It’s bedtime and once again your young child is refusing to go to bed. You are at your wit’s end after a long day and ready for some quiet time to catch up on your chores, prepare for tomorrow’s workday, or just relax. Exasperation and frustration may set in thinking about the nightly battle over bedtime.
As parents know, sleep—nap times and bedtimes—is a major component of your child’s early life. As such, it can come with all sorts of complications, especially when getting a good night’s rest is so crucial to well-being and health. In fact, sleep affects all aspects of a young child’s life, including physical growth, mental development, and emotions.
Given sleep’s importance, it’s helpful to understand why it can be difficult to convince a young child to go to sleep. Parents often view this resistance to bedtime as their child being willful or manipulative. Actually, strongly resisting bedtime is developmentally appropriate behavior for young children.
Try thinking of it from your child’s perspective—why would she want to go to bed when she loves being with you and experiencing the world around her? Why would she want to miss out on all that and go to sleep? When viewed this way, it’s actually understandable that she may not want to go to bed given her desire to not miss out on anything or any chance to spend more time with you.
Another possibility is that your child had a hard day, perhaps they were frustrated because they couldn’t zip up their jacket when just the day before they were able to do it. Or maybe they are afraid of the dark or monsters.
With this in mind, you can respond to a child who is dragging her heels and coming up with all kinds of delay tactics using guidance from the Smart Love approach. Here are some key points to keep in mind:
Nightly “check-ins” can help to alleviate emotions that could be driving their bedtime resistance. When parents ask children if there is anything they’d like to share about their day, it allows room for their children to talk about their feelings. It helps children get the message that all of their feelings are welcome and that parents will not get angry at them for having upset feelings. Be sure not to pepper your child with questions, which can cause more anxiety. With time, children will come to learn that this is their space to share their feelings with their parents which helps them be more peaceful at night when things quiet down. Your child will feel secure in your compassion and love instead of at the mercy of big, intense feelings.
Bribing, punishing, or ignoring children who resist going to bed is ultimately unhelpful. Although these children may eventually give up and go to sleep, they will also conclude that their parents want them to feel miserable. This obviously takes a negative toll on the parent-child relationship and can have long-lasting effects on how a child deals with difficult situations in the future, such as having difficulty asking for help or concluding that she is so powerful you have to bribe her to do what is in her self-interest.
Try to respond to your child’s attempts at postponing bedtime with patience and kindness instead of irritation or anger. For example, if your son demands one glass of water after another, after a while you can tell him that he has had enough water and it’s