Q: My daughter, who just turned 3, has a surge of energy after dinner and can take hours to fall asleep. I try putting her down around 8 p.m., but there are nights when she doesn’t fall asleep before 10. Sometimes she tells me she’s tired but can’t fall asleep. At other times, she will throw a tantrum before bed. When she stops she’ll say, “I’m done crying, now I can sleep.”
In addition, her naps have never been regular. I usually need to put her in the car and take a drive for her to nap. When that works, however, she will wake up too early and start throwing tantrums. When driving around doesn’t work, she falls asleep late in the afternoon and only takes a short nap, which makes it that much more difficult for her to fall asleep at bedtime. She usually gets a total of nine to 11 hours of sleep a day. Sometimes she’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I have to feed her a snack to get her to fall back to sleep. I think she’s over-tired. Any tips on how I can get her sleeping habits on track would be greatly appreciated.
A: That was exhausting to read. I can only imagine how exhausted you must be. My sympathies, but the person causing these problems is you, not your daughter. By driving her around town to help her take a nap, feeding her snacks in the middle of the night, and Lord knows what else, you are doing nothing but making it inevitable that these sleep issues will continue.
First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a 3-year-old not falling asleep until 10 p.m.. If you simply put her to bed and let her figure out, on her own, how to fall asleep, she will eventually settle into a routine. If she keeps coming out of her room, then cut her door in half (hire a handy-man, if necessary), turn the lock around, and rehang it. That allows her to see out but not come out. If she cries, go back to her door every 10 minutes or so and simply reassure her that all is well, but don’t open the door and go in.
Put her to bed with a light on in her room and tell her she can play as long as she wants until she’s ready to sleep. She will eventually fall asleep on the floor at which point you simply go in, pick her up, put her to bed, and tuck her in.
Her “surge of energy” in the evening suggests that you may be letting her consume sugar and/or caffeinated drinks at dinner. If so, you need to cut those out and start letting her get used to water. And needless to say, the home should be calm in the evening, which means no television.
Stop driving her around for naptime. Please don’t take this personally, but that’s insane. Not you…that! At best, you simply rob from Peter to pay Paul. Whether she falls asleep in the car or not, driving her around only leads to other problems later in the evening. When it’s naptime — which should take place at the same time every afternoon, whether she seems “ready” or not — put her in her bed. Set a timer for two hours and put it outside her door. Don’t tell her to fall asleep. Simply tell her that it’s “quiet time” and that she can play or sleep or do whatever she wants to do, but she can’t come out (or you can’t let her out) until the buzzer goes off. If she cries, so be it. The likelihood is that if she learns that you’re not going to rescue her, she will eventually fall asleep.
The bottom line is that you need to help her (and yourself) get into a naptime and bedtime routine. Because of the counterproductive precedents you’ve set, that’s going to take some time, but Rome is never built in a day. I predict this issue will resolve itself in three to four weeks if you stay calm and stick with it.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.