Establishing Successful Bedtime Routines

Many children protest going to bed on principle. Some keep getting out of bed because they are too “wound up.” Others suffer from separation anxiety and want Mom or Dad to comfort them to sleep. Still others are afraid of the dark or worried about having nightmares. While most kids can learn to stay in their beds, even the best parent cannot make a child go to sleep.

Sit down together as a family and set a few simple bedtime rules, such as what routine is expected, what you may do in bed if you can’t fall asleep (such as look at a book or play quietly with teddy), and whether or not you may get out of bed.

Establish a consistent bedtime routine and stick to it.

Look for the beginning signs of a tired child: eye rubbing, yawing, dragging, or becoming irritable. Realize that the signs may come much earlier than you expect.

Put your child to bed when she is naturally sleepy. In many families, there is too long a time between the time at which the child first becomes tired and the established bedtime. This can lead to uncooperative, cranky preschoolers.

Move your child’s current bedtime back by a half hour each evening, until it coincides with his natural peak of nighttime tiredness.

Create a bedtime routine that helps cue the child’s mind and body to slow down, relax and ultimately fall asleep. (For example, consider giving a back rub, singing a lullaby, or reading a favorite story.)

  • Try to keep activities low key for a half hour before bedtime to avoid having the kids get over stimulated.
  • Give a final warning about ten minutes before the bedtime routine begins.
  • Let an inanimate object (such as an alarm clock or timer) set bedtime.
  • Use any props that you notice help the child switch from active to rest time, such as “white noise” from a fan or air conditioner, or the repetitive motion of a rocking chair. Try playing soft music, dimming the lights, or total silence.
  • Provide your child with a “lovey,” like a “blankie” or stuffed animal, to stroke or hug as she learns to soothe herself to sleep.
  • Stay with the child who needs to be calmed by your presence, but set reasonable limits.

Accompany the child back to his bed without reasoning with him every time he comes out—not easy to do, but it works. Studies show that as soon as the second night you will return him to his bed half as many times. By the third night, most children will stay in bed. (It is important to discuss ahead of time with the child exactly what is going to happen if he chooses to leave his bed. Emphasize that you will not talk to him.)

Take turns with your spouse so that you avoid feeling trapped into putting the kids to bed every night (or marching them back to bed, as the case may be). This also gives the child the chance to relate to both parents and avoids casting one parent in the role of the “heavy.”

Praise and compliment your child when he goes to bed willingly and when he stays in bed all night.

Be aware that any changes to your child’s established bedtime routine may have repercussions.

Realize that attempting to shorten a well-established bedtime routine may actually backfire and end up taking more of your time.

When you are away from home, bring along some familiar props—favorite stuffed animals or a lullaby tape. The more homelike you can make your surroundings, the more easily your child will fall asleep.

Take some time to sit on your child’s bed (or even crawl right in with him) and chat calmly. Many children are more talkative under the cover of darkness; they will discuss the things that thrilled or bothered them during the day. It’s also a good time to review family rules in a relaxed and nonconfrontational way.

Teach your child to respect the fact that Mom and Dad need some time alone at night.

Consider giving rewards to recognize an accomplishment, like falling asleep without your constant presence. The younger the child, the shorter the time before he gets his reward.

Do something each day that helps you feel replenished, so that you will have the energy you need to deal with your child at bedtime.

Ask yourself whether having the kids share a room might be comforting for them. Although some families whose kids have to share a bedroom may wish for a larger house, the kids themselves may be comforted by each other’s presence at night. Families fortunate enough to have a large house may be surprised at how well it works for the kids to bunk together and turn the unused bedroom into a playroom or den.

The bottom line: Find a bedtime routine that respects your needs as well as your child’s; and however you “choose to snooze,” feel good about it.