Q. My daughter, 3½, used to be a great sleeper but we have been struggling with bedtime for the past two months and having two to three wake-ups each night.
We start her bedtime routine at 8:30 p.m., but she puts up such a fight that it is almost 10:30 p.m. before we can put her into her big girl bed.
She also wakes up and screams for me in the middle of the night and then she asks me to lay with her for a little bit or says that she heard a funny noise or that she wants me to watch her go to the bathroom, even though we have nightlights in both her room and the bathroom.
I go to her as soon as she screams — so she doesn’t wake up her brother — and then I tell her to go back to bed, but she keeps getting up and yelling for me. This makes me so angry that we always have a fight which is stressful and irritating and it doesn’t help them care for each other either.
However, it also doesn’t help to yell at her, to spank her or to give her some rewards and sticker charts because she won’t earn her stickers any more. I feel like a horrible parent because I don’t know how to put my child to sleep and neither does my husband, and the many articles I’ve read on this subject leave me more and more confused.
Is this a phase that we’ll just have to get through? Or should I lay down with her for a little bit. And is it OK to do that?
A. Imagine, if you will, that you’re wide awake, night after night, or that you’re scared or anxious only to have your husband yell at you and tell you to go to bed anyway. Wouldn’t your little girl feel the same way?
A child has a reason for everything she does, just as you do, and when you can identify the problem, you’ll respond differently and then will be easy once again.
If the problem began when you moved your daughter from her crib to her “big girl” bed, she may be overwhelmed by having so much space around her or she may think that she and her stuffed animals will fall on the floor if she sleeps in a bed without railings. Or maybe your little girl gives her brother kisses and cuddles all day, but she just isn’t ready to give him her crib.
Guesses, however, aren’t good enough. Ask your daughter why she resists her bedtime so much, rather than guess about its cause and do your asking in the morning when your son is out with his dad, not at night when you’re both worn out.
Your daughter will answer you candidly if you ask her why she fusses so much at night, rather than telling her what you think; if you leave a long silence after each question so she has time to figure out her answer; if you repeat what she says but in different words, so you’ll make sure you know what she means and if you let her do most of the talking.
Your little girl is sure to have a limited vocabulary at this age so she may start screaming at you if she can’t express herself easily or she thinks that you disagree with her.
Even if you’re not sure why bedtime upsets your daughter so much, you need to make some changes. Begin by encouraging your daughter to be quite active for an hour or two a day, even if you have to set up a ladder in the living room when it’s rainy outside, because you want her to be quite tired when she goes to bed.
You should set new bedtime rules too, starting with a promise to lay down with her for 10 minutes every night for the first week, but tell your daughter that you’ll give her a kiss and a few picture books as soon as the timer rings. If she still needs you, tell her that you’ll go to her quickly, pat her back and lay her down again but you won’t argue with her or even talk with her when she should be asleep.
You or your husband may have to go to her five times or even 10 times the first few nights but by Day 10 she should be falling asleep and staying asleep unless you argue with her or yell at her or spank her. If a child is healthy, she usually won’t act up unless she knows that she will get more attention for being naughty than she gets for being nice.
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.