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“But, Mom, I’m not even tired at all!” How to Eliminate the Bedtime Battle and Streamline the Routin

We all know how important sleep is to our health, overall wellbeing, and ability to function throughout the day without a glossed-over, dead-eyed stare. But why do our kiddos fight bedtime? I love bedtime. I welcome sleep. I desperately welcome sleep. Nailing down a bedtime routine is a tough one. Those precious afternoon and evening hours seem to slip away in the blink of an eye. Before you know it, it’s 7:30pm and you’ve yet to finish the dishes, fold the laundry, or complete any of the million tasks before…BOOM…it’s time to start the dreaded process of bedtime. And now your exhausted and about to embark on a hair-pulling journey with the most creatively brilliant mastermind you’ve ever met….your child. Gahhh…he’s so cute when he asks for one more hug or he smiles when sneaking out of his room. But, soon enough it will be 8:00pm, then 8:30pm, then 10:00pm. The excuses become less and less cute. Now he’s just breaking the rules. And then suddenly he’s crying… and you’re crying as you’re watching sleep slip through your fingers.

Here are some tips for streamlining the bedtime routine and building better nighttime habits. Let’s get started.

First assess and plan….

  • Be proactive and make sure you are prepared. Have an intervention plan as well as an escape plan if things aren’t going well. Part of being properly prepared is planning ahead for when to back off or make changes to your plans. It is always better to think this through rather than just giving up in the moment or pushing too hard when your plan just isn’t working.

  • Be consistent. Make sure that everyone is on board with the plan. Not just mom and dad, but grandparents, babysitters, and anyone else you may assist you in your nighttime routines. Everyone should be doing the same thing.

  • Consider whether it’s time to do away with naptime. If your child is in preschool, consider inquiring about if and how long he or she sleeps during their scheduled naptime. If your child is struggling to get to sleep at night, the simplest solution could be eliminating daytime naps.

Then execute…

  • Use pre-teaching. Make sure your child understands the expectations for bedtime. Many potential problems can be avoided by simply making sure that there are no surprises.

  • Give transition warnings. Giving some notice before it is time for bed can help prepare your child for the inevitable and make the transition smoother. Use a couple of advanced warnings and consider using a timer… “OK, Charlie. I’m setting the timer for 5 minutes. When you hear it beep, it will be time to go brush your teeth and put on your pajamas.” Create a schedule and make it visual. Put on your PJs…check. Brush your teeth…check. And so on… Repeat these steps in the same predictable order each night.

  • Provide choices whenever possible. Consider this… Instead of saying, “It’s bedtime. Go to your room.” Adding the element of choice to the instruction can change your child’s perception completely… “OK, Charlie. It’s time for bed. Do you want me to sing you a song or read you a story?” Obviously, the choice here doesn’t give Charlie the option of whether or not to go to bed, but it does give him some control over the situation as well as direct his focus to the “activity” rather than the “going to bed” part.

  • Use reinforcement and redirection. Anytime your child follows directions, make sure to reinforce! If you have asked him to go to bed, and he begins to put down his Legos, be sure to tell him how happy you are. You will always have more success overall (not to mention a more positive interaction for both of you) when you praise good behavior rather than expecting it and then reprimanding when it doesn’t occur. If your child doesn’t follow your direction, phrase it differently or simply redirect. For example, if he/she ignores your instruction to go to bed, don’t reprimand or become upset, calmly ask again while you gently take his hand to lead him to bed or offer to walk with him to his bedroom.

  • Set contingencies ahead of time. You’ve been through the tough stuff before, so take those experiences and prepare for how to best respond. Here are a few examples:

  • “First, go brush your teeth and put on your PJs, then you can play Legos for 10 more minutes.”

  • “I can read your bedtime story once you’re sitting in bed.”

  • “It’s time to earn a sticker on the ‘nighttime chart’ for sleeping in your own bed! Lets go get into bed, and I’ll get your sticker!” (This might mean using a sticker chart to track consecutive nights of sleeping in his own room... Set a goal like 5 nights in a row, and when he reaches the goal, he earns a special reward like new Disney pajamas or a special trip to a favorite place in town.

  • Understand FUNCTION when your child isn’t doing well. How you react to your child’s

behavior should depend on why he is acting that way to make sure you respond in the most effective way possible… Keep in mind, however, that preventative interventions (proactive ones) are best for dealing with these types of bedtime woes…

  • A common function of defiant behavior at bedtime is simply to avoid going to bed. Simple as that.

  • If this is the case, just make sure that you don’t give into the behavior and end up arguing or otherwise making his defiant behavior an effective way for him to delay having to go to bed. (For example, if Charlie decided to dump out a bucket of toys after you ask him to go to bed, it might be a good idea to make him clean them up in the morning instead of “making” him stay up to do it... since staying up is exactly what he wants to do.)

  • Look for signs that going to bed isn’t the main problem, such as when your child just wants to sleep in your bed instead of his, or maybe he is actually a little bit scared of being alone.

  • If something like this is the primary issue, plan ahead for accommodations like leaving a door open, lying down with him, singing him to sleep, etc. However, keep in mind that you can’t make this the new normal. Plan for how you are going to quickly fade away from doing that, such as gradually staying with him for less and less time each night.

Monitor and review…

  • Sometimes it will get worse before it gets better. This is when it is especially important to stick to the plan. Giving in when the behavior escalates can just make the problem worse and even more resilient to change.

  • Pay close attention to the results. Sometimes it can feel like things aren’t really improving when they actually are. Depending on the issue, improvements may come in small increments, so keep a close eye on the things you are trying to change. You obviously don’t want to keep doing something that isn’t working, but you also don’t want to stop doing something that is. This is why it may be a good idea to decide exactly what you want to improve on and measure it each day. This way you can regularly look back at the results and make confident decisions as you go.

Now go get some rest. (you’ve earned it)…then try again tomorrow!

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