Getting back to good nights (and days!): Seven sleeping solutions to help tired tots and their parents get some rest

If you have a young child at home, chances are good that you aren’t getting quite as much sleep as you used to. But what if your little one is missing out on much-needed z’s? Author and parenting expert Kimberley Clayton Blaine explains how a lack of sleep can lead to bad behavior and what you can do to help create better nights for the both of you!            

Sleep: As most parents of small children know, it’s the Holy Grail. Having a child who sleeps well means having a child who is more likely to be even-tempered, easier to please, and more compliant—and a mom and dad who are rested, refreshed, and ready to face the day with their energetic bundle of joy. But let her skip naptime one time,and your typically happy-go-lucky toddler can quickly turn into a tantrum-throwing, argumentative, meltdown-prone monster. There’s a good reason, says author Kimberley Clayton Blaine, and there are solutions out there to help lull your little one into better naps and nighttimes.       
"Children who nap and sleep well at night have fewer behavior problems," says Blaine, licensed family and child therapist, mother of two boys and author of the new book The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2010). "Overly tired children can’t appropriately balance their physical and emotional worlds, causing them to act out and behave badly."
Children and parents both need good rest to make sure they are presenting their best selves during the course of each day. Lack of sleep leads to shorter tempers on both parts, so making sure you catch enough z’s at night can mean having kids who behave better and parents who, well, parent with more patience. So what do you do if your child shuns sleep? Blaine says there are seven easy things that every parent can do to get back to good nights (and days) in no time:
 Figure out how much sleep your child should be getting. The amount of sleep your child needs each day varies depending on her age. Blaine says that the following guide will help you to determine whether or not your tot is getting enough shut-eye:  One year old: 13 hours Two years old: 12–15 hours (includes nap) Three years old: 11–14 hours (includes nap) Four years old: 10–13 hours (includes nap) Five years old: 10–12.5 hours (no nap) "If your child acts out, throws tantrums, or has a tendency to melt down in the early evening hours, then there’s a good chance she isn’t getting enough sleep," she continues. "If she is under the age of four years old, make sure that she takes a daytime nap on a regular schedule."  
Stick to the schedule. Set a regular time for naps and bedtime and stick to it. By keeping it consistent, your little one will know what to expect and his little body will begin to adjust to the circadian rhythm of the sleep schedule you set. It will make naptimes and bedtimes much easier for the both of you. "Keeping a strict sleep schedule is vital to getting more rest for both you and your child," explains Blaine. "Plan your errands and day trips around naptime, and make sure that you stick to your nighttime schedule, even on vacation. If your child knows that he can expect to sleep at the same time every day—no matter where you are or what you are doing—it will create the sleep habits you want most." 
Insist on "rest time" every afternoon. Some children are great nappers. They go down with ease at the same time every day and take a regular nap up until the age of five. And then there are the rest of us. Blaine says that some children can give up their afternoon naps as early as age three, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still need to take a timeout to rest. Spend thirty minutes lying quietly with your child to encourage her to sleep. If she simply doesn’t sleep after you’ve tried to rest with her for thirty minutes, get out one of her books and continue the "rest time." "It’s important to ensure that your child has at least a quiet time each day," says Blaine. "Do whatever you have to do to keep her quiet and calm. Dim the lights, get into bed, and read soothing stories. It will be a time to rest and recharge for both of you." 
Keep after-dinner playtime to a minimum. Too much activity close to bedtime can keep a child from being able to fall asleep. It’s okay to let him play before bedtime, but Blaine says to make sure any activities he participates in are of the calm and quiet variety. Puzzles, books, or blocks are all great options for letting him relax and ready himself for sleep. "If a child is running around outside, then his energy level will remain elevated," explains Blaine, "and it will take longer for him to calm himself down when it’s time to go to bed—making bedtime a struggle for you both. Try sitting down and reading a story or pulling up to the kitchen table with a coloring book and talking about your day together."
Make a ritual of the bedtime routine. Having a bedtime routine is a great way for both you and your child to unwind each day. It is also a great cue for her to know that bedtime is coming so she knows what to expect. Keeping the same routine also helps to maintain consistency when you are not at home. This way, whether you are on vacation, spending the night at Grandma’s, or leaving your little one with a sitter for the night, her bedtime routine doesn’t change. "It’s never too early to start a bedtime routine," explains Blaine. "From the time a baby comes home from the hospital, set a relaxing routine that sets the tone for sleep. For example, every night could consist of bath time, pajamas, and story time before turning out the lights. You can repeat a portion of this routine during the daytime for naps. Your child will know that it is time to go to sleep, and it will be quiet time that you can enjoy together."  
Keep the temperature just right. Small children have a harder time regulating their own body temperature, and, babies especially, can have difficulty falling and staying asleep if they are too hot or too cold. Make sure that the temperature in your child’s bedroom is comfortable—not too warm or too cold—and that he is dressed appropriately for the temperature inside the house. "Parents often don’t realize that the temperature of the room is keeping their child from getting a good night’s sleep," says Blaine. "And if your little one is in a bedroom that is a little cooler or warmer than the rest of the house, adjust his sleepwear accordingly. If your A/C is on high in the middle of the summer, it’s okay to put him in warm pajamas to keep him cozy through the night!"  
Set the sleeping mood. When children are trying to sleep, even the tiniest distraction can keep them from getting the shut-eye they need. Any extra noise, light, or small discomfort can deter them from drifting off to dreamland. Invest in room-darkening shades, a white noise machine, soft blankets—anything to make their sleep time more inviting. "Make sure that your child’s sleep environment is snug, cozy, and dark," asserts Blaine. "If necessary, use a white noise machine and a nightlight and always keep the noise level low. For daytime naps and summer days where the light hangs around long past bedtime, make sure that you have a way to block light from entering your child’s room."             
"The most important thing is that parents manage their expectations," Blaine concludes. "When it comes down to it, you can’t force kids to sleep. All you can do is set them up for success, make sure they get some sort of quiet time during the day, and the rest will come. And remember that you are not alone. There are plenty of parents out there—including myself—who struggle to get their kids to sleep. Have patience, stick with it, and you’ll both be having good nights and great days before you know it."
Kimberley Clayton Blaine, MA, MFT, is the executive producer of the online parenting show www.TheGoToMom.TV and author of The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children and The Internet Mommy.  Kimberley is a national child development expert and a licensed family and child therapist specializing in working with children newborn to six years old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and two young boys.