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There are many questions on here asking about sleepless children but my wife and I are starting to come to our wits-end and none of the advice we've found (here or otherwise) seems to fit our situation or no longer works.

I think this is because as our four and a half year old daughter is getting older her will and determination is getting stronger. She is a rather stubborn child and, to be fair, she gets that that from both parents. We've read most common advice and tried it all.

Here is how this plays out. My wife and I follow our normal night-time routine, starting at 7:00 PM. We sit down and read to both of our children* and they get a final, small snack while we read. After corporate reading and snack, we head to potty-time, brush teeth, and put both kids to bed. For our daughter, this involves reading a short book, singing a song with the lights out and walking out of the room. My wife and I rotate who takes which child every other night.

This has been a mostly-successful routine but, progressively as our daughter has gotten older and smarter, she's found ways to try to get out of bed and come out of her room. I'll spare the stories but she's smart enough to discern potential parental "loopholes" and will try to exploit them. After a round of two of sending her back to bed, she resolves to laying in bed from 15 minutes to an hour and then cuts on the lights to read.

Let me be clear-- the 7:00 PM bed time routine is very-well crafted. Wait until 7:30 PM and, based off of behavioral observation, you've waited to long and she'll be over tired. On those nights you know the task of getting her to bed is going to be a struggle involving tears of at least 2, if not 3, individuals in our household.

We've tried to follow the advice of other's and just ignore her behavior that happens in her room. Usually she quiet and not causing problems. We have no clue how often she does this throughout the night, but on multiple occasions we've found the light on in the middle of the night, and she's surrounded by books or toys. Also, she will wake up early in the morning if she hear's me getting ready. I leave the house at 5:30 AM, and she's often up with lights on, some times clothed and ready to start her day!

This wouldn't be a problem but all of this sleep deprivation is starting to dramatically effect her attitude. After a couple of good AM hours, the tiredness starts to kick in and she becomes cranky and hard to deal with, and understandably so. She's exhausted!

We've long given up on a nap time because that became a fight over a year and a half ago. Instead, it's a "rest time" where she has to be quite and in her bedroom for an hour where we encourage her to read on her bed. About once every 2 weeks she will nap (and nap hard.) Those become good evenings because she get's some of the catch-up sleep she desperately needs and we'll often put her to bed closer to 8:00 PM because we don't want her to go to bed and not be tired.

Sorry for the rather long post but the bottom-line is that our child is refusing to rest at night time if she can prevent it. When we catch her awake, we try to cut off the lights, and reset the room to a sleep-time state. This always results in an angry toddler, who often ends up crashing, usually within 10-15 minutes of us cleaning up her room and cutting off the lights.

My wife and I are fit to be tied. Our rather well behaved & good daughter is stealthy and hates sleep. However, this comes at the expense of my daughter (and wife's) day-time sanity.

What should we do? Is there a point when we should see a doctor about this? IMHO, this is completely behavioral stubbornness but you can't force a child to sleep. This is an issue of control and the kid just won't sleep, and no amount of consistency, routine, loving reassurance, or autonomy seems to help her help herself and GO TO BED.

*Our other child is a 2 year old boy. We have no problems with him and his sleep routine. He doesn't sleep as much as the average child his age but he does handle our routine well and sleeps when he should sleep.

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    Have you tried removing the entertainment from her room, (books and toys)? What about removing the light bulb for a little while so she cant get up and turn it on? – user7678 Sep 4 '15 at 14:29
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    @Erica I mean "corporate" as in the whole family, my wife and I, our daughter and son. – RLH Sep 4 '15 at 14:41
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    Hmm, that's an interesting usage of that word. – Joe Sep 4 '15 at 14:51
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    @Joe: dictionary.reference.com/browse/corporate See defs 3 & 4. I will admit, it's not a common usage of the word but it isn't incorrect. ;) – RLH Sep 4 '15 at 15:07
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    @Meg, interesting that you mention that. Update time! So, yeah, at this point our 7yo is put to bed by one parent (we swap kids each night) and she gets 15-30 minutes of "alone time", depending on how busy the day has been. After that, the other parent comes in, tucks her in, cuts on a radio with a timer and cuts out the light. It's our compromise and my wife and I have agreed that unless it sounds like she's bouncing off the walls or the lights are on, we let her do her thing. It works, for now. Some times she is over tired from staying up to late, but that tends to be the exception. – RLH Dec 27 '18 at 20:06
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Determining the cause

My first suspicion is that there is some reason that your daughter doesn't want to sleep. While her stubbornness is helpful to her in keeping her awake, it's not the reason for her wakefulness. There must be something that causing her not to want to go to sleep.

