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4 Bedtime Strategies That Actually Make Kids Sleepy

Photograph by Twenty20

One of the cruel tricks of parenthood is that seasoned parents always make it seem as if after you get through that first sleepless year, you've made it.

"The first six months are the hardest," they say. "Once the baby settles into a sleep routine and the parents get more sleep, this parenting thing falls right into place."

Not so much.

What seasoned parents forget to tell new parents is that sleep can be an ongoing issue. Sure, teething can disrupt sleep in the toddler years. And some kids really are naturally better sleepers than others. But the sleep struggle can continue right into the elementary years.

It ebbs and flows and pops up just when you think everything is fine.

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My son, like his dad, is a skilled sleeper. He needs his sleep and doesn't ever try to stay up late. He sleep trained himself at exactly 5 months and hasn't looked back since. My daughter, on the other hand, needs help with the sleep process. She's prone to nightmares, as I was as a child, and she has difficulty settling down when the lights go out.

I am a believer in a solid sleep routine, and only very rarely do we stray from ours. The kids know exactly what to expect, and I can see them transition from active play to quiet play to sleepy as we progress through the routine each night. It works.

Even with a solid sleep routine in place, however, some kids simply need a little help at night. Not to worry, helping your child now doesn't mean she will always need you to settle her to sleep for the rest of her life. This is one of the great myths of parenting, in my opinion. Helping your child now empowers her to develop sleep strategies that work for her as she grows.

Some nights my daughter asks me to hang around for a few extra minutes, but most nights I hear her whispering the strategies we worked on together as she drifts off to sleep. Where once she felt worried when the lights went down, now she feels confident in her ability to fall asleep on her own.

Every kid is different, and every kid has unique needs, but these four strategies work wonders for nighttime relaxation.

1. Guided imagery

I've been using guided imagery with my clients for years to help calm anxious thinking and restore balance during the day, and I always encourage parents to use scripts for guided imagery at night.

My daughter loves to hear what we refer to as "relaxing stories" as she drifts off. I ask her to pick a destination (it's usually something magical, like "cloud land"), and I create a 5-minute story about her journey to and from her destination. Before I begin, I ask her to get cozy, place a soft eye pillow over her eyes and cue her to use her relaxation breathing.

Nothing beats the soothing and familiar voice of a parent or caregiver, but multiple kids means multiple bedtimes and multiple things to juggle. I get that. On nights when you can't cozy up and tell the story, there's an app for that. Check out Sleep Meditations for Kids and let your child pick the script that works for her.

2. Coloring

Adult coloring books are all the rage right now, because coloring is a very calming activity and sometimes tapping into our inner child is the best medicine for calming a worried (or overworked) mind.

It also works for kids. I've had a coloring station set up in my bedroom since my kids were toddlers. When they get out of the bath or shower and into their pajamas, they spend time coloring or drawing before moving into their rooms. It's a great way to soothe them into the sleep routine.

3. Portable sand tray

Sand play is both calming and therapeutic. Dragging a rake through the sand and carefully placing smooth shells and rocks in a unique design can help kids slow their breathing and relax their minds.

You don't need a whole sand tray for sand play to be calming. Fill a rectangular Tupperware container with soft play sand and collect shells, rocks and sea glass to keep in the tray. A plastic fork can be used as a rake to gently smooth the sand and soothe the soul.

Are you freaking out at the thought of sand inside your house? Nothing beats the real thing, but there is also an app for that. Check out the iZen Garden app for a sand-free sand play experience. But seriously, get the sand.

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4. Read out loud

Bedtime is not the time to push independent reading skills. Sure, some kids love to read on their own or read out loud to a parent, but having someone read out loud to you is actually very calming. Read to your kids. Let them snuggle up next to you, close their eyes and listen as you do the work. This is a great way for kids to use their imaginations as they relax, while bonding with their parent or caregiver. Again, a parent's voice is one of the best calming techniques around for little ones. Make the time to read out loud, even as your kids grow.

Some kids need their space at night and no longer want parents to read out loud. That's okay. Audiobooks are great for kids who want a story told but want to practice an independent bedtime routine.

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