Q. My son, who is just three years old, is terrible at bedtime. We are trying to get a new routine going, for example, at 8.15pm we get him dressed for bed, read three stories, chat about our day, kiss night night, etc. Then the trouble starts, first with him calling from his bed for “another kiss”, “one more story”, “a juice” . . . whatever takes his fancy. We try to ignore him like we have seen on television programmes and when he comes downstairs we just bring him back to his bed, saying nothing.
The problem is every time he comes downstairs he gets more upset and as the night goes on he is screaming his head off as we are literally dragging him back into bed. He eventually exhausts himself and effectively cries himself to sleep. This has been going on for a week now, with not much improvement.
Is there any better way of getting to sleep at night? It is taking the guts of two hours at the moment, so he (and we) are grumpy and tired during the day – especially because I am at home with him all day as well. Also I am five months pregnant and not able to be so physical with him when he is kicking and screaming up the stairs. He has no nap during the day by the way, but sometimes falls asleep in the car.
A. Bedtime battle and sleep problems are one of the most stressful problems you can deal with from toddlers and preschoolers. The more you battle to get your child to sleep, the more agitated they can become which makes it harder for them to sleep and so the problem can escalate. This is always harder to deal with if you are stressed or under pressure as a parent (not to mention five months pregnant) and the whole experience can leave everyone exhausted and tired. Though you might expect the opposite, over-tiredness is one of the principal causes of sleep problems as an over-tired child finds it harder to get asleep, rather than the other way round.
The first step in solving the problem is to take time to observe his daily routine of rest and sleeping and consider how you could improve it. You say he does not have a nap, but perhaps he might need a rest time during the day when you might arrange for him to have some down time, maybe on the couch or playing quietly.
The second thing you can do is start his bedtime routine much earlier. You could even start his wind-down routine as early as 6pm or before with a view to him being in bed by 7pm. Toddlers are often tired and ready for bed earlier than you think and you want to make sure they go to bed before they become over-tired or have a late “second wind” and appear full of energy.
Probably the most important thing you can do is try to take the battle out of the bedtime. When children come out of their room at night to look for a drink or another story, etc what they are really looking for is their parents’ love and attention. A lot of young children feel a bit lonely going to sleep and/or find it hard to get asleep alone. If you get angry or into conflict with them, this can make them anxious and agitated and this in turn makes them seek you out more.
Taking children back to bed without saying anything or being angry even in a non-verbal way, may not give them the comfort they need so they are likely to come out again. A more effective way to teach young children to stay in bed by themselves is to give them the comfort and support they seek but only when they co-operate and go to bed.
Practically, this means that when your son comes out, you say to him “When you lie back in your bed, Mum will come in and give you a cuddle/tuck you in”. Then you wait for him to co-operate before giving attention. The first few times you do this, you might have to sit in his room or close by, but patiently wait until he gets back in his bed and lies down before you give him the attention he needs for a few minutes. You can also make sure he has all his comforters nearby such as a drink or a teddy which he can access himself without your help.
Over time you gradually increase your distance from him (maybe outside the room, then downstairs, etc) and then increase the time you expect him to wait. For example, mid-way in the training you might be outside his room and say “when you are quiet for five minutes in your bed, then Mum will come back and tuck you in”. As he becomes settled you can remind him “if you are asleep when I come up, I will give you a special kiss and a star in the morning”. This way you are helping him to learn to fall asleep by himself, while ensuring he gets the comfort and attention he needs.
Because he is so young you might want to explain this new bedtime routine using a picture chart. In these pictures you could show both the relaxing pre- bedtime steps, for example, playtime, having a bath, putting on pyjamas, reading a story, etc, and also the stay-in- bed steps which show him lying in bed cuddling teddy, and then Mum coming back to check on him and tuck him in.
In the families I have worked with, it has been useful to also include two final pictures: one showing him fast asleep and getting a special kiss from Mum or Dad (it can be very reassuring for a child to know you will be there when they are asleep) and another showing him waking up in the morning and getting a special star on a chart for having such a relaxed bedtime. For an example of these picture charts go to link below.
Finally, establishing a bedtime routine takes a bit of patience and work. This is something you might want to share with your son’s father who can continue the routine when the new baby comes.
For more information on creating Picture schedules and some samples click here
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, August 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.