If your child is old enough to talk, you have without a doubt experienced your share of tantrums at bedtime as well as other bedtime battles. Be it the jack-in-a-box coming out of his room over and over again, the midnight visitor to your room, or the negotiator; bedtime battles take a variety of forms.
Preventing Tantrums At Bedtime
Before we talk about how to handle bedtime battles, let’s talk about what we can do preemptively to try and prevent them. First, be sure to give your child one-on-one attention each day. Even 10-15 minutes will do wonders to fill their “attention tank” with positive attention. It sounds so simple, but carving out a few minutes for face-to-face interaction can greatly improve things at bedtime for some children.
Also, let your child know when bedtime will be and what will happen during bedtime. Children crave routine and boundaries. They already are sad to see the day’s fun end, but when bedtime is seemingly randomly declared they will be even more upset. As an adult, you know that bedtime is at 7:00 and understand what that means. You have to remember that a 3-year-old has no concept of time and does not realize the clock is getting closer and closer to 7:00.
It helps to give concrete warnings that bedtime is coming up soon: “when the timer goes off, it is time go to brush teeth and put on jammies” or “everyone gets one more turn and then it is time to get ready for bed”. This warning keeps bedtime from being a surprise and will help cut down on the battles.
Brainstorm Sleep Rules
Create a list of sleep rules for your home. Involve your child in coming up with a list. Even children as young as 2.5 – 3 can get involved and make some suggestions. Many children will enjoy decorating a rules poster, and you can refer back to this poster as needed.
Some common sleep rules:
- Stay in bed until the clock turns green (if you don’t have an okay-to-wake type clock, you are missing out!)
- Keep my body in bed
- Close my eyes and try to sleep
Set your child up for success by including rules they will easily be able to follow (put my head on my pillow when I get in bed) in addition to ones that will be harder to follow (staying in bed).
Be Careful With Rewards
Some parents like to reward their children for successful nights. Be careful if you chose to do this: only do it if you are willing to keep doing for the long haul. Once you start giving daily rewards, it is hard to stop. Also, we want children to start following the rules because it is the right thing to do, not because they get prizes. That said, you may find it works well to use a sticker chart with a small reward after X numbers of successful nights.
Have A Family Meeting
Before you implement your new sleep rules, have a family meeting to review the rules and make sure everyone is on the same page. It is a good idea for parents to talk about the benefits of everyone in the family being well rested. You can discuss how when children stay in bed and sleep all night, mom and dad are less tired and have the energy to go to the park and the children have enough energy to jump high and run fast, for example. Conversely, you also want to talk about what happens when the family is not well rested – no energy for park trips and the children will not have as much energy to jump or run.
Children learn via repetition and play. During the daytime, practice bedtime! This gives your child an idea of what to expect, and helps you to iron out and wrinkles in your plan.
Putting Your Plan Into Action
After you finish your prep work and have your family meeting, it is time to put your plan into action. You have two primary goals in your bedtime battle response. First: avoid a power struggle (hint: you’ll probably lose). Second: be as boring as possible. Remember the attention we talked about earlier? Eye contact and verbal interaction = attention. Attention = mission accomplished in the mind of a young child. For some children even the smidgen of interaction they get by you saying “I told you, you need to stay in bed” is enough motivation to continue seeking you out. It is important to remember, however, that some children may legitimately be scared (monsters, anyone?), bored (bedtime too early?), or sad the fun of day has to end and you should temper your response accordingly.
I like to tell parents that your job is to act like a duck. Smooth on the surface, even if your feet are paddling away underneath the water. It can get really, really frustrating when your child is getting out of bed for the 50th time in 20 minutes. But don’t react. Respond instead. Getting visibly frustrated or raising your voice does no one any good. Instead, be boring and calm in your response.
Handling The Jack-In-A-Box
This is the child who repeatedly comes into the living room after lights out. When you respond, you want to limit eye contact as much as possible and calmly walk your child back to her room. Do not re-tuck in bed, fill their water glass, fluff their stuffed animals etc (a legitimate need being the obvious exception). Simply put them in bed and leave. You may need to do this 30+ times the first night but should see steady progress as long as you are very consistent in your response.
Both parents should take a turn returning the child, regardless of who the child seeks out because it is very important to send the message that you are on the same page. If you are not consistent in your response each and every time it will 1. confuse your child (this is not fair to your child – how can they be expected to follow the rules when the rules keep changing) and 2. take longer to see results. Be forewarned that after seeing progress for a few nights there is often an “extinction burst”. This burst is 1-2 nights of your child really testing the limits. If you stay the course during these nights, things will go back to your new, quiet normal soon.
