How to Get Your Child to Sleep
Ok, that title is perhaps a little sensationalist – but it got your attention, didn’t it? This is not a foolproof guide, but it is a list of the things I do that help S to get plenty of sleep.
S goes to bed between 6 and 6:30 every night. For the last week or two, with her being tired from school, she’s gone to bed earlier. When I tell people this, their first question is, doesn’t she get up really early in the morning? Well, no she doesn’t. She wakes up when our alarm goes off between 6 and 7 am.
I need to point out here that she has been fairly unsettled for a few weeks now, with the upheaval of leaving nursery and starting school. She does often climb into my bed in the middle of the night – but then she goes straight back to sleep. I actually think she sleeps quite well, so I thought I would share our bedtime routine, and how I get her to go to bed and stay there for twelve hours most nights.
It’s a long standing routine.
When S was very small – like a few weeks old – a friend came round and helped me put her down to bed at 7pm. She explained to me that since I was a single parent it was important to get S into a routine where I would have time to myself in the evenings. It didn’t always happen – in fact when she was teething or any time she was ill it went right out the window – but from the start of her life she’s always had a set bedtime. And I’ve always protected my evenings alone as much as possible, because I really need that time alone. I can count on the fingers of one hand, the number of times we have accepted invitations or gone to things that would have impacted on S’s bedtime.
I like my routine; I know I can’t be a good parent without having time to myself in the evenings (yes, I know I’m home alone all day while she’s at school but that time is spent working). Some people have said I might stick to our routine a little too rigidly; they may have a point. But it works for us. S doesn’t question bedtime, and now that she’s older she knows that the evening is Mummy time.
It is also worth noting here that our long-standing routine also applies on weekends and days off. S is very very rarely up later than 7pm because I know from experience that young children don’t sleep later in the morning just because you kept them up late the night before. I also know from experience that I function better with a regular sleep routine – as do most people. So even on our days off, we tend to go to bed and wake up at around the same time.
We say the same things.
This sounds really daft, but I am sure it makes a difference. S and I have a (fairly lengthy) set of things we say to each other at bedtime, every single night. This has been going on ever since she first started to speak, and has changed and evolved over time. At the moment, it involves:
Me: Night night…
S: Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!
Me: How much does mummy love you?
S: Sooo much!
Me: How much?
S: Bigger than the cathedral/bigger than the universe/as big as our house
Me: Sweet dreams!
S: Sweet dreams!
Me: Love you!
S: Love you!
We then play “love you” tennis, where we say it to each other over and over again as I leave the room, until S says “that’s enough!” I never say it’s enough; it’s up to S to say. Sometimes we only say it twice each; sometimes it goes on for five minutes.
I am well aware that this sounds incredibly corny, and I don’t much care.
Yeah, yeah – we all know you’re supposed to read a story every night at bed time… I don’t. We have an LED display alarm clock in the corner of the room, and S knows that it usually has to have a 5 at the beginning if she wants a story. If she dawdles too long getting ready for bed, and the clock has a 6 at the beginning, we don’t do story time. I will waver on this if it’s a Friday or Saturday evening, but on the whole, if it’s past 6pm there is no story. S knows this; she will often point to the clock herself and say “oh no, it’s a six!”
That said, she is always allowed to have books in bed with her. She often chooses one of my books, and “reads” it to herself after I’ve left the room – whether I’ve read her a story or not. I think after spending her entire life surrounded by both her books and mine, she gets a sort of comfort from having her bed filled with books. About once a week I’ll empty her bed to make space for her to actually sleep in it – but it fills up pretty quickly.
One thing we’ve found really useful is Audible. I have a subscription and listen to books while I do housework or walk the school run, but I used one of my free download credits to download The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep. I cannot recommend this audiobook highly enough; it is almost failproof. There are two recordings of the book; one read by a man and the second by a woman. S very rarely makes it to the second reading, and if she does it’s a big deal and she needs to tell me she “heard the lady story” the next morning. If she wakes in the night and is restless, we put the sleepy rabbit on. I thought it was just hype when the book came out, but having listened to the audiobook I can report that it works – even on adults!
Bedtime cream, lotions and potions.
This one is brilliant for a couple of reasons. A while back we did a project with a well-known baby brand, who sent us some lotion which we used as part of our bedtime routine. That bottle finished, but we still do bedtime cream.
