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Crabby preschooler? Think sleep!

by Dr. Heather Wittenberg | September 29, 2011 | Child Development

My little friend Olivia is 4. She used to be a happy, fun, sociable girl. But since school started, she’s been crabby, whiny, and prone to meltdowns.  At school, she can’t sit still during circle time. And today, she got sent home early for biting her friend Joshua. Is Olivia in the wrong classroom? Does she need firmer discipline? Might she even have ADD? No – Olivia just needs more sleep.

Olivia belongs to a majority of children who don’t get enough sleep.  The National Sleep Foundation says that 69% of children have disturbed sleep at least once a week. Even one hour’s missed sleep means a lot less learned during the day – and a whole host of other problems, including immune, growth, behavior, and mood difficulties. One study even found that inadequate sleep doubles the chance that your toddler or preschooler will get hurt accidentally.

But it can be a real challenge to get the kids to bed earlier. I know it’s nice to let the evening unfold naturally – like what often happens during the summertime — instead of having to follow a schedule. And when we’re busy in the daytime with work and school, the evening is the only time we really have with our kids. But something has to give. Cumulative sleep deprivation is just too harmful – for the whole family.  We all enjoy each other much more when we’re well-rested, anyway.

What to do?

  • Schedule. Preschoolers need about 11 – 13 hours of sleep each day (naps included). Think ahead and realistically plan how long it takes for the evening routine – without rushing through.
  • Take steps. Set bedtime back by 15 minute increments each night. Don’t try to do it all in one night – little bodies need time to adjust to the new schedule.
  • Unplug. No screen time for at least 60 minutes before bed – Mom and Dad included. High-tech gadgets keep our brains in high gear.
  • Nutrition. Jettison the junk. Good food begets better sleep.
  • Model. Show your kids that Mom and Dad value good sleep too.
  • Pull on the Pull Ups. Take the pressure off nighttime potty training if your child needs more zzzzzzs.

Fortunately, Olivia’s parents took her sleep situation seriously. After checking with her pediatrician, they decided to make a change in the family’s evening schedule. Instead of crashing at 9:30, now she’s getting ready for bed by 7 – with lights out at 8. It took a few weeks of gradually backing up bedtime, cutting back on TV and junk food, and adding in more books, some warm milk, and a longer bath time — but now Olivia is used to the new routine. That leaves more time for Mom and Dad, too. And guess what? Olivia’s teacher says that Olivia “is like a different child – so happy and helpful.” My fun little friend is back!

Do you have any tips for getting the kids to bed earlier at night? Please share!