From an adult perspective, sleep is a precious commodity. Usually we don't feel as if we get enough sleep, which is our time to air out our brain, refresh our body, and enjoy the physical sensation of a cozy bed. But to kids, sleep is purely and simply an unwanted interruption in a life full of fun. For some reason, kids never acknowledge the feeling of "tiredness" as meaning "I need sleep." What's more, for many children, sleep represents an unwanted separation from the important people in their lives. Being in bed is too lonely, too boring, and no fun at all!
How do parents make the problem worse?
I hear so many parents complain that they can't get their children to go to sleep. Let's take a close look at this concept. We cannot make a child go to sleep, but we can make him go to bed. There's a big difference between the two. If you even try to control a child's ability to fall asleep, you are losing the battle before you begin. (The only exception is a nursing mother, with a sleepy baby!) Even our children themselves cannot really control when they go to sleep. The most we as parents can do is to make the environment conducive to sleep; sleep will then come on its own.
Parents tend to make matters even worse by their own ambivalence about bedtime rules. When a child asks for "one more kiss," or "one more drink," he usually gets it. When he asks to go potty, he gets help. When he continues to get out of bed, he gets conversation (maybe not great conversation, but contact nonetheless).
It's time that you decide what your own feelings are about bedtime. It's time that you analyze your feelings and needs, and your child's feelings and needs, and determine exactly how you will handle bedtime. I'm going to give you three ideas for solutions. You may feel very good about one, or you may wish to combine some of the points from each one. The most important guideline is that you decide what you are going to do, and then stick with it. Parents usually create their own problems by dancing around and between all the different bedtime methods until they get themselves angry and their kids confused. So, the first step is to decide exactly how you will handle bedtime. The second step is to communicate your rules to your child. The third step is to implement the plan.
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It's time to have a talk with Xavier! Sit down with him some time during the day (not an hour before bedtime!), and set the rules. Your words might sound something like this: "Xavier, bedtime has been a pretty yucky time around here lately. I usually end up yelling at you, and you end up crying by the end of the night. We aren't going to do this anymore. We now have a new plan. I have made you a new Bedtime Chart and here it is."
Xavier's bedtime chart
1. Put on pajamas.
2. Have a snack.
3. Brush teeth.
4. Read five books. (Or read for 15 minutes.)
5. Get drink of water. Go potty.
6. Turn on night-light.
7. Mommy/Daddy goes downstairs.
8. Xavier lies quietly in bed and goes to sleep.
Your chart is a large piece of poster board with neatly displayed steps, illustrated, if your child can't yet read -- stick people will do!
Post the chart on Xavier's bedroom door, at his eye level. Have him help you follow the chart each night by asking him, "What's next?" Give him praise for following each step. For many children, the chart alone provides the consistency and routine that will help them cooperate with you at bedtime. Will Xavier stay in bed on the first night when you reach step number 8? Of course not! How you react to his escape will make or break your new routine. If you give him his kiss, or his drink, or help him go potty, you will be telling him that nothing has changed, and he will continue his bedtime games ad infinitum. There are several ways to handle this:
When Xavier shows up downstairs or at the kitchen door, take him by the hand and walk him, or carry him, back to bed. Do not engage him in conversation beyond one simple sentence: "The chart says it's time for you to stay in bed." Ignore his pleas for drinks, kisses, or buttered toast. Don't answer his questions about what time it is, what day is tomorrow, or how long until Christmas. After you put him back in bed, stay by the door. The minute he walks out, turn him around and repeat the process. Be prepared! The first night, Xavier will be furious. He may cry, scream, or bang on his door. Just hold your breath, and repeat after me: "This too shall pass." Trust me, by morning, he will have his mind on other, more pleasant things. The next night, repeat the same ritual. And the next. And the next. Eventually, Xavier will give up and stay in bed. Depending on the child, this may take two nights, or it could take 20! But as long as you stay calm, and outlast him, you will win! And then forever and ever, bedtime will be a peaceful, calm time, and you can reclaim your evenings.
If you know your child will continue to escape after step 8, then add step 9:
9. Xavier will have two "Get-Out-of-the-Bedroom-Free" cards. He may come out for potty, water, kisses, or hugs -- two times only. (He must give you his ticket when he comes out.)
