination and stress may lead to a nightmare. That’s why it’s so important for your child to learn how to soothe herself back to sleep after these night wakings if she hasn’t already.

If your preschooler has trouble falling asleep or wakes up frequently (and even if he doesn’t), these techniques will help him get a better night’s rest:

  • Pick – and stick to – a set bedtime. Make sure it allows your child to get the full amount of sleep he needs. (See our chart to find out what’s right for your child.)  Bedtime might need to be 7:30 or 8 p.m. in order for him get enough sleep. A regular bedtime helps his internal clock stay on track and makes it easier for him to fall asleep easily and quickly. Staying up too late or going to bed at a different time each night can make your preschooler overtired – which, paradoxically, makes it harder for him to settle down and get to sleep.
  • Develop a consistent bedtime routine. Establish a nightly routine that includes three or four soothing activities, such as taking a bath, changing into pajamas, and reading stories. The bedtime ritual should be the same every night, so your child can anticipate each activity.

If your child tends to stall when getting ready for bed, make a preferred activity (such as reading a favorite book or singing a special song) the last thing on the agenda before lights out. Or give your child a special sticker for getting into bed when she should, so she has some incentive to get through the rest of the routine. If you find your routine dragging on longer than it should, take steps to trim it back: A couple of stories are fine, but not chapter after chapter of her favorite book.

Also steer the routine in one direction – to bed. If you bring your child upstairs for a bath, for instance, don’t bring her back downstairs to say goodnight to the family pet when she’s done. Instead, head to the bedroom for pajamas and storytime.

  • Anticipate his requests and include them in his nightly routine. Your youngster may start trying to put off bedtime by wheedling for “just one more” – story, song, glass of water, and so on.

Instead of growing increasingly exasperated, try to anticipate all of his usual (and reasonable) requests and make them part of the bedtime routine. Then allow your child one extra request – but make it clear that one is the limit. He’ll feel like he’s getting his way, but you’ll know you’re really getting yours.

  • Move her into a big bed and praise her for staying in it. Your child probably will be ready to make the transition from crib to bed soon (if she hasn’t already).

The arrival of a new sibling may prompt the decision, but plan ahead: If you’re expecting a second child, move your child out of her crib at least six weeks before her sibling arrives, so she’s settled in her new bed before the baby takes over “her” crib. (Alternatively, wait until the baby is a few months old.)

Other reasons to make the move to a big bed include jumping out of the crib and toilet training – your child may need to get up at night to go to the bathroom.

Once she’s using her new bed, be sure to praise your preschooler when she stays in it at bedtime and overnight. After the confinement of her crib, she may initially get out of her big-kid bed over and over, just because she can.

If your preschooler starts getting up more often once she graduates to a big bed, tuck her back in and say goodnight. If she still won’t stay in bed, try strategies to help with her night wanderings.

  • Give him an extra goodnight kiss or tuck-in. It’s okay to promise your child one more goodnight kiss after you’ve tucked him in the first time. Tell him you’ll be back to check on him in a few minutes. Chances are, he’ll be fast asleep by the time you return.
Potential pitfalls

It’s normal for children to make good progress with better sleep routines and then seem to regress. Be patient and, most importantly, consistent. Stick to your plan and focus on the big picture to ride out temporary setbacks.

It’s common for kids this age to drag their feet and find a million excuses why they can’t go to bed yet. Try to prevent problems by anticipating and managing your child’s bedtime requests beforehand. And remember that realistically, most preschoolers don’t run happily to bed every night, so be prepared for a few struggles.

You’ve probably noticed that your child has some new nighttime worriesthese days. Being afraid of the dark, monsters under the bed, or being separated from you is common in the preschool set, so don’t be too concerned. Fears are part of your child’s normal development.

And if night terrors are keeping your child from restful slumber, try not to worry. Night terrors aren’t associated with fear or emotional problems, and usually happen when a child has a fever or her sleep schedule has been disrupted. Your child probably will outgrow night terrors on her own.

But nightmares are a different story: If your child starts having nightmares, go to her right away and talk to her about her dream while you calm her down. If the bad dreams persist, look for sources of anxiety in her daily life. Some sleep experts say that if your child is truly terrified, it’s okay to let her into your bed every once in a while.

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