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Winks: When Your Kid Can't Fall Asleep Alone

Sleep solutions for modern families

Published on: November 29, 2017

Sleeping kid

In her recurring column, author and sleep research guru Malia Jacobson answers reader questions about that most important of parenting tools: a good night's sleep. In this edition, what to do when your kid won't go to sleep on their own and how to handle nighttime teeth grinding.

 

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My 6-year-old son can’t fall asleep at night unless I lie down next to him, sometimes for up to a half-hour. I’m expecting another baby, and my partner works nights — I’m not sure I can keep up this routine. How can I help him fall asleep on his own?

Congratulations on your growing family! Parent-child snuggles at bedtime can be a relaxing way to end the day. But sometimes, like when a new baby is expected, or when a parent has evening work responsibilities, prolonged cuddling isn’t possible or convenient, so it’s certainly understandable that you’d prefer for your son to doze off with less support from you. But since this bedtime routine is now a deeply entrenched habit — it’s happened each night for all of his six years — you can expect the process to take some time.

Start by picking the right bedtime and establishing a consistent bedtime routine that occurs prior to tuck-in; our brains are wired to associate certain events in a certain sequence with sleep, so sticking to a unwavering nighttime routine of, for example, bath, pajamas, quiet play and stories helps ease your son into a more peaceful bedtime. 

Next, set a reasonable time limit to lie with him at bedtime; say, 15 minutes. Explain to him that after 15 minutes, you’ll need to get up, but you’ll be nearby if he needs you. When the time is up, give him a hug and kiss and tell him you’ll return to check on him every five minutes until he falls to sleep, and make sure to return as promised. If he whines, wheedles, or cries, soothe him — don’t leave him sobbing in his bed, or the plan could backfire — but be firm in your resolve to get up after the allotted time. If he gets up and follows you out of the room, help him return to bed, settle him quickly and quietly, then resume your exit plan. Every time. 

When you son seems to be doing well with the 15-minute routine, reduce the lying-down time to 14 minutes, then 13, and so on, decreasing the time gradually over a period of a week or two until you’ve arrived at a sustainable routine you can both live with — say, five minutes of cuddling. Continue reassuring him that you’re nearby if he needs you, and respond to him when he calls out (preferably before he leaves his room, since roaming the house will make it harder for him to resettle in bed). Children who are motivated by rewards might be convinced to stay in bed after you get up with the promise of receiving a small trinket in the morning, or he can work toward a bigger reward: after five nights of falling to sleep without a fuss, he can choose a fun weekend outing. 

My 3-year-old grinds her teeth at night. It sounds awful. Is it damaging her teeth?

Fingernails on a blackboard have nothing on tiny teeth gnashing away. But don’t worry: Teeth-grinding , called bruxism, sounds worse than it is. In fact, it’s common for young kids and generally considered a normal part of the growing process. It can start as soon as baby teeth appear, as early as 6 months, and it generally subsides once the permanent teeth erupt.

When you hear nighttime grinding, don’t wake your child; she’s not aware that it’s happening, so waking up will just confuse her. Grinding can be associated with daytime stress, so ensure that your child has plenty of wind-down time to relax before bed.

Overtiredness may worsen grinding, so practice healthy sleep habits, with an age-appropriate bedtime, a consistent bedtime routine, and a dark, cool, quiet sleep space. Bruxism occurs more commonly when children sleep on their backs; grinders may be more comfortable with a side-sleeping position.  

If bruxism occurs regularly and your child complains of aching teeth or jaws, make an appointment with your child’s dentist. In severe cases, a soft plastic mouthguard may be prescribed to protect the teeth and jaw joints. But usually, occasional nighttime teeth-grinding shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

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