How to get bedtime back on track

Getting your kids to bed at the same time every night benefits the whole family: it ensures your child gets the sleep they need, and allows parents those all-important child-free evenings. The experts at Millpond Children's Sleep Clinic offer this advice

Quite often certain factors – busy times, illness, holidays - mean your child’s bedtime is thrown out of whack. This may lead to long lie-ins the following morning, which kick-starts a cycle that’s tricky to break. How can you get bedtime back on track?

At Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic, we see children of all ages who aren’t ready for bed until late in the evening. As a result, they’re tired and cranky the following day – particularly problematic if they have to go to school. The good news is that with the help of a structured programme, this sleep problem can be sorted out pretty effectively.

Here’s a case study of six-year-old Will, who from birth had never been a great sleeper. We put together a simple plan for his parents to follow – try using the same one if you find your child is settling late in the evening, sleeping through and waking up late in the morning.

Will’s story

Six-year-old Will would start getting ready for bed at 8pm. One of his parents would go upstairs with him, read him a story, say goodnight and close the bedroom door.

Will would then get up a number of times and make his way downstairs, saying he couldn’t sleep. After repeated trips back upstairs with a parent, he would eventually drop off to sleep in his own bed – but often not until midnight. He would then sometimes sleep walk.

As a result, Will’s parents found it difficult to wake him each morning at 8am for school. He would be tired and grumpy, and his sleep deprivation meant he was getting into fights with other pupils. His exhaustion meant that at weekends, he would often still be asleep until past 10am.

Sleep diary

Will’s parents had tried everything they could think of to get their son to bed earlier, without success. Our first step was to ask them to keep a sleep diary. This revealed that Will had a late sleep-phase problem and sleep deficit, which was contributing to his night-time sleep walking and bad moods during the day. A boy of his age requires about ten and three-quarters hours sleep a night; he was having only eight or nine.

How did we help?

We formulated a late sleep-phase programme, which allowed Will to go to bed at whatever time he naturally fell asleep – however late this might be. Once he was able to fall asleep within 15-20 minutes of “lights out”, his bedtime could then be moved forward in 15-minute stages over a period of days.

This approach would allow his body clock to adjust to the earlier sleep time. As with all sleep programmes, it was vital that his parents ensured he had a relaxing, calm bedtime routine lasting no longer than 30-45 minutes.

Did it work?

To begin with, Will was even more tired when woken up at 8am every morning. Crucially, he was also woken at 8am at weekends in order to maintain a consistent routine.

He responded well to the programme and was soon falling asleep every night within 15 minutes of going to bed.

A slow and steady approach was key in Will’s case. The 15-minute-earlier changes to his bedtime were made just once a week. However, in the case of a child with relatively new late sleep problems – following a holiday or illness, for example – this adjustment could be made every three nights. Remember, each change should only be introduced once the child is falling asleep within 15-20 minutes of going to bed.

After two months, Will was asleep most nights by 8.30pm. As he caught up on his sleep deficit, he was a happier, less moody child and the sleep walking ceased completely.

Top tip! For this technique to succeed, you must wake your child at a regular time each day – including weekends.



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Find out more

Find out more about childhood sleep problems in Teach Your Child to Sleep: Solving Problems from Newborn through Childhood by Mandy Gurney and Tracey Marshall of the Millpond Sleep Clinic (Hamlyn)

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