By the age of three your child will be familiar with routine, with what they should be doing and what they shouldn’t! Your child may well have dropped their daytime nap or may sometimes only need a quick ‘power nap’. They’re probably being worn out at nursery too so if they’re not already sleeping through, the reduced naps and extra stimulation should encourage a good night’s sleep for 11 – 12 hours, depending on whether they’ve slept in the day.
At around 3 your child will start to understand the concept that actions have consequences and good behavior can come with a reward. Once this understanding comes, you can use positive reinforcement (sometimes known as bribery!) to promote good behavior. This can be anything from a sticker for going to bed nicely to a treat from the shop for holding your hand all the way. It is important that you make sure your child understands the concept fully before you start using positive reinforcement and that they are able to cope with delayed results, as, for example, going to bed nicely won’t be rewarded until the next day.
Whilst things get easier because you can help your child to understand why they have to do things and that they can be rewarded for positive behavior, pre-school age is a time full of changes and this can mean disturbed nights.
Nightmares and night terrors are two causes for disturbed nights that usually start and peak around preschool age. Nightmares will usually happen in the second half of the night when your child has more REM sleep, whereas waking within the first two hours of going to sleep can be attributed to night terrors. Whilst night terrors are most distressing for parents, your child will usually be totally unaware of what happened and unable to recall it in the morning. With these it is best not to wake your child but simply wait for them to calm down and guide them back to bed.
If your child has a nightmare, remember that until they are 4 or 5 they won’t be able to differentiate between the concept of a dream and reality so don’t waste your time explaining it, just offer them comfort and put them back to bed. If nightmares or terrors are frequent and distressing it may be worth talking to your doctor or health visitor. But remember, being overtired, sugary foods and drinks and development can cause night terrors and they should phase out naturally by the age of 5 or 6.
Other developmental issues that may affect sleep are bedwetting and moving from a cot to bed. These are both preschool landmarks that some children will take to more easily than others. Be guided by your child; observe how excited or reluctant they are about going to bed without a nappy or moving to a bed. If they seem anxious it may be worth waiting a little while before making changes.
As with every step of parenthood, be guided by you and your family’s readiness to make changes and don’t feel pressurized to make changes because your friends are or you think they should be doing something differently at their age.