Going to bed and to sleep is always a struggle between parents and children. Especially, preschoolers seem to be particularly determined to try and go to sleep as late as possible. Here are some tips to help parents make their child sleep. And these tips are applicable whether the child sleeps alone or with you.
Set a regular time for sleep and wakeup, and stick to it
A child is often a creature of routine, just like us. Set a time at night, when the child has to go to sleep and follow it everyday. It should be set so that your child gets 10 - 12 hours of sleep every night. When the time arrives, make sure your child is in bed and ready for sleep.
Set a corresponding wakeup time and stick to it everyday. When the alarm goes off, wake the child up and start them on their morning routine.
One method that may help, is to strongly associate the timing of sleep with schools and weekdays. From Sunday night to Thursday night, use the mantra that it is a "school night" and they have to get up early in the morning and go to school to see their friends. On Friday nights and Saturday nights, give them some relaxation from the routine. When you do this, the child starts associating the sleep time strongly with the other routines of their life, like school and weekdays. Over time, they will need less prodding to go to bed.
Give the children some "cooldown" time before asking them to sleep
In the evenings, children often have a lot of activities and they can be in a very excited state. Especially, if they watch TV, their mind becomes very excited. To get to sleep, they need to relax. If not, they will be very active and refuse to go to bed. We need to get them into a more relaxed state of mind before sending them to sleep. At least 30 minutes (and ideally 1 hour) before sleep time, turn off the TV or any high-energy activities they are pursuing. If they are studying or doing homework, make sure they have finished it in time for them to cool down a bit before going to bed.
Set a routine during the cooldown period
During the cooldown period, before jumping into bed, follow a routine of what is done. For some children, it maybe a bath. For some, it maybe brushing their teeth. For some, it maybe a prayer. For some, it maybe getting their things ready for school tomorrow. Whatever it is, make sure the same thing is repeated day after day just before going to bed.
During this time, make sure they go to the bathroom and also have a drink of water or their milk.
Give them an activity in bed
Once the cooldown period is over, get the children into the bed. But don't expect them to go to sleep immediately. Let them have a nice relaxing activity in bed. This also allows you to stay with them so that the usual pleas like "You also sleep here" and "Stay with me, amma" and "Don't go away" can be reduced. One perfect activity is a story that you read to them. Take a book, sit next to bed or lie down next to them and read the story. Once the story is over, get up, turn off the lights and go do the activities you need to complete before you go to bed. At this age, it is definitely better for you to read them a bedtime story rather than have them read it for themselves. They may have to work hard to read a story may not relax.
When you are leaving them to sleep, tell them what you are going to do before you go to bed yourself. Why is this important? Children are always curious and worried that they will miss something important when they sleep. When they know it is some mundane activity like you making sure that the bag for the milk is hung outside the door or doing some office work or catching up with the news, they will realize they are not missing much.
What to do if they keep getting off the bed
Just because they relaxed and just because they had a story read to them, does not mean they will stay in the bed. They will routinely get off and come to you. It maybe for various reasons and often it is just a way of seeing what happens. Your reaction to this must be simple but steady. Take them back to bed, put them into it and tell them firmly they need to sleep and wake up at the right time. No matter how many times this happens, your reaction should not change. Don't get angry, do not plead, just be firm and confident and enforce the routine. As you do this for a long period, they will get used to it and conclude there is no alternative.
Do comfort any fears or bad dreams
If your child is afraid to go to bed, do address their fears. Do not dismiss them or force them to go to bed in a dark room. Put a night light with a soft glow or give them a nice stuffed toy to sleep with. You can also play some calming music at a low volume, like nursery rhymes or nice Indian instrumental music. Also see Helping young children with their fears.
If the child wakes up due to a bad dream or a nightmare, go and comfort them and stay with them a for a little while till they calm down. Also see Common sleep problems in young children.
Physical activity is important for a good night's rest
An important contributor to a good night's rest is physical activity. Make sure your child has some time during the day (even if only for 30 minutes) when they get some good physical exercise - could be a sports hour at school or playing in the park or walking around the neighbourhood with grandparents or dancing. Their muscles will get a good workout and will want to relax at the end of the day.
Avoid caffeinated drinks and sugary juices
Caffeine and sugar are two foods that can contribute to increased activity levels and thus disrupt sleep in a number of children. Do not give the children colas and carbonated drinks. For juices, give them natural fruit juice without added sugar.
See Why children should not drink colas/carbonated drinks!
and Packaged fruit juices and drinks - Juice for thought