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Babysitting: Bedtime

"I want a drink of water!"

"Just one more story, pleeeeaase?"

"These PJs are too small! I need to get a pair from my brother's room."

There's more to bedtime than just tucking kids in. For older kids, you need to know the difference between real problems and stall tactics. For babies, you have to be sure the sleep environment is safe.

Here are tips for making bedtime easier.

Babies

Safety is rule one when it comes to bedtime for babies. Here are two key things to remember:

  1. "Back to sleep." Use this phrase as a reminder to put a baby on his or her back to sleep, each time you put a baby to bed, whether it's for a nap or the night. Babies should always sleep on their backs to lower the risk of suffocation.
  2. The right place to snooze. Always put a baby to bed in a crib or bassinet. Remove any pillows, stuffed toys, or blankets from the crib — these are suffocation hazards. Babies also can suffocate if they sleep on soft surfaces, so never let a baby sleep on a bed, sofa, etc. Infants should not sleep with anyone else, so don't lie down with a baby who is falling asleep.

Here are some other things to know about babies and sleep:

  • Babies aren't always awake when they sound like they are. They may make some noises during light sleep.
  • Babies who do wake up may only be awake for a few minutes before falling asleep again on their own. If you want a baby to continue sleeping, and the baby isn't in distress, wait before going into the room. If the baby sounds really upset and keeps crying, though, check on him or her quickly.
  • Calm a fussy baby to help him or her go back to sleep. Stroke the child lovingly on the arms or belly. If the baby uses a pacifier, that can also help. Find out what calming tactics the parents use.
  • If a baby needs to be changed after falling asleep at night, do it as quickly and quietly as possible. Avoid turning on bright lights, talking, playing, or doing anything else that might fully awaken the baby.

Children

Anyone who's been around kids knows that they don't like the day's fun to come to an end. That means you can expect that kids as young as toddlers will use a variety of bedtime avoidance tactics. Here are some ways to be prepared:

  • Be firm. Stick with the bedtime a parent has given you.
  • Give plenty of warning. Bedtime can be a lot easier if you give kids a heads-up that it's coming instead of just swooping them off to bed. One way to do this is by employing a bedtime routine.
  • Know bedtime routines. End-of-day routines help kids wind down and signal their bodies that it's time for sleep. Ask parents what they usually do before bedtime. Maybe they have rules like no TV or computer time half an hour before bedtime.
  • Go through the basics. Take a child to the bathroom (or put on a nighttime diaper). Help the child brush his or her teeth. Find out from parents what else is necessary before the kid hops under the covers.
  • Follow the family's lights-out procedures. If parents usually read to a child, talk quietly before bedtime, or listen to music, follow the same procedure yourself.
  • Remind the child that it's time to be quiet and sleep. Be firm about that final "goodnight" and tell a child, "Sleep well!"

If a child won't stay in bed or wakes up in the night:

  • If child gets up up, take him or her back to bed right away. You can usually tell if a kid is genuinely upset or just stalling.
  • If a child wakes up crying, find out what's wrong. Is she sick? Has he had a nightmare? If a child seems to be sick or in pain, stay in the room and call the parents if the symptoms continue. If a child is afraid, find out what's prompting the fear. If it's monsters or intruders, you can check under the bed, in the closets, or get a nightlight if needed. Nightmares can be particularly frightening to toddlers because they can't distinguish imagination from reality. (That's why it's a good idea to be careful of what a toddler watches before bedtime.) So let a child talk about a bad dream. Comfort and hold the child, and stay until he or she is calm.
  • If a child cries or calls for you, wait a couple of minutes, then go check on him or her. If the child keeps calling to you, wait a little longer each time before you go to check. Remind the child that it's time to sleep.

After the kids are in bed, you'll want to stay alert in case they cry or call for you. But otherwise you can relax, watch TV, and get a little wind-down time for yourself. You earned it!

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: May 2010

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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