Waking at Night: Preschool-Aged Kids

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Four year old can't fall asleep, then he's up 2-6 times at night

Oct 2007

Our nearly four year old has gone from a 12-hour a night sleeper to a kid who gets hysterical at bedtime, getting up between 12-20 times in the first 90 minutes, screaming like a banshee each time. He wants attention, or his blanket moved, or a piece of clothing put away, or to just be talked to again. Then he's up 2-6 times after 11pm and before 6am, each time yelling and crying and demanding our presence. All of this was preceded by my absence for 12 days, and then returning with his 15 month old sister (newly adopted) that he had heard about since her birth but was clearly not ready for.

We have tried rewards (stickers, videos, special times with mama, trips, ''name your price''), punishment (taking away of toys, tv time, stuffed animals in bed, the blanket, closing the door a few inches at a time until it's nearly closed)...all to no avail. It is not until we are fried and losing it and he is hysterical that he finally gives up and passes out. We got over the sibling issues and anger at mama a few weeks ago, and he has great days with lots of time with me - though he is being told ''no'' more often than before, thanks to grabbing/pushing/knocking down/stealing toys from his sister on a fairly regular but normal basis.

We are at our wits end, having read the bibles on healthy sleep for kids and having every technique backfire. Any advice welcome - other than making a chart with stars. We are far past stars, though we'd like to given them to ourselves on each night for resisting the urge to break things. Sleepless, Exhausted and Frustrated

You might want to consider ''giving up'' for a month or two, and having one of you sleep in his room. Then when he settles down, and returns to sleeping through the night, you can go back to working on getting him to sleep alone. We have had various family health crises, and each one brought on a regression around sleep, and needing parents more at night. But after things more or less returned to normal, we were able to coax our child back into sleeping alone. anon

This is the ''logical consequence'' I came up with for having kids get out of bed at night. Nighttime is for sleeping and if you wake up and wake me up at night then we all need naps during the day.

If he already takes a nap during the day, tell him that you and he are so tired from waking up in the night that you both need an extra nap (in the morning). Then put him in bed in his room for an hour nap and you go to your room for a ''nap''.

If his sister takes a nap and he doesn't its even better. Tell him when you put her down for a nap how you'd love to have some time with him now while she naps, but you can't because you are both so tired from waking up in the middle of the night. Tuck him in for his ''nap'' and you go to your room for your ''nap''. He doesn't have to sleep, but he can't come out of his room---though you can ignore it if he does as long as you stay in your room.

Put a clock in his room and tell him he has to nap from when the first number says 1 until it says 2, or whatever time it is (or you can change the time).

This has worked wonders for me and for friends who have tried it and I like that having to have a nap is a natural consequence of waking up at night, and yet quite odious to most 4 year olds.

Good luck! susan

We don't have a new sibling in the picture (Congratulations!) but you may be dealing with typical 4-year-old power issues (check the archives). We recently had a similar bedtime problem (and mealtime, and getting-out-the-door time, and not-getting- my-way time, etc.). I tried sticker charts, making a picture schedule, setting a timer, letting the kid stay up, screaming at her--all the ways I could think of over the course of many weeks. Then I saw in the archives that 4-year-olds seekout, manufacture and naturally gravitate toward power struggles and I found a method that has worked so far: declaring martial law. Around necessary things like bedtime, bathtime, going to school/work there are no choices, no delays allowed, mommy's way only. It felt mean at first, but I'm the grown-up and have the ability to see that these things just need to be done. Then I realized it wasn't any meaner than not letting her touch fire or do anything else completely unacceptable. My child doesn't like it. She cries, she gets mad, she says ''I don't like you'' or worse.

Oh well. It's time to go to bed. It takes a lot of energy to be authoritarian on these issues. It would be easier if she would reasonably read 2 stories then stay in bed like Caillou, but that isn't the way it is for us. Parenting is hard work. It is a phase I hear they grow out of when they are five. Good luck! in the trenches with you

Our son was getting up periodically, and we were able to put the kibosh on it by 1)making sure everything was in order prior to bedtime (ie. he goes pee, checks to make sure he has water, has 2 books to read in bed), 2) I tell him I will check on him later to make sure he has his covers on, 3) if he gets up, we immediately walk him back with limited-to-no conversation and a warning: if he gets up again, no TV or no computer the next day. We had to enforce it a few times, but for the most part, he responded well.

It's so hard to guess what the one thing will be that each child will respond to. Cleary there are alot of factors at play in your situation that we didn't have to contend with. Other things to consider might be a slight change in the bedtime ritual, ie. can he ''help'' put the baby to bed (ie. get her blanket ready or some small gesture), can you or your husband spend more time in his room at night? some change of his choice might make him feel better; his world has been changed irrevocably by the addition of this new sibling, so he might enjoy the opportunity to exert some control over his own schedule (which is basically what he's doing now, just not in a positive way).

Also, if he is still napping, you might want to consider shortening naptime; that might be giving him the fuel he needs at nighttime to fight sleep off. anon

Wow, you really sound exhausted and frustrated and overwhelmed. My guess is that your son is feeling pretty much the same way. What a huge change in his life, to go from being an only child to being the big brother of a get-into-his-space toddler! It sounds to me like your son is still very much trying to process the arrival of his sister and that is what his sleepless nights are all about. Where is the little sister during all of this? Is she asleep? If so, your son might be - smartly - seeking time when he can be all alone with you again. Conversely, if she is awake, he might be insane with jealousy to think that she has private time with you (or to imagine that she might!) when he is asleep. Sleep is a separation of sorts, and he might be terrified by the idea of another separation from you. Does the new baby sleep with you or sleep in your room with you? Perhaps, for awhile, your son could do the same. Even if the sister is not in a room with you, perhaps your son could relax more if he were in the same bed or at least same room (matress on the floor?) as you. Perhaps your son is still very jealous and angry, but unable, for whatever reason, to express this. His own developing love for his new sister could in and of itself get in the way of his feeling okay about being jealous and angry about her as well. Such ambivalent feelings can be stressful for a young child. He may need more opportunities - maybe months of them - to read about, talk about, and play about baby sisters. Does he engage in role play with baby dolls? Does he have a baby doll? If not, he might benefit from having one - his own baby to both take care of and get angry at.

Perhaps you've tried all of these things, perhaps not. Keep on loving and keep on trucking, and this too shall pass. Teacher of four-year-olds Anonymous

This will sound harsh but it really isn't if you think about it. When my son was 2 he wouldn't go to bed at night so we actually locked him in his room. He protested loudly for a few nights but finally got tired and went to sleep. It was hard but it worked. Sympathetic