There are some young children who can’t wait to get into bed at night – but they are few and far between! It is far more common for children of all ages to try to stay up later than their bedtime, whatever that bedtime might be. In fact, a lot of adults have the same problem! Everyone wants just a little more time to finish playing that game, reading that book, watching that movie or whatever. Maybe it’s not a bad thing – at least everyone who wants to avoid bedtime is excited about life and all that it has to offer!
However, there is one down side to all this wakefulness: daytime fatigue. Kids (and adults) who go to bed too late, often have trouble getting up in the morning and/or functioning well during the day. Physical health and emotional well-being also tend to suffer when there is long term sleep deprivation. As everyone knows, lack of sleep can cause irritability and impaired decision-making. All in all, a shortage of sleep cannot be recommended. Kids NEED to go to bed on time.
If your child isn’t cooperating with his or her set bedtime, consider the following tips:
Set a Realistic Bedtime According to the Unique Needs of the Child
Children – like adults – have varying needs for sleep. Some children and teens function best on 9 or 10 hours sleep, while others do very well on 7 or 8 hours. When a child can wake up on time in the morning with little struggle and function well during the day, maintaining appropriate focus, good health and a decent mood, then he or she is getting enough sleep. On the other hand, a child who can’t wake up in the morning, is always late due to sleeping in, is chronically ill, cranky and/or underfunctioning, and is simply not getting enough sleep. Specific health issues also impact on the amount of sleep needed. For instances, many kids with ADD/ADHD and other biological disorders seem to have more trouble settling down to sleep or staying asleep at night – they may do better with a later bedtime. Wake your child up at the same time every day – the time that is most appropriate for getting to school on time after getting dressed and eating breakfast. If your child does well, he or she is currently getting enough sleep. Therefore, continue with whatever bedtime you have established. If your child is struggling, create an earlier bedtime.
In setting an appropriate bedtime, try to find a time which is only a few minutes away from the child’s ability to fall asleep. For instance, if you set a 9 p.m. bedtime, your child should easily fall asleep somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes later. You may permit your child to read until he or she gets tired. You would establish “lights out” by 9:30. However, if you put your child to sleep at 9 and he or she remains awake tiil 10 or later (despite your “lights out at 9:30” policy), the bedtime is much too early. This is true only when you have been consistently waking the child at the same time every day (the ideal time for getting ready for school).
Once you establish a reasonable bedtime, be sure to stick to it. Try not to change it except on very special occasions such as vacations or holidays.
Parents can help their kids go to bed by helping them to wind down for the night. Reduce the excitement available around the house about one hour before your child’s desired bedtime. This means implement rules like “computer is off one hour before bedtime” and “no movies or T.V. in the hour before bedtime” and “no snacks larger than a single non-caffeinated beverage an hour before bedtime.” Your goal is to help the child’s nervous system settle down. You might permit the reading of books or the doing of puzzles in the hour because these activities are both interesting and fatiguing. They involve mental work and therefore exhaust the mind after awhile.
Help Your Child Get Ready for Sleep
For children under 10, expect to spend 45min to an hour helping your child settle down to sleep using a daily sleep routine. This routine normally includes a bedtime snack, bath, teeth brushing, getting into pj’s, and story time or talking time. Depending on the age of your child, you may follow all this with a good night kiss and allow the child to read on his or her own for awhile longer (until “lights out”), or you may actually dim the lights and lie down quietly with the child for another 10 or 20 minutes until the child has drifted off to sleep, or you may sit in the child’s room with lights off until the child falls asleep.
Address Your Child’s Fears
Some children are afraid to sleep in their own rooms alone. Help your child to feel safe and comfortable by leaving night lights on, providing intercom, and/or comfort toys. The Bach Flower Remedies Aspen (for fear of the dark, monsters and ghosts) and Mimulus (for fear of robbers or being separated from parents) can be helpful. These can be purchased from any health food store. Two drops of each in a small amount of liquid (water, milk, juice, etc) given 4 times a day, can help erradicate night time fears. (See more on Bach Flowers in the Bach Flower article on this site.)
Use the CLeaR Method to Reinforce Cooperation
When your child is cooperative with any step of the bedtime routine, acknowledge this. “I see you got your pajamas on already!” or “You came right away when I called!” This is the “C” step of the CLeaR Method (“comment”). Use an appropriate label (the “L” step of the CLeaR Method). “That was so Speedy!” “You’re such a good Listener!” For settling into bed at the end of the routine, consider using a reward (the “R” step of the CLeaR Method). “Since you went to sleep so nicely, you can have your special cereal/muffins/T.V. program or whatever in the morning.” Learn how to use the CLeaR Method step by step in “Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice” by Sarah Chana Radcliffe.)
