Struggling to Get Your Kids to Sleep? Catch the Cues to Make it Easier

Struggling to Get Your Kids to Sleep? Catch the Cues to Make it Easier

If nap or bedtime at your house has become a marathon wrestling match requiring more than 45 minutes of struggle to get the kids down, there may be a simple solution.  Catch the cues – earlier.  

When children don’t easily fall asleep, it can feel like they are refusing to sleep.   The reality is they can’t.   Each of us has a sleep window.  It’s typically about 15-30 minutes wide, during which time it is easiest for the brain to switch to sleep.  

When you hit the “window for sleep” the average child falls asleep within 27-35 minutes.

Put children to bed too early and they will lie wide awake or throw a conniption.  More likely you may be putting your children to sleep too late and as a result they are over tired and too stimulated to sleep.  The trouble with children who are over tired is that they send out mixed up cues.  Instead of getting drowsy they get wired.  They squeal gleefully as they chase the cat in circles around the kitchen or jump on the bed instead of lying down. Making you think they are not tired.  When in actuality they are over tired.  Ask them to stop and the odds are they won’t even hear you, or if they do will respond by stomping their feet and declaring, “You can’t make me,” or simply fall into a heap on the floor, sobbing.  

If you observe closely however, you can learn to identify the sounds, gestures and behaviors that point out to you the ideal time to put your child down for sleep.  Initially the cues may seem way too subtle and difficult to notice. But once you identify them they are like a red flag waving in the air – sleep NOW!  You’ll know you are hitting your child’s sleep window when you are putting to bed a child who is still happy and relatively compliant and she falls asleep within that 27-35 minute time frame. 

There are 3 levels of sleep cues:

  • Level one is the point to put down infants birth to 9-months of age 
    • For children 10 months and older level one is a “heads up” I’m getting tired but not quite ready for sleep.  
  • Level two is when to put down the child 10 months and older 
    • Do not wait for the second yawn/eye rub etc.  
  • Level three is over tired – the window for sleep has been missed.  Next time plan to begin the sleep routine earlier. 

Here are some cues to look for: 

Level one

Level two

Level three

Red around the eyes Yawn Silly and wild
Slight sagging of cheeks Little difficulty listening but not too bad Nothing is right
Glazed look/staring off into space Rubs eyes or pulls on earlobe Not following direction
Momentary slowing of motion Goes for comfort object Not listening
Slight drooping  of eye lids Stumbles Crying
Change in skin color/pallor A little difficulty complying but not too bad Unable to settle or fall asleep
Makes a certain sound Loses focus – starts to flit from one activity to another – seems bored Arching/thrashing  
Looks away from you A little irritable Hyper and frenzied motion
  Lays head down Falling apart
  Seeks contact with you Screaming
  Still relatively happy/not crying Resistant

When you see the appropriate level of cues for your child’s age group begin your sleep routine. Keep it VERY simple.  Bedtime snack, pajamas, toileting/diapering, teeth, one story or no story, snuggle, kiss, prayer (if you say prayers in your family) and good night.  That’s it. 

You’ll notice extensive reading is not included in the routine nor bath.  That’s because these activities too easily can push a child past his sleep window.  Who wants to stop reading when a child is begging for more books!  Bath and reading can be early evening activities. 

You still do them but they are not part of the sleep routine. 

You really can take the struggle out of sleep time.  Catch the cues.  Move quickly.  Keep the sleep routine simple and you will discover how much more easily sleep can come.  

Next time we’ll talk about establishing a predictable routine that “sets the body clock” and makes seeing the cues even easier.  

In the meantime if you would like more in-depth information on how much sleep your child needs or how to help your child get the sleep she/he needs check out my book Sleepless in America:  Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep?  

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Raising Your Spirited BabyRaising Your Spirited Child - Parent's Choice Award WinnerMary Sheedy Kurchinka - Raising Your Spirited Child WorkbookMary Sheedy Kurchinka - Kids, Parents and Power StrugglesMary Sheedy Kurchinka - Sleepless in America