While preschoolers can be very oppositional and will often do something precisely because they are told not to, it doesn't sound like this is what's going on here. You've tried a number of things, and it doesn't sound like you're pushing her so hard that she's staying up just to defy you.

Potential factors

My guess is that she has something on her mind that makes her not want to sleep. It could be

  • A newly-discovered fear.
    • Maybe there's a new piece of furniture/toy that looks spooky when the lights are out? Maybe she saw a "scary" movie or read a "scary" book and is now worried that some sort of monster is going to jump out of her closet when the lights are turned out. (Even "G"-rated movies can be scary to some small children, especially if they already have some fears about certain things.)
    • Perhaps she recently discovered the fear of death (especially, but not necessarily, if there was a death in the family -- even of a pet). She may be worried that if she goes to sleep, she might never wake up.
    • Phobias abound. She may be scared of spiders, thunder, loud noises, turtles, going to the bathroom by herself, etc. At night, when the mind is quiet, is the time when these things come to the fore. She begins to think about something that scared her, and becomes scared all over again.
  • A change in relationship. Is there someone in her life that has recently moved away, or died, or is unavailable for some other reason? Is there a new person in her life that she might be trying to adjust to? At this age, children don't necessarily understand that relationships aren't always permanent, and adjustment may be very difficult.
  • A change in circumstance. Has she recently started school? Daycare? A swimming or dance class? Have you rearranged the house or gotten rid of something significant? Did someone close to her move house, or go through a significant life change?
  • Depression. Childhood depression is real, and if she is depressed, it could be affecting her ability to sleep. With this one, though, there should be other signs as well. I'm no expert in depression, but the internet should be able to help you with signs and symptoms.
  • An overactive mind. I've known a few children who find it hard to "turn off" their brain. The gears are always turning, thinking about and processing everything from their day, and until their minds can slow down and rest, their bodies can't either.
  • Something else. The possibilities are too numerous to mention, but there could be any number of things that are psychologically preventing sleep. You'll need to use your judgement and your knowledge of your daughter to try to determine what it is that is on her mind.

Strategies

I can think of two different strategies that may help her be able to sleep:

Talk time

The idea here is to modify your bedtime routine to include "talk time". This is a short period (maybe 10 or 15 minutes, or even less at the beginning) where she has your (or your wife's) undivided attention and she can talk about whatever she wants.

This strategy may require a lot of patience on your part; for the first days/weeks, the talk may be frivolous or even nonsensical. She will probably be thrilled to have your undivided attention, but may not actually know what to talk about, so she may make up stories or even resort to baby talk or stringing random words together. If you stick with it though, she should get used to the fact that you're always going to be available to listen, and may start saving up more serious things to talk about at night. Hopefully you will eventually be able to determine what it is that's preventing her from sleeping and address it.

Melatonin supplements

This solution may not work in your case, but might be worth trying. You may want to consult your child's doctor before going ahead.

Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by the body in the evenings, and causes you to "feel sleepy". Melatonin levels in the body are almost non-existent during the day, and then they ramp up at night.

Melatonin supplements are available over-the-counter in the U.S. and Canada (in Europe they require a prescription). Giving her a supplement about 15 minutes to 1/2 hour before you want her to actually go to sleep might help to give her that little nudge over the edge into sleep. (In your case, maybe right after corporate reading time?)

I have had significant success with melatonin supplements with my own daughter (3.5 years old), who had similar problems with sleep, which is why I mention it here. It may not be the solution for everyone, though, and if there is something psychological preventing sleep, it won't help to determine the actual root cause of the sleeplessness.

See my question Is prolonged use of melatonin supplements safe for a 3-year-old? on Health.SE for more information.

