Note to Readers:  Bedtime battles were my nightly routine.  I spent 2 hours each night trying to get my child to go to sleep. The exhaustion I experienced dealing with such a high energy problem at the end of the day was more than I could bare. These bedtime battles caused stress and frustration for our entire family and took a toll on my health. Out of desperation and a willingness to try anything, I began to create stories that incorporated stress management and relaxation techniques in order to help my child fall asleep. I am thankful that Amy is helping so many parents and children have a peaceful bedtime experience.

by Positive Parenting Solutions founder and contributor, Amy McCready

Any parent who experiences “bedtime blues” knows the feeling. It’s the exhausting, frustrating, stress-inducing antics that turn the bedtime routine into a nightmare for parent and child. The most common bedtime battles are: Prolonged routines and stall tactics, having to lie in bed with the child until she falls asleep, the child getting up multiple times during the night, or the child wanting to sleep in the parents’ bed. Sheer exhaustion on our end can force us to surrender the battle, being willing to do whatever it takes to get through the night. However, the longer bedtime battles continue -– the bigger the emotional and physical toll on parent and child.

Is this just a stage or something that should be fixed?

Parents often wonder if bedtime battles are just a normal stage that kids go through or if it’s something they should proactively address. Dr. Richard Ferber, the renowned sleep expert says it best…”If an otherwise healthy 5 or 6-month-old baby is having problems going to sleep, is waking up for extended periods, or is waking repeatedly during the night, then there is definitely a problem.” The same litmus test can be applied for older children.
Other questions to ask to end bedtime battles include:

  • Is your child’s bedtime routine and/or sleep pattern creating stress for you?
  • Do bedtime issues negatively impact time or intimacy with your partner?
  • Do you feel sleep deprived or irritable during the day?
  • Do you dread the bedtime routine?

If the answer is “yes” to any of the questions, it’s time to address the “bedtime blues!”

Why do kids battle us at bedtime?

Assuming the child is physically and emotionally healthy, “bedtime blues” are usually a result of the following problems:

Not enough positive attention during the day. If parents don’t fill the child’s attention basket with enough positive attention during the day, they’ll use the bedtime routine as a way to get attention and keep parents busy with them longer. It makes perfect sense from your child’s perspective. In his mind, he thinks…
“Since you’re not giving me what I really want (positive attention)… I’m going to demand your attention at bedtime… because when I ask for one more drink of water, or one more kiss, or pretend that I’m scared, or refuse to fall asleep unless you lay with me… at least I have your attention and I keep you with me longer.”

Inconsistent routines and getting kids to bed too late. Inconsistent routines, especially at “lights out” time, are a major contributor to nighttime battles. If bedtime varies from night to night, kids don’t get into a consistent sleep pattern. “Lights out” time should also be consistent between weekdays and weekends. Their bodies don’t know the difference between a Tuesday night and a Saturday night and varying the “lights out” time contributes to bedtime battles.

Most kids gets far less sleep than they need. Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of “Sleeping through the Night,” states that the average 2-year-old needs 11-15 hours of sleep per day and the average 5-year-old needs 10-12 hours, including nighttime and nap. Most children who battle their parents at bedtime are getting far less sleep than they really need. The natural tendency is for parents to assume that the child “must not be tired” because she’s resisting sleep so much. However, when we let kids stay up past the natural window for when their bodies are ready to go to sleep, they become agitated and it’s more difficult to get them to bed.

The first steps for correcting bedtime battles:

If parents are concerned that their child’s physical or emotional health may be negatively affecting bedtime routines, they should consult their pediatrician. Otherwise, they should consider the following recommendations:

  • Fill the attention basket. Positively filling the attention basket during the day will make your child less likely to demand your attention at night. To do that, spend one-on-one time with each child on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to be a long time. Just 10 to 15 minutes of undivided time proactively filling their attention basket with positive attention will do wonders to minimize negative demands for your attention.
  • Implement a consistent bedtime routine. Determine your ideal “lights out” time and work backwards. What do you want to include in the nighttime routine and how long will that take? Solicit input from your child, but be realistic about how much time you are willing to spend. For younger children, it’s best to follow the same routine every night so they know exactly what to expect. If the routine is one book and you follow that every night, they will learn there’s no point in negotiating for “one more book.” If you’ve been lying in bed with your child until she falls asleep, include five minutes of “snuggle time” as part of your routine. Be sure to structure the fun stuff (books, snuggles, etc.) to happen after the less fun stuff (bath, teeth brushed, PJ’s on). That way he’ll have incentive to get bathed and dressed efficiently so he’ll have more time for books and/or snuggles. “Lights out” time is always the same, so if he dawdles, he’ll lose time for books and snuggle time. Plan to leave the room while he is still awake.
  • Practice the new routine. During the day, practice the new bedtime routine from start to finish. Role-play the full routine including the part where you walk out the door while she’s awake. Important: Switch roles and practice the routine with you as the child and her playing the parent. Have her practice tucking you in and leaving while you’re still awake. Be clear that once you leave the room, the bedtime routine is over and you expect her to stay in her room until morning. Express confidence that she is really growing up and you know she’ll sleep all night in her bed.
  • Play Relaxation Music: Lori Lite of Stress Free Kids suggests introducing children to music that encourages relaxation. “Kids especially like this when they are empowered to turn the music on and chose their own track.” Her award winning Indigo Dreams CD Series helps end bedtime battles.
  • It’s show time: It’s time to put your new routine to the test. Kids want and need our positive attention so be sure to be fully present during the bedtime routine -– no distractions. Implement the bedtime routine as you practiced it -– kiss her goodnight and leave the room! Hopefully, she’ll drift right off to sleep and you’ll have an evening of peace ahead of you…but if not, resort to Plan B.

Plan B: Remove the payoff! Prepare your Plan B strategy in advance. If there are two parents in the home, be sure you’re on the same page so you know just what you’ll do if your child gets out of bed or fights the bedtime routine. If your child gets out of bed -– calmly take him by the hand and return him to bed -– but without words or eye contact. The goal is to remove the payoff for the behavior. When parents provide verbal feedback or express frustration, they provide an attention and power “payoff” which makes the behavior continue.

Be prepared to do this 15 or 20 times the first night. Calmly return her to bed with NO WORDS and NO EYE CONTACT! Your goal is to be “completely unimpressed” with your child’s bedtime antics. The next night, you may have to do this same routine 10 to 15 times. However, by remaining firm and using this plan, most kids are sleeping though the night in their own bed within three to four days. Important tip: Parents should alternate trips back to the bedroom so kids know that mom and dad are on the same page and one parent isn’t doing all the “heavy lifting.”

As the late H. Stephen Glenn, Ph.D. once wrote, “Weaning has never been easy for the “weaner” or the “weanee” but is necessary for both to reach independence.”

The issues and suggestions in this article represent just some of the challenges presented by parents and a few of the strategies to correct “Bedtime Blues.” For more information on bedtime battles and other free training resources for tantrums, power struggles, whining, morning dawdling and more, visit: Positive Parenting Solutions

Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and mom to two boys, ages 12 and 14. Positive Parenting Solutions teaches parents of toddlers to teens how to correct misbehaviors permanently without nagging, reminding or yelling.