Now though, instead of buying that particular brand – which has been somewhat controversial, depending on who you speak to, I buy magnesium cream. Magnesium is required for over 300 functions in the body, and apparently most of us are deficient in it. When I heard this I started taking a supplement every night before going to bed, and did notice a difference in the quality of my sleep. But if you take too much magnesium it can cause diarrhoea, plus you don’t tend to get magnesium supplements for kids. If you supplement with magnesium through the skin, your body only absorbs as much as it needs. So you get the benefits without the side effect of overdosing on it. This is why if you have an epsom salt bath it will often make you feel really sleepy – it’s the magnesium. Whenever S has a bath in the evening, I will add a few handfulls of epsom salts to the water, and we usually do “bedtime cream” before she puts her pyjamas on.
The magnesium cream I buy is a body butter; it’s gloopy and thick and takes a fair bit of rubbing to get it to absorb into the skin. I don’t use it every single night, but I try to do it at least three times a week. We start with S’s arms, and I rub the cream in while whispering (because her body is going to sleep), good night shoulder; goodnight arm; goodnight elbow and so on. Once we’re done, she puts on pyjamas and gets into bed, being as quiet as she can because her body has now gone to sleep.
Between the massage, the agreement that we’re making her body go to sleep, and the magnesium in the cream, this works really well for both helping S to go to sleep, and ensuring she stays there. I have definitely noticed a difference since we switched to magnesium cream; S sleeps more soundly and it’s often the nights we use the cream that she stays put in her own bed.
I’ve recently started using magnesium oil spray on myself before bed. It works really well, but it can also be very tingly and itchy on the skin if you’re very deficient in magnesium. I was advised to spray it either on the throat or carotid artery (on the neck) because this is where the skin is thinnest. I sometimes spray it on the backs of my knees instead, because when it’s tingly, it’s easier to bear there! If you use the oil on your child and they complain it’s tingly, you can just wipe it off with some wet cotton wool or a baby wipe.
Another recent addition is the use of Scentered Sleep Well balm. This is not marketed for children, and I wouldn’t use it on a very small child; but with S it’s more about the suggestion I think. If she’s really struggling to sleep, or says she doesn’t want to go to sleep I’ll tell her she can have a little of “mummy’s special sleep balm” to help her. I put a little on each wrist and tell her to sniff it as she lays down. It usually does the trick!
You may laugh, but we watch this dvd all year round; in fact, we now have two copies of it as the old one was starting to get a little worn out. This started when S was very small, and I would put The Snowman on to calm her if she was teething. When S was teething and the pain was really bad, she usually didn’t want a cuddle so I would end up reaching for a dvd to try and calm her. I tried most things, but The Snowman works well because it’s not too bright and colourful, and it’s all music with no words. It has been our go-to for bedtime disruption ever since.
Any time S wakes in the night and can’t get back to sleep – which usually happens if she’s constipated or has a cold – I’ll put The Snowman on, and within ten minutes she’s usually drifted off. Last Christmas I bought her a copy of The Snowman and the Snowdog thinking it would be good to have a bit of variety. While she loves the dvd, it doesn’t have quite the same lulling effect as the original.
There’s no crying
Although I’ve said S has a strict bedtime, that doesn’t mean I tuck her in and wander off, no matter what. I have never left her to cry. If she is upset when she goes to bed, I stay with her until she calms down. If she finds it hard to sleep, I’ll go up and down the stairs to her a few times and if she still doesn’t settle, I’ll just go up to bed myself. Since her bed is at the foot of my bed, I’ll either read a book on my bed, or work on my laptop if I need to, until she falls asleep. I learned fairly early on in my parenting journey that sometimes it’s just easier to let go of my alone time in the evening. Clinging to that desire to spend an hour alone just causes me to feel more stressed, as if I’m missing out on something. If S is not settling and my evening is disrupted, I’m better off spending the evening with her and getting an early night.
I’m not saying I have all the answers. We still have bad nights; sometimes S just randomly wakes up and we end up watching The Snowman for two hours straight. Sometimes she gets into my bed and kicks me for three hours before starfishing across the entire bed. But on the whole, she does well with her sleep.
If you are struggling with your child’s sleep, I would definitely recommend The Gentle Sleep Book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith. It’s filled not only with tips but science and facts surrounding sleep that made me feel better about what is actually “normal” where sleep is concerned.
I have not written this post to rub S’s twelve hours of sleep in the faces of those who struggle to get two hours in a row. I’ve written it in the hope that someone who is struggling might find a solution here. It’s hard to get children to sleep; some children sleep more than others, and some of us end up going to extraordinary lengths just to get a couple of hours’ rest. I’ve given you the reasons I believe S has settled into a fairly robust sleeping routine, in the hope that you might get some ideas yourself. Good luck!
NB since writing this post S’s bedtime has actually crept even earlier; she currently goes to bed between 5:30 and 6pm – and she’s still asleep within minutes.