Dealing With Midnight Wanderers
These are the children who wander into your room and climb into bed with you and are not frightened or ill. Often these are children who need a parent to lay with them in order to fall asleep at bedtime. When they stir between sleep cycles and find their parent gone, they are unable to fall asleep without their parent. If this is your child, you will typically not see any real improvement until she learns to fall asleep on her own at bedtime. I recommend using the same calm, quiet return we just discussed. While walking your child back to their room 20+ times is taxing at 8:00 pm, it is even more so at 2:00 am. But is very important that you stay the course and be consistent. Some parents like to hang jingle bells on their doorknob so they can intercept their child before she climbs in the bed. Remember, you want to be calm and boring.
Out Maneuvering The Negotiator
These are the children who tend to have classic tantrums at bedtime when their desires are not met. These are the children who, when it is time for the lights to go out, suddenly become very thirsty or have an urgent need to learn how a car engine works, or find a stuffed animal they have not slept with in a month. This is where a bedtime routine and sleep rules become very important. The bedtime routine specifies how many stories, songs, etc there are before you leave the room. So when your child asks for 1 (or 10!) more stories you can reference your poster “Our sleep rules say 2 stories. We can leave that book out to read tomorrow night”.
Give your children choices regarding the bedtime process but make sure you are okay with all possible answers (ask which pair of pajamas she would like to choose instead of asking if she is ready to put on her pajamas).
For negotiators (this also helps jack-in-a-boxes), some parents find it helpful to give their children a paper “pass” that can be used once each night. For some children, knowing they have the option to get one more drink of water or come to ask you one question is all they need to go to bed peacefully. Of course, you should always teach your children it is absolutely okay to come to get you if they are sick or frightened. Sleep rules do not apply when children are ill!
Dealing With Bedtime Fears
Some children stall at bedtime due to fright. Fear of monsters, the dark, or being alone is common in young children. If this is your child, analyze their daytime activities and see if there are any potentially scary TV shows you need to turn off or movies you need to stop watching, especially in the evening hours. Spend plenty of time playing with your child in their room during the day so they become used to their room as a happy, safe place.
Acknowledge your child’s fear as legitimate (to a 3-year-old, the idea of a green and purple monster living in the closet is scary!) but gently show them there is nothing real behind the fear. Talk about monsters in a friendly sort of way during the day. Make up silly stories about monsters and help your child fill in the blank (“A monster named Hairy got a new bike for his birthday. His bike was the color ____ and he likes to ride it to the ______”). Don’t give them “monster spray” or anything to scare the monsters away because this sends the message that you really do think monsters exist and the spray is necessary. If your child seems to have a fear that truly paralyzes them, it is important to speak to your pediatrician.
Create an Age Appropriate Schedule
It is also important to make sure your child is not acting out at bedtime due to boredom and not being sleepy yet. For children who do not need naps (usually 3-4 and older), bedtime should generally be 12-13 hours after they wake up in the morning. Expecting a child who wakes up at 8:00 am to fall asleep at 6:30 pm just won’t work. For children who do still nap, bedtime should be at least 4-5 hours after they wake from their nap.
On the same note, make sure your child is not overtired. Children who are overtired desperately need sleep but often do not act at all sleepy. Instead, they become hyperactive, wound up, irritable, or moody. If this is your child in the evening, you want to have an early bedtime for a few nights until your child catches up on sleep. Overtired children have difficulty sleeping because they need sleep but their little bodies are fighting to stay awake. This gives them a so-called “second wave”, a surge of a hormone called cortisol that makes it very difficult for them to settle and sleep. If you have ever fought off sleep to finish a book or watch that TV show and then had difficulty sleeping once you are in bed you are experiencing the effect of cortisol.
Consistency is Key
Bedtime should remain the same on weekends as they are during the week (I know, I know!). Having consistent morning wake times and evening bedtimes enables your child’s inner clock to work to its maximum ability and will help your child stay rested. Sleep begets sleep and well-rested children deal with much fewer bedtime battles than overtired children. While teens and adults are easily able to sleep in after a late night (though not a great idea for us to do so), young children do not automatically sleep in late. Their little bodies have no concept of weekends or holidays. After a late night, they will often wake at the same time if not earlier than normal and you will have an overtired child on your hands before breakfast is over. With children, routine and consistency are key.
The Bottom Line
Bedtime battles are frustrating for sure, but they don’t have to continue. With the right planning and tools, you can work with your child to end the battles and make bedtime a peaceful. If you feel stuck in the rut of bedtime battles and need help tweaking your child’s schedule or employing the right tactics please reach out. I would love to work with you to bring peace back to bedtime.