5 Ways to Beat Bedtime Battles

Rochelle Fritz, PhD

Bedtime with little ones. Snuggling together reading stories, sweet kisses goodnight, and turning off the light. You close the door, and within seconds your child drifts off into dreamland without a peep.

If only bedtime could be so easy every night.

Unfortunately for many, bedtime can be a struggle. If it is a battle for you, there are things to help make bedtime more like a dream and less like a nightmare.

Keep a sleep diary

Keeping a sleep diary can help you learn more about your child’s sleep problems. You may not even be aware of poor sleep routines or habits your child developed. Because our sleep can be influenced by many different factors, keeping a diary for a couple of weeks can help identify potential problems to be addressed.

Keep track of:

  • what your child last ate and drank
  • activities they engaged in for the hours before bed
  • the time your child gets in bed
  • how long it takes to fall asleep
  • whether your child wakes during the night and for how long
  • the time your child wakes in the morning
  • any naps taken, including when and how long
  • how you perceive the child’s quality of sleep and his or her level of sleepiness during the day by using a general rating

You might learn that, without realizing it, your child has developed a bad habit of going to bed at irregular times. Or perhaps your child ate a chocolaty snack before bed, giving his or her body sugar and caffeine. There could also be an issue with sleep quality. Share this information with the pediatrician or other professional when discussing sleep problems.

Blissful bedtime strategies

Parents will be happy to know there are five strategies that may make for a more blissful bedtime.

1. Develop a consistent bedtime routine

Regardless of age, be sure your child is going to bed and waking at the same time each day. Have a consistent bedtime and wake time daily, even on weekends. Try to not have more than an hour difference from day to day.

  • Keep the hour before bed calm and quiet. Daily exercise and activity is great for children, but try to avoid active play just before bed. Stimulating activities such as watching TV and playing video games should also be avoided.
  • Offer a small snack before bed, but avoid sugary foods or items with caffeine. In general, caffeinated products should be minimized throughout the day and avoided for several hours before bed.
  • Engage in a regular routine, including activities such as bathing, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, reading stories, turning on a nightlight if needed, and saying goodnight. This repetition every night helps children learn it is time for bed and helps their bodies prepare to sleep.
  • Keep television and electronics out of your child’s room. The light from TVs and other electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets or handheld games interferes with the body’s ability to produce the needed hormones to trigger sleep. Use of these devices before bed can make a child’s—and an adult’s—body think it should be awake.

2. Bedtime fading

If your child has gotten into the habit of staying up late and sleeping in, you can gradually “fade” back to an earlier bedtime. Start by putting your child to bed at the time they generally fall asleep. Over a period of days or weeks, slowly make bedtime earlier and earlier, depending on how late they fall asleep. Be sure to wake your child at the same time each morning so this becomes part of the routine.

3. Systematic ignoring

This can be a useful method for children who demand a caregiver’s presence to fall asleep. Systematic ignoring is otherwise known as the “cry it out” method, in which you put your child to bed and do not return until morning. Caregivers ignore the crying and protests.

Evidence shows that this is a highly successful and safe way to eliminate a child’s need for a caregiver to be present to fall asleep. However, this method is not tolerable for some families. Some caregivers worry that they are traumatizing their child by not responding to their cries. For most children who have already developed a strong and positive relationship to their parents, there is no harm in letting the child cry it out.

This method should not be used with a newborn. Newborns need reassurance and attention from caregivers. Avoid trying this method until the baby is 6 months old, when he or she should be able to sleep through the night.

4. Strategic napping

Avoid naps that are too close together or too close to bedtime. There should be at least 4 hours between sleep periods. Too much sleep during the day disrupts sleep at night.

5. Positive reinforcement

For preschool-aged children and older, using positive reinforcement or a reward system can help decrease challenging bedtime behaviors. This has worked well for many children, including my own.

When my son was 3 years old, he demanded a parent stay in his room while he fell asleep. We tried ignoring his protests, but he would come out of his room screaming, yelling, and even following us around the house.

We offered an incentive: a flashlight that he wanted. We made a chart and he earned stickers for each night he could stay quietly in his room and go to sleep without a parent. Because a 3-year-old has a difficult time with delayed gratification, he needed additional incentive to stay interested in this reward system. So, for every two nights he earned stickers, he also got to choose an extra bedtime story. After fourteen stickers, he earned his reward!

Things to remember

For most children, there will be backslides in progress. You may have success changing some poor bedtime habits and behaviors, only to have a vacation, illness, developmental milestone, bad storm, or some other factor interfere and bring you back to square one. Take some deep breaths and start again.

Some level of bedtime resistance is common in children. It is often temporary and can be changed with the strategies listed above. However, if your child has had significant challenges occurring at least 3 times per week for more than three months, resulting in significant impairment of functioning in the child, parent(s), and/or family, consider talking with your child’s pediatrician, or contact the Hasbro Children’s Hospital Pediatric Sleep Clinic for more help.

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