Every parent knows the struggle. The first goodnight is never usually the final goodnight. Many parents get frustrated by the amount of times their kid gets back up after they’ve already gotten tucked in. Or maybe your kid is extra vocal and just continues to yell for you until you come back in their room. (The joys of parenthood!)
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This challenging scene is super common and kids will do just about ANYTHING to prolong sleep. (Extra hugs! Now I just want to talk!) But if every night is a battle to get your child to go to bed and stay there, what can you do besides lose your patience?
“Kids are curious and sometimes feel like they’re missing out – for whatever reason – when they go to sleep,” says pediatric specialist Jason Sherman, DO. “Kids want to explore and spend time with people. Getting out of bed or refusing to sleep might be signs that your child needs more structure, or it could even point to signs that your child is stressed or worried and needs to be reassured.”
Dr. Sherman shares a few tips to consider when your child doesn’t want to go to bed or is having trouble staying there.
Why structure for bedtime is so important
Your child will benefit from the structure and rules you set regarding bedtime limitations. In fact, having firm rules can ease – not cause – anxiety in children. Just be sure to explain the rules to your child and make sure they understand.
Maybe the rules in your house mean no screen time before bed, but instead means he or she gets to pick out a book to read when they are tucked in. Or maybe it’s using a special toothbrush, using the restroom or taking a bath. Whatever it is, establish what getting ready for bed looks like and feels like for your child.
“When you’re consistent with the bedtime rules, your child will understand what it means, learn self-control, expect it and adapt,” says Dr. Sherman. “In fact, they will learn to like the predictability of the sleep routine, but the initial few days need some determination on your part to succeed.”
It’s also very important not to lose ground during holidays and vacations. All adults involved in bedtime routines should agree to act similarly so the child is not confused and learns not to push limits.
What should my child’s bedtime routine include?
Establish a set bedtime
Set a regular bedtime for your child and be consistent about sending him or her to bed at this time. Children with consistent bedtimes are more likely to get sufficient sleep and that means they’ll be less cranky! Also be aware that changing your kid’s bedtime could affect their wake time, so if they’re getting up super early, you might want to consider what time they’re going to sleep at. If you’d like to a establish an earlier sleep time than your child currently has, you can start setting your child’s bedtime 15 minutes earlier every few nights until you meet your new goal. Be cautious about moving the bedtime back too quickly or making it too early (for your own convenience) and make sure it’s age-inappropriate.
Plan up to 1 hour of quiet time before bed for bedtime routines
Before bed every night, set aside up to 1 hour for calm activities, such as listening to quiet music, reading a book in a dim light or taking a warm bath or shower. The activity should be something that is fun, and that can be used as a tool to create a sense of approaching bedtime. However, the activity should not be too stimulating – such as TV watching, gaming or heavy homework, which may arouse rather than calm your child. The last several minutes of quiet time activity should take place in the room where your child sleeps. It’s also important for children to be brought to bed or put into bed awake so that they learn to fall asleep there by themselves.
What if my child cries once they’re in bed?
If your child cries once they are in bed or as you are leaving the room, speak calmly and reassure your child that he or she is safe and that it’s time to go to bed.
If your child continues to cry and you go back into their room after you’ve tucked them in, be sure to make your visits brief. If your child continues to cry, space out the time between visits to the bedroom, and when you do return, don’t do anything but talk calmly and briefly (1 to 2 minutes) and then leave again. No arguments or discussions need to take place. The purpose of your visit is to let your child know that you’re present and to reassure him or her that they are OK. Continue to keep the atmosphere quiet and calm and try to avoid turning on the lights.
When your child keeps getting out of bed
The struggle is real when your child starts developing the habit of getting back out of bed.
Dr. Sherman recommends telling your child that their door will be closed (but not locked) if he or she keeps getting out of bed. Also explain that if the child stays in bed, they have control and the door can remain open.
If your child gets out of bed, close the door for 1 or 2 minutes. If your child gets out of bed again, put your child back in bed and close the door again for another couple of minutes. Be consistent. You may increase the length of time the door is closed by 1 to 2 minutes if they continue to not listen.
When your child stays in bed, open the door and acknowledge his or her good efforts with praise. If age-appropriate, a bedtime pass to allow one exit from the bedroom for a specific reason may work as well to give the child a sense of control. For older children, a method of positive reinforcement can be performed, such as praise the next morning.
Should you reward or penalize you child for bad bedroom behavior?
Do praise and reward your child when he or she stays in bed or does what you want him or her to do regarding bedtime activities and sleeping. Consider stickers, breakfast treats, small toys or other special prizes as some possible ways to reward your child. But be careful not to offer junk food as a reward. Use positive phrases, such as, “You’re doing a great job of staying in bed!”
On the other hand, don’t dwell on misbehavior from the previous night. Don’t use the bedroom as a place of punishment or time out – so your child doesn’t associate the bedroom with negative behavior. Also, never lock your child in his or her bedroom. This again can be considered more of a punishment by a child or can even scare them.
Patience and persistence
“Changing any habit takes time,” explains Dr. Sherman. “Your child will learn new sleep habits if you stick to your established routine.”
Your kid may want to argue or complain about the new bedtime rules, but you should ignore these arguments and protests. Firmly and calmly let your child know that this is the new bedtime plan. It may be very challenging at first and it may take several nights to get your child used to the routine, but with some persistence, you will succeed. Remember, consistency is key!