How to manage your kids' different sleep schedules

How to manage the nightly routine when your family includes both a preschooler and a baby.

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As soon as Laura Marley, a mom in Wyevale, Ont., puts her infant son, Ryan, to bed around 6:30 p.m., she starts her next job as the noise police to three-year-old Ethan. Whether Ethan is hanging out in his room (next door to Ryan’s room) or downstairs, she feels she needs to “shush” every sound he makes until his own bedtime, an hour later.

I run my own sleep-solutions consulting business, and this problem — tackling multiple bedtimes for kids of different ages — is one of the most common issues I hear about. As a mom of three, I struggled with this at home, too. My daughter was three and a half when we had our twins. This age gap — a preschooler and an infant (or two!) — can be tough, particularly when it comes to sleep schedules.

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The first piece of advice I have for families in this situation is that getting on the right track for bedtime actually starts first thing in the morning. I encourage my clients to stick to a daily routine, including naps, meals and bedtimes, as it can help children feel more secure — they’ll know what’s going to happen next. While each child will be on his own age-appropriate sleep schedule, it needs to be as predictable as possible. Taking the guesswork away helps bedtime become expected, and they’ll accept it with less of a struggle.

Consider an earlier, slightly staggered bedtime for both your baby and your preschooler, and aim for 7 to 8 p.m. Remember that all young children, from newborn to school-aged, need a lot more sleep than adults do — a preschooler needs 11 to 13 hours of sleep each night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Many parents are familiar with what happens when a preschooler goes down too late: He gets overtired, then gets a second wind, and it’s hard to calm him down enough for bedtime.

A staggered schedule (with bedtimes that differ by 30 to 60 minutes) can be difficult for parents who are handling nights solo. Amber Fournier, mom to Owen, who’s three, and one-year-old Olivia, in Garson, Ont., is often on her own in the evening. (She and her husband work opposite shifts — she’s an optician; he’s a firefighter.) “Owen was disruptive. He’d come into Olivia’s room and make noise while I was trying to settle her down,” says Fournier.

This kind of defiance, says London, Ont., psychotherapist and parenting educator Andrea Nair, is often a preschooler’s “plea for understanding and to be heard.” She suggests asking your disobedient preschooler, “Are you going to be able to stop yourself from interrupting your little sister’s bedtime, or do you need a penalty to stop you?” Then give him some time to think. If he backs down after the first warning, give a little praise — even if it’s just a simple high-five. But if he continues to misbehave, follow through with the pre-established consequence, such as no bedtime story, says Nair. Don’t forget that consequences need to be immediate and relatable to a preschooler.

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Simple distractions for your older child can also be a lifesaver. Don’t feel guilty about allowing a little TV or letting your preschooler entertain himself with a toy or book. “I find a regular routine, with some TV time for Owen, works wonders,” says Fournier. “While he’s watching ‘his show,’ I feed Olivia her bottle and put her down. Once Olivia is in bed, I have alone time with Owen. We can have a nice, relaxed bedtime routine with lots of kisses and hugs.”

Last, remember that while juggling two sleep schedules might seem impossibly tricky to you now, it’s usually temporary. As your baby grows into a toddler, you can push his bedtime back to match his older sibling’s, and do the bath routine together, too. With patience, you’ll find your groove.

A version of this article appeared in our October 2013 issue with the headline “Bedtime for two”, p. 78.

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