Managing bedtime tantrums

It is 9 p.m and Roopa Malhotra’s nerves are frazzled after a long day as she tries unsuccessfully to get her three-year-old daughter to sleep. The Bangalore-based homemaker’s daughter Anju refuses to sleep and is soon bawling from exhaustion. Baby’s bedtime has become a nightmare for the Malhotra household. 

Preschool children in the three-five-year age group need 11-13 hours of sleep per day. Inadequate sleep in young children results in poor growth and fatigue which makes them vulnerable to viral and other infections.
Why children fight sleep 

Children may be reluctant to sleep for any one or more of the following reasons:

» They may be overtired or not tired enough
» Don’t want to leave the scene of excitement 
» It’s a form of rebellion to assert independence
» Anxiety and fear of sleeping alone
» Lack of self-soothing skills or may not know how to manage boredom
» Emotional deprivation. Toddlers respond better at bedtime if parents are available physically and emotionally during the day and at bedtime. If parents are busy watching television or entertaining guests at bedtime, children may experience neglect and try to draw attention by throwing a tantrum.

“Sometimes, bedtime tantrums are also a sign of physical discomfort or not having had a sufficient dinner,” says Purnima Gupta, a well-known Ahmedabad-based clinical psychologist. 

Managing bedtime tantrums

Here are some suggestions for making bedtime a calming experience for children:

Set a bedtime routine 

Ensure that your child sleeps and wakes up at the same time during the school term and holidays. Get her to put her toys away, give her a warm bath, get her to brush her teeth, wear her pajamas and settle down to listen to a bedtime story. A routine signals her mind and body that it’s time to wind down. 

A 2017 study published in Sleep Medicine Reviews titled ‘Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond’ says that nightly bedtime routines promote deep sleep as well as overall development and well-being in early childhood. The recommended bedtime routine includes activities in the area of nutrition (a warm glass of milk), hygiene (bathing, oral care), communication (reading, singing lullabies) and physical contact (massage, cuddling and rocking). “Since such routines embody nurturing care, they promote language development, literacy, child emotional and behavioural regulation, parent-child attachment and improved family functioning,” says the study. 

Give your child a choice

A probable reason why young children don’t fall asleep easily is because they want to be in control. So, let your child be in control in some ways. Let her choose what night dress to wear or pick the stuffed animal she will cuddle in her bed. Get her to choose the story you read to her. This will place her in a good mood. Make bedtime positive by letting the routine include what your child enjoys, whether it’s a tummy rub, a favourite book or splashing in the bath.

Ensure she is physically ready for bed 

Children sleep well when they are physically tired, so encourage outdoor play, walk in the park, etc. Also adjust her nap times during the day so there is at least a four-hour gap between her daytime nap and bedtime. 

Provide a cosy sleep environment 

Make the sleep area dark, cool and comfortable. If your child is afraid of the dark, leave a low-voltage light on. Give her a heavy blanket as the extra pressure will relax her and induce a feeling of calm. 

Play soothing music 

You could sing a lullaby if you are so inclined. Or, play calming music, preferably the same tunes every night so that your child will associate the music with sleep. 

Reduce screen time 

Prohibit children from watching television or playing video games within an hour of bedtime. The light emitted from electronic devices reduces the production of the hormone melatonin and disrupts sleep. A 2013 study published in Pediatrics found that watching TV delays the onset of sleep in children. 

Give her reassuring hugs

Some children fear the dark. A comforting cuddle tells your child that you are on the watch. This will reduce separation anxiety. Also, routinely stress that deep sleep keeps children healthy and wake up refreshed the next day.  

Spend time with her during the day. If bedtime is the only time your child has your undivided attention, she will try to make the most of it and resist sleep. So make time for her during the day reading a story, playing with her, etc. This way she will be able to let go of you more easily at bedtime. 

Reward her for good behaviour 

You could reward your child with a treat if she goes to bed without a tantrum for three days in a row. Also shower praise for good behaviour.  On the other hand, if she kicks up a fuss you could discourage this by stipulating an earlier bedtime the following night or reducing playtime the next day.  

Be firm 

Too many parents tend to let children sleep in their bed out of fatigue and frustration, but this is not advisable. You will only be prolonging the bedtime tantrums phase. Be gentle but firm. Give her an extra hug and put her back in her own bed

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