Sleep and Your 3 to 5 Year-Old

For many parents, their child's bedtime is the most dreaded part of the day, and often for good reason: Unless a preschooler is very tired, he may resist going to sleep. This is even more likely to be a particular problem if he has older brothers or sisters who stay up later. The younger one is bound to feel left out and afraid of "missing something" if the rest of the family is up after he's asleep. These feelings are understandable, and there's no harm in granting him some flexibility in his bedtime. But remember that most children at this age need at least 10 to 12 hours of sleep each night.

Bedtime Routine

The best way to prepare your preschooler for sleep is by reading him a story. Once the story is over and you've said your good-nights, don't let him stall further, and don't let him talk you into staying with him until he falls asleep. He needs to get used to doing this on his own. Also, don't let him roughhouse or get involved in a lengthy play project right before bedtime. The calmer and more comforting the activity, the better and the more easily he'll go to sleep.

Nightmares

Most preschoolers sleep through the night, but often rouse several times to check their surroundings before falling back to sleep. There may be nights; however, when your child's very active dreams awaken him. These vivid dreams often represent the way he viewed some of the events of the day. They may reflect some impulse, aggressive feeling, or inner fear that only comes to the surface by way of these frightening images or dreams.

By the time he's 5 or a little older, he'll be better able to understand that these images are only dreams, but as a preschooler he may still need to be reassured that they're not real. So, when he wakes up in the middle of the night, afraid and crying, try holding him, talking about the dream and staying with him until he's calm. For your own peace of mind, don't forget that these are only nightmares and not a serious problem.

To further help your child overcome his nighttime fears, you might read him stories about dreams and sleep. As you talk about these stories together, he'll better understand that everyone has dreams and that he needn't be frightened of them. Some classic children's books on these topics include Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen, Russell Hoban's Bedtime for Frances, Mercer Mayer's There's a Nightmare in My Closet and Chris van Allsberg's Ben's Dream. Always make sure that these books aren't themselves frightening to him.

Night Terrors

Occasionally, your preschooler will be in bed, appearing to be awake and desperately upset, perhaps screaming and thrashing, eyes wide open and terrified, but he won't respond to you. In this case, he's neither awake nor having a nightmare. Rather, you're witnessing something called a "night terror," a mysterious and, to parents, distressing form of sleep behavior common during the preschool and early school years. Typically, the child falls asleep without difficulty, but wakes up an hour or so later, wide-eyed and terrified. He may have hallucinations, point to imaginary objects, kick, scream and generally be inconsolable. The only thing you can really do in this situation is hold the child to protect him from hurting himself. Reassure him: "You're fine. Mommy and Daddy are here." After 10 to 30 minutes of this, he'll settle down and go back to sleep. The next morning, he'll remember nothing about the occurrence.

Some children may have just one episode of night terrors, while others experience them several times. It's not typical, however, for them to recur frequently or for a prolonged period. In cases of very frequent night terrors, sleep medications prescribed by your pediatrician may be helpful, but the best strategy seems to be to wait them out. They'll disappear naturally as the child grows older.

When you're not sure your child is having a nightmare or a night terror but is waking up and calling for you, simply reassure him that everything is all right, put him back to sleep and then leave him. Don't reward him for waking up by giving him food or by bringing him to your room.

Excerpted from Caring for Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Bantam 1999

© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics