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How Parents Can Help Young Children Fall Asleep

boy & teddy asleep
If anyone tells you to go to sleep, it's immediately the last thing you want to do. No matter how hard you try to switch off, you just can't. But that's exactly what parents expect active toddlers and young children to do. Sleep expert and author Elizabeth Pantley explains how mums and dads can help little ones to sleep by taking time to create the right mood

You lie there staring at the ceiling, changing position on the bed, moving the covers around. You are fully aware you should sleep, but it just won't come.

This is exactly how many children feel when they are told to go to bed, or go to sleep. Parents say, ‘Time for sleep now' and the child feels a pressure to nod off, which makes him or her feel agitated. Now feeling even more awake, he might decide he needs to go to the loo, or to have a drink of water, one more  bedtime story, or even better a little chat with someone. If he is old enough to walk he jumps out of bed and begins to wander around the house. You appear and tell him to go back to bed using the same words, 'Go to sleep.' Feeling stressed now and a little confused he thinks, 'But I don't know how to!'

A soothing  routine before any speak of bedtime can help create feelings of sleepiness. That is the first step, but often a routine by itself isn't enough. It may help to teach the child exactly how to relax and fall asleep once in bed. There are many different approaches to relaxation, but parenting expert and mother of four, Elizabeth Pantley who has written a book on how to help toddlers get off to sleep has some useful suggestions:

Reading at Bedtime

A common component in many families bedtime ritual is story time, and for good reason. A child who is listening to a book will tend to lie still and focus his attention on the story. This quiet stillness will allow him to become sleepy. In addition to the relaxation value of a good book or story, the parent who can relax and enjoy the reading portion of the evening will find it a peaceful way to end the day with their child.

Storytelling and Audio Books

While reading is a great way to help a child relax, some kids who aren't tired enough will easily have their mum or dad read book after book after book, and the only one falling asleep is the one reading to them! If the child is like this, then the family should definitely continue to read books, since it is such an important component to intellectual development, and one that the child obviously enjoys. However, mum doesn't have to read for endless hours!She should put a limit on the number of books, or the length of reading time, and then turn off the light and play a children's story on tape, or tell a story herself. Playing a recording, or telling a tale in the dark will keep a little scholar happy, and will help him relax and fall asleep.


Very often children are so full of energy that they find it hard to relax enough to allow sleep to happen. A lovely way to end the day and help a child settle to sleep is with massage. Massage can help promote relaxation and relieve stress or tension. Massage can help young children develop a more regular, consistent sleep cycle, and in some cases, can help them sleep longer and more soundly.

Massage is often effective as a specific last step in the bedtime routine. A parent wants to make sure their toddler brushes his teeth, uses the toilet, and has that last drink of water before a gentle massage. Then he can drift off to sleep after they've helped him relax. Having a child pop out of bed for a last minute potty-break can defeat the purpose of the tranquil massage!

Progressive  Muscle Relaxation

This effective technique involves focusing on each part of the body in turn and causing relaxation one part at a time. Mum or dad can talk their child through this over a number of weeks, and eventually he'll be able to do this on his own.

At the end of your bedtime routine a child should lie in bed. The parent should sit or lie beside him and talk to him in a gentle, soothing voice, giving relaxation instructions, starting from the toes and working up towards his head. They can even use a gentle massage as they go through the relaxation exercise, either gently massaging the part they're talking about, or just giving a head or back massage throughout the process. Saying something like this works:

Relax. Breathe in. Breathe out.

It's time for your body to go to sleep.

Wiggle your toes. They are really tired. Your toes are relaxed and sleepy.

Your feet are tired now. They are warm and sleepy and comfortable.

Your legs are tired. And so are your feet and your toes. They are tired and calm and warm and sleepy.

. . . Continue this pattern up through his hips, back, chest, shoulders, arms, neck, face, and head, taking time with each body part.

There are lots of different ways to use progressive muscle relaxation. Some people envisage a warm blanket covering each body part, or the sun warming each section, or imaging they are a sleepy cat or a rag doll. This can be a very helpful technique with young children since they can be susceptible to your gentle suggestions of relaxation and sleepiness.

Clearing the Mind to Welcome Sleep

Just like adults, some children find that when they lie quietly in bed their mind begins to race with a review of the day's activities or worries and thoughts about tomorrow or the future. There are several techniques that can help a young child calm his mind so that he can fall asleep more easily. You can suggest these:

 • White Paper - Have the child imagine a blank, white sheet of paper. She can them imagine a paint brush with blue paint and she can imagine painting lines of blue on the paper. The parent can talk the child through the imagery for the first week or two when she is in bed. Then see if he can imagine it all by herself.

 • Peaceful imagery - The child lies on her bed with her eyes closed. Mum or dad explains that they are going to tell her a story. In a gentle, soothing voice they describe a peaceful place that the child would find familiar, such as a beach, swinging in a hammock, lying on a blanket in the grass. They may want to enlist their own imagination and be a butterfly floating in the wind. They should describe details of the surroundings quietly and slowly. Then they should use this same story every night. Eventually the child can use the story even when they aren't there to tell it.


If parents use yoga in their own life to unwind and relax, then they may want to use some of the simple stretches to help their child, as well. Yoga movements, breathing meditations and relaxation exercises can all be used to take children through a wind-down bedtime routine that helps them to relax every part of their body. Parents can even incorporate soft music and dim lighting into the routine to enhance the relaxing properties of the exercise. There are a number of books and programs that teach yoga especially for children.

Music or White Noise

When in bed, either at night or early in the morning, many children are easily distracted by sounds from other family members, the television, dogs barking, or cars driving by outside. They hear something - anything - and they feel like they are missing out on the fun, or they're distracted from the process of relaxing, so they can't fall asleep. You can mask these sounds, and create a sleep-inducing environment by using soft music or white noise (a subtle monotonous hum of sound). 

Many children enjoy listening to music as they fall asleep. For music to be sleep inducing it needs to be simple, repetitive, predictable music, like traditional lullabies. CDs created especially for putting babies to sleep are great choices.

There are widely available 'nature sounds' tapes that work well, too, as well sound-generating or white-noise devices and clocks. The sounds on these -- raindrops, a bubbling brook, or running water, are soothing to adults as well as children. A ticking clock or a bubbling fish tank can also make wonderful white-noise options.


Some families follow a tradition of saying nightime prayers before bed. These can be comforting to a child, and if done as a part of the bedtime routine can become a cue for sleep, and set the child up for a secure and peaceful night's sleep. A child's bedtime prayer can be a conversation with God; it can be involve giving thanks for the day, asking for guidance, or a recited prayer. A prayer time that you share with your child can be a very special way to end each day, and can help that child develop his faith.

Bed or Cot is for Sleep Only

If the child finds it hard to relax at bedtime ask the parent to look at how he uses his bed. If he plays in it, jumps on it, builds forts around it, and entertains friends there, it won't carry an association with sleep. Ask her to consider making a change to using the bed for sleep only. It's fine to include relaxing pre-sleep rituals once in bed, such as reading, listening to soft music, massage, breastfeeding or drinking a bottle, as long as it's all to do with dropping off in the end.

Elizabeth Pantley is a top US Parenting Expert. 'No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers', published by McGraw-Hill is £8.99, available in bookstores and via

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23rd May 2008, 22:08
Page updated 5th Oct 2015, 13:25
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