Ending Bedtime Struggles

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We’ve all been there: It’s 10pm and I am still singing songs to my daughter in her room, hoping she’ll fall asleep sometime soon. My husband and I haven’t gotten to spend any alone time together in weeks and I’m exhausted and frustrated. Finally she drifts off and I sneak out as quietly as possible, when up she pops again. “Mommy!”

As a life coach for parents, especially for those with little kids, inevitably the bedtime battle issue emerges as one of my clients’ main concerns. “Bedtime is slowly killing me.”, says one mom. “It’s the bane of my existence,” says a frustrated dad. As we all know, bedtime is when kids can be at their most manipulative selves, dragging out request after request to delay going to sleep as long as possible. So instead of taking care of things around the house and spending some much needed downtime with your spouse, you’re stuck putting your child to sleep for 3 hours every night.

Kids resist sleep for many reasons, including being afraid of the dark, exerting their newfound independence, or even as simple as needing some quality time with you.

Here are a few tactics to help cajole your little one to bed:

Help your child process their thoughts
Plan some time earlier on in the evening to talk your child about their day, especially if you are away from them for long hours. Make sure to spend this time using eye contact and with no distractions. Once they have talked through what’s going on in their mind, they may fall asleep easier.

Offer lots of choices
One way to dispel bedtime arguments and resistance is to offer lots of choices during the bedtime routine. This gives your child the sense of control they crave. However, make sure offer two choices that you can live with. For example, ask “would you like to brush your teeth first or take a bath?”, and so on. Try not to argue with them or command them by remaining calm and repeating yourself monotonously until they comply. Use phrases like “I am happy to read you a story once your teeth are brushed.” If you still have a defiant child who won’t comply with your choices, chose for them and then give them a consequence either immediately or a delayed consequence if you don’t have time. For example, if they won’t brush their teeth, then the next time they are offered a sweet, say with sincere empathy, “what a bummer. Only kids that brush their teeth every night get treats.”

Stick to a normal bedtime routine
It’s also important to stick to a routine they can depend on every night and reward them if they comply and stay in bed for a few nights in a row.

Enforce “bedroom” time
The reason getting your child to sleep is so hard is because as the parent you cannot make your child go to sleep, but you can enforce what is called “bedroom time.” If your child is a bit older and can understand time, a really great tactic in addition is to ask them what time they want to have their “bedroom time”, by giving them two choices, for example, “would you like to have bedroom time at 8:15pm or 8:30pm?” Bedroom time is just defined as the time when you leave their bedroom, and then they are free to go to sleep when they are ready. The only requirement is that they stay in their rooms once bedroom time starts. Make sure to ask them if they want the door closed or open. If they come out, you can calmly bring them back in, and then say, “looks like you chose the door to be closed.” And close the door and repeat yourself calmly until they comply. Rewards and consequences are useful here too.

Are you contributing to the bedtime struggle?
Another important component that adds to the stress of bedtime is our own thinking as parents. If we analyze our thoughts about bedtime and we find things like “I hate putting my kids to bed.” “This is torture.” “Why don’t they just go to sleep?”, etc. we will see that it’s our thoughts about bedtime that are making us miserable, not our child’s actions. And in addition, approaching bedtime with these negative thoughts can cause us to parent from a place of frustration and then can add to the rebellion and noncompliance of the kids.

Notice and let go of thoughts that trigger guilt 
In addition, its important to disentangle our emotions from theirs, and notice the thoughts that make us feel guilty about their sadness or any negative feelings they may have about being alone or going to bed. These thoughts can cause us to be in consistent in our techniques. Instead, we can calmly empathize with them when they’re afraid of the dark, or are nervous about school tomorrow, and then we can calmly stick to our plan of helping them stay in their rooms, like an emotionless robot.

It’s OK for your child to not feel good all the time. They are learning how to self soothe and cope with their feelings too.

Know that you are helping them do that by being consistent and empathetic at bedtime.

Let’s try a thought model about putting our kids to bed. To read more about what a thought model is, click here.

Fact: I have kids.
Thought: It is torture putting them to sleep.
Feeling: frustration, anger
Action: yelling, rushing them around, commanding them to do things
Result: Kids resist our commands and refuse to go to sleep.

As you can see, the result of this model has now proven our original thought of it being torture to put our kids to bed. We are stuck in a cycle of bedtime being torture. Now, let’s change our thought to a more positive or neutral thought and see what result we get.

Fact: I have kids.
Thought options:

  • Neutral thought: I am choosing to put them to bed and they are doing exactly what they should be doing.
  • Positive thought: I enjoy being with my children, I want to put them to bed because I love them.

Feeling: empowerment, peace
Action: You are able to give two choices when needed, calmly repeat yourself, lovingly bring them back to their rooms when they leave, and maybe even enjoy having some snuggle time.
Result: The kids are compliant, get to bed faster, and you feel better no matter what they do.

The truth is bedtime is eventful, so ask yourself, how can I make this time more playful, more fun?

So regardless of the result, regardless of how your kids behave or how fast they go to bed, you have the power to feel better about bedtime. And remember, think of it as “bedtime” and not “sleep time”. You can’t make them go to sleep, but you can enforce when they are in their bedrooms for the night. Use thinking words, choices, and calm repetition, and not commands, fighting words, or yelling, and then give it some time and practice. We won’t be perfectly calm every time, nor will our kids always comply, but if we keep working at it, bedtime won’t be as bad anymore. Your body, mind, and your children will thank you.