  • I can't imagine melatonin supplements being necessary for a four-and-a-half year old. I'm no doctor, but I understand that melatonin decreases with age and becomes necessary (or at least desireable) in the golden years. I take melatonin and I'm getting Social Security. – Jennifer Jan 25 '18 at 7:08
  • @Jennifer Perhaps for a typical child, that's true. It certainly helped in my daughter's case. I have been slowly decreasing the dose over time, and she is now at the point where most of the time she can fall asleep just fine without it. – GentlePurpleRain Jan 25 '18 at 17:29
  • I'm glad it worked for you. – Jennifer Jan 26 '18 at 19:39
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First, thanks to @GentlePurpleRain. Though much of the details are rather general, they were (and are) quite accurate in regards to our daughter. However, after three and a half years, and a trickle of up-votes, I thought it might be best to give a second answer from the OP's perspective.

My daughter is now eight years old and her relationship with sleep has managed to get better, but it's still not what you'd expect for a typical eight year old. Bed time is later and we've mostly kept up with the routine that I outlined above, though there have been slight modifications over the years.

The larger problem for us had been that due to the lack of sleep, it created a state of misery for... everyone. However, with consistent, consistent, consistent years of keeping a bed time routine, we've settled into a sort of stride and adding a couple of new strategies has helped everyone get the rest they need.

For instance, our daughter now has "personal" time before lights out. We go through the entire routine and then we give her a couple of toys or books and tell her lights will be going out at 9:00 PM and she has limited freedom to get other items, go to the bathroom or get an extra drink of water. Ending with a bit of autonomy seems to help. Earlier, we tried to give her ways to self-regulate when she'd go to sleep. That didn't work. By giving her time at the end of the day to spend about 30 minutes playing, getting water, going to the bathroom, etc., everyone is in a better bedtime state, including my daughter since she gets to end the night her way. We've also given her a radio with a timer, which is turned down low and cuts off an hour after lights out. Having this minor distraction actually works. Personally, this is well beyond my understanding of sleep but it works for us so that's a strategy we use.

Another occasional factor is fear and anxiety, which @GentlePurpleRain mentioned. Adding a nightlight to her room has been a tactic we've used since before I asked this question, but that never really helped and my daughter never expressed being explicitly afraid of darkness. As my daughter has gotten older and we've been able to more clearly communicate with her, we've learned that she does, in fact, struggle with anxiety and doesn't come to us until a specific fear has become unmanageable.

Bad dreams really shake her and even more recently, she heard over a loud speaker at a shopping center that their was a tornado warning. That hub-bub alone has given her a temporary fear which stricken her, usually at night and sometimes in the middle of the day. We've worked to give her strategies to overcome this anxiety and it works. This has taken nearly 8 years, though, before this problem could be solved because communication with a young child regarding hidden fears is difficult.

This may not seem like much of an answer, but the two specific takeaways that I can give from this experience are as follows:

First, every child and family is different. I personally believe in the that parents are in charge and children must learn to follow their parents leadership. However, on some rare occasions, circumstances may appear as defiance but that's not the actually the case. It might be hard to put your finger on it, but your unique child might simply be different and the advice that works 99% of the time will not work for you and your child. You must adapt, adjust, ask others for their opinions and adapt to find the solution that works for you. I can't give anyone a specific answer for bedtime routines that simply works because we've had to hit our stride by years of trial-and-error and making minor adjustments as they've been needed.

Second, consider that your kid may have some form of anxiety and that they aren't showing it nor be able to communicate it. I can't definitively pinpoint the root of my daughters anxiety but after years of being her parents my wife and I ahve learned that it's something she struggles with and sometimes the symptoms aren't as straight-forward as you'd expect. We've had to learn to look for behavioral cues that hint that she might be struggling with something in her head and she neither knows how to communicate what she's feeling or how to process it.

To conclude, parenting is hard. That's an understatement to any parent. However, part of what makes it difficult is that all of our children are unique. There will likely always be some "quirk" about your kid that's going to be tough to deal with. The best advice it to keep seeking answers and love your kid. It's frustrating when that might come at the expense of your own mental health but, eventually, you may find a solution that looks different than everyone else but if it works and improves the health of your child and household. Don't worry about the uniqueness of your personal experience. It is what it is and the end goal should be to love your child and to eventually raise a healthy adult.

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