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Setting up a Sleep Contract with your Child


Situation: Your primary school aged child is:

a. Having difficulty getting to sleep by themselves

b. Having trouble staying asleep

c. Resisting bedtime

d. Clingy at bedtime

e. Being ‘difficult’ at bedtime

f. Anxious about sleep

g. All of the above…?

h. ___________________________________

A solution (not ‘the’ solution) might be to set up a bedtime/sleep agreement with your child (see considerations – below). The idea here is to collaborate in the process of negotiating roles and rules. This way they are more likely to follow through - compared to your child feeling that they are being told what to do.

1. Sit down with your child and discuss/assess the current bedtime/sleeping routine and problems. Ask them what they think about the current situation. Avoid using language that is blaming (e.g., “you are making it difficult” or “you should be…”).

2. If age-appropriate, have your child write down the agreement points.

3. Start with the end: what time is an appropriate time to be asleep (or to try to fall asleep on their own)?

4. Then, leading from dinnertime, fill in the gaps for the after-dinner and bedtime routine. Indicate times as a guide, but be somewhat flexible.

5. Try to achieve a balance between things that you as the parent require and things that your child thinks are important (hopefully there will be some over-lap). Perhaps ask something like “what are the things that you think need to happen between dinnertime and bedtime?” Then back that up with something like “a few things that need to happen are brushing your teeth, putting on your PJs, and…” Then ask what your child would like from you (e.g., stories together, crafting, or quite games…) and grant reasonable requests for either spending time together or somewhat quiet time for them.

6. Your agreement might read something like this:

“I, Isabella and mum and dad, are agreeing to this routine:

7. Then boundaries need to be set – especially if you child has been calling out, getting up*, and/or getting worked up**. First identify the behaviours. Perhaps ask “what do you do when daddy leaves your room when it’s time for sleep?” Or something like, “what normally happens at bedtime?” Ask your child what they think about those behaviours. Then, explain that you wont engage with those behaviours. Such as, “after lights out and goodnight, we’re not going to come back into your room if you call out – but I’ll check on you if you’re quiet a bit later.” Or, “if you get up after bedtime, we’ll take you straight back to bed.” a. *If getting up and out of bed is a problem, then you might need to decide how many times you will lead your child back to bed before the door is closed (or locked). In my experience, punishment (e.g., no TV) or rewards (e.g., a puppy) rarely work as it requires cognitive activation, whereas appealing to your child’s behavioural ability is more immediate and effective, especially when they are tired and perhaps anxious. b. **If getting worked up is the problem, then you might need to take things very slowly and offer your child extra re-assurance. Once anyone has become highly distressed, his or her ability to stick to a plan becomes compromised.

8. Finally, set a time-period, after which you will assess how things have gone, such as 2-3weeks. If things are going well, great – celebrate. If things aren’t going so great, try to identify what’s not working and why not.

9. Good luck;-)


Children go through stages and phases. Assessing whether you have a phase or a problem on your hands is tough. Bedtime and sleep routines can be disrupted by a child’s growth, changes (e.g., at school, with friends, or at home), holidays, or stress. If the sleep problem has persisted over 2-3weeks, then it’s probably time to try doing things differently as a new habit is likely becoming established.

Be mindful of trying to achieve (or enforce) what you think should be happening, and assess the situation for what is happening and what you would all like to work towards.

Sleep hygiene: setting up behaviours and environment conducive to sleep. For children, these include:

• Quiet activity and a technology free hour before bed

• A consistent bedtime routine

• A comfortable, dark room that is not too warm

• No stimulants at or after dinnertime (e.g., caffeine, sugary foods, chocolate, red-food colouring…)

Children can resist change, and so sometimes things get worse before better, especially with calling out or getting up after lights out. Aim to try a new routine for at least 2 weeks before assessing it.

Anxious children can present with sleep and separation difficulties. If you are concerned that your child might be a worrier or over-anxious, then seeking additional professional assistance is advised.

Sleep associations/conditions/aids/crutches are things that we become accustomed to (and reliant on) for going to sleep. For children, these may be a soft toy, or having a parent lie next to them in bed until they fall asleep. If a child becomes reliant on having a parent lull them to sleep, then chances are when they wake during the night, they will be unable to go back to sleep unaided – and call out for that parent. Helping your child fall asleep on their own and/or with sleep aids that they can keep with them all night also helps them to return to sleep on their own.

Disclaimer: This article outlines helpful strategies, but concedes that different approaches work for different people, and does not claim any guarantees, and does not aim to replace professional assistance.

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