Create a Reward Chart for Younger Kids
If bedtime problems have been chronic or severe, more intense corrective measures can be taken. One such measure is the use of reward charts. Sit down with your child and design a reward-based program of encouragement. Design something that has an escalating system of points and rewards. For instance, if your child currently NEVER cooperates with bedtime, suggest that each struggle-free night earn a special small treat in the next day’s lunch or a special small privilege to occur after school the next day. As the child becomes more compliant, put him or her on a point system, having the child earn 2 points (one for each struggle-free night) and a larger prize (for instance – a $2.00 chocolate treat or gift at the dollar store). When the child can easily earn 2 points in a row, raise the bar: have 3 points be necessary for a prize – but again, the prize is better than the previous ones (for instance, a $3.00 treat or gift at the dollar store). Then have the child earn 5 points for an even better payoff (i.e $5.00 worth of goodies) and then 5 in a row (i.e. a special one-on-one outing with Mom or Dad), 7 points (a trip to the toy store to buy some small item) and finally – for the final GRAND PRIZE – 7 struggle-free nights in a row (which earns a fantastic gift or privilege that the child has long pined for).
Similarly, uncooperative pre-teens and teens can be positively encouraged to get into bed on time. Again, set up the “payoffs” with the youngsters themselves. Say something like the following, “I really don’t want to ask you to get to bed more than once in a night. I’d be willing to work with you to help you get out of the habit of delaying your bedtime. For instance, perhaps there’s some privilege or material object that could be an incentive. I know you’ve had your eye on that new (app, purse, digital whatever). I’d be happy to give you five (two, or whatever) dollars for every night that you just go peacefully and promptly off to bed. In two weeks (or a month…) you’d be able to buy yourself that (whatever) from that money alone! Incentives do not have to be material objects. Work with your child to see what the child would find motivating. Using incentives is a jumpstart for changing the bedtime habits of your youngster – it is not meant to be a permanent way of life! Once the child is in the habit of going to bed on time and cooperatively, it’s just a whole lot easier for him or her to continue doing it.
Use Discipline if Necessary
If all the “nice” techniques haven’t led to improvement in bedtime cooperation, now is the time to use formal discipline. Display a “no-nonsense” attitude regarding the bedtime. After the child’s bedtime has arrived, follow the rule that the child may no longer call for you or leave his or her room (unless there is a true emergency). If the child calls out or leaves the bed, use the 2X-Rule. Tell the child, “you must stay in your room quietly once your bedtime has arrived.” When the child calls out or leaves the room, repeat the rule and add the warning of a negative consequence. This can be any consequence, but a good one for bedtime problems is “from now on, when you call out or leave your room, you will have to stand against the wall for (the number of minutes of the child’s age, minus 2). Then you’ll go back to bed. Each time you call out, you’ll have to stand against the wall again, but for 1 minute longer than before.” (If the child is 7 years old or older, the increases can be 2 minutes more each time). Normally, this cures the child’s bedtime issues within a couple of days. If the child refuses to stand against the wall, review the instructions for applying the 2X-Rule in the discipline section on this site (and in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe ).
If you have picked a different consequence (i.e. “no cookies in your lunch tomorrow”), you will have to handle it differently. To begin with, consequences that occur “tomorrow” require waiting. Once the child has left the room and received the consequence, there is nothing more that you can do TONIGHT. The child may now wander around the house all night. This is because you only get to pick ONE consequence. If the one you picked is happening tomorrow, then you have to wait until tomorrow and then apply the consequence (and make sure that you DO apply it!). Use the same consequence at least 3 times before deciding whether or not it is effective. If after the third use, the child is still calling out or getting out of bed, you know that the consequence is not effective. Choose a different one and start again. See “Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice” by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for detailed instructions on how to create and employ negative consequences.
Refrain from Showing Anger or Irritation
Bedtime should be a pleasant time for a child. Try your hardest not to raise your voice in order to scare your child into bed at night. If, after trying all approaches, your child is still refusing to go to bed, consult a parenting consultant or psychologist for assistance. There can be complicating factors you are not aware of and/or more strategies to try.