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How to Raise a Good Sleeper: Part 3

By Janet K. Kennedy, PhD, NYC Sleep Doctor

Handling Times of Transition

Transitions can wreak havoc on children’s sleep. They’re not alone: think about how your own sleep fluctuates when you’re under stress, traveling or, getting over a cold.  But kids can have a harder time rebounding for several reasons. 

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First, they don’t usually understand what’s happening.  Whether you have an infant, toddler or school-age child, she won’t realize that she’s having a hard time settling down because of changes in her environment.  Identifying the cause can make the problem less upsetting for the child and the parents. 

Second, children are reliant on adults to maintain their routines and consistency.  Parents often let things slide during times of transition, slowing down bedtime routines, letting bedtimes creep later, giving in to delay tactics (one more book!).  The problem is, when life events are causing changes during the day, the bedtime routines and schedule become even more important.  Those routines reassure the child when other aspects of his life are changing. And, don’t forget that a well-rested child will be more resilient and flexible during the day when faced with the challenges of a new situation.

Third, transitions are exhausting!  And, if you read Part 1 of this series, you know that overtired children have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep.  Sticking to an appropriate (early) bedtime will help preserve your child’s sleep in times of change.

If you are running into bumps in the road to good sleep, ask yourself some important questions:

  1. What’s different in my child’s life?  Did he transition out of a nap, use the potty, spend the night with Grandma, welcome a new sibling, lose a pet, start (or start thinking about) a new school? Did the weather change?  Did a caregiver leave or take a vacation?  Did she move from the crib to a bed?  Keep in mind that even small changes can be unsettling for a child.
  2. Is my child getting overtired during the day or evening?  If your child is protesting at bedtime, refusing naps, waking up more frequently or too early, the answer is probably yes!  Adjust the bedtime and naptime to make sure that your child is in bed before she is overtired.  Keep in mind that the transition may be taxing your child, so the bedtimes might need to be earlier than usual.
  3. Is my help really helping?  That extra book or song might be making your child more anxious, because it prolongs the inevitable: your departure.  And, it pushes the bedtime later, which just makes matters worse.  Providing some extra snuggling and reassurance is important.  But beware of negotiations that make it harder for you to leave the room.  What seems like it will take 2 minutes can stretch to much more than that.

Remember that your child’s world is pretty small.  Some kids are more flexible when it comes to changes.  But if you have a child who reacts strongly to change, remember that the structure you provide makes him feel safe, allowing him to adjust more smoothly.