If he comes out after the two times, you will need to impose an appropriate consequence. Let him know in advance what this will be, and then stick to it. It may be that he will not be given his "escape" cards the next night or that you will hold the door closed so that he cannot come out (if you do this, make sure you leave his night-light on, and reassure him that you are on the other side of the door); or you can use another related consequence. Be firm!
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Personally, I always wonder why parents insist on making bedtime such a battleground. Every night, night after night, it's hours of nagging, yelling, crying, and frustration. I prefer to create a loving, peaceful routine to end our day. I prefer to take advantage of the bedtime hour to bond with my children through a loving ritual.
You can take the pressure off yourself by revising your expectations. If you envision Xavier waltzing up the stairs, calling goodnight over his shoulder, and tucking himself into bed with a smile on his face, you will be sorely disappointed. Rather, look at bedtime as a wonderful opportunity for that quality time with your kids that we all talk about, but don't seem to get much of. Develop a bedtime routine that includes special quiet time for you and your child. Include a cuddle or a back rub. Read together. Talk together. Stay with him until he's ready to settle down for the night, or even until he's asleep. I've talked with many parents who follow this pattern, and they say their children fall asleep quickly, knowing that they can count on someone being there for them.
Me? I lead a very busy life. My days are full of teaching, writing and running my business. I cherish every moment with my three children. I have two special times that are reserved especially for my family. Weekends. And bedtime. On nights when I'm home, we have a very special, loving bedtime routine. We all put our pajamas on together, brush our teeth together, then we snuggle together in the kids' king-size bed (they usually all sleep together, their choice), and I read to them. I'll read for 30 minutes to an hour, until I begin to read myself to sleep! Then we turn out the light, and pile up like a Mama cat and her kittens, and cuddle to sleep. Most nights, when my three little angels are asleep, I then get up for some husband-time or me-time. Other nights, Mama cat falls asleep right along with her kittens. I think it's a lovely, peaceful, wonderful way to end our day.
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When your children are of an age when they can read books independently, you can initiate a very effective bedtime method. The method is based on the fact I stated earlier: you cannot make a child go to sleep, but you can make a child stay in bed. This idea also has its foundation in the concept of letting children learn important life lessons through natural consequences. Here goes:
Parent: Son, I've been thinking that it's time you take responsibility for your own sleep-time. You are now capable of making this kind of decision. This is what we're going to do. Nine o'clock will be your bedtime -- this means I expect you to be in your bed by nine. You may choose to read for a while before you go to sleep. You can decide when to turn your light out. Just keep in mind that we get up at 6:30 a.m., and it's hard to get up if you don't get enough sleep. (Excerpted from Kid Cooperation by Elizabeth Pantley, New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 1996.)
One word of warning! Many children will get so excited about being able to stay up as long as they want that they will! The first night you may see the reading light still on at 11:30 p.m. That's okay. The next day will be a great learning experience: your children will learn what it feels like to function on too little sleep. (We all know what that feels like!) The key to success here is to refrain from lecturing. Just put your arm around your child, and express your sympathy about having to live through the day feeling so tired. Trust me! The next night that light will be out much, much earlier!
Which option is the right one?
You now have a variety of new ideas for handling bedtime. I have worked with parents who have found great success through any one of these options, or through variations of their own. Follow your heart. The right answer is different for every family. And whichever method you choose will be the right one for you. Please remember that no matter what method you choose, you will not cause lifelong emotional or psychological problems for your child! Children are far more resilient than that. A child's life is made up of many little pieces, somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle; how you handle bedtime is just one little piece of the puzzle. You have to look at the whole picture, at every aspect of the child's life, to see how the pieces all come together to create and form who that child is.
Many, many parents ask me how to solve their bedtime problems with their children from toddler age to about eight years old. I almost never hear about a bedtime issue with children from age nine and up. I think bedtime is kind of like the problem of putting shoes on the wrong feet -- we fuss over it when they are young, but it ceases to be an issue by the time they hit elementary school.
Now is the time for you to review all the bedtime suggestions, decide upon your new bedtime routine, and follow through. It will take time to switch from the current bedtime chaos to your new method so be patient, be persistent, and sweet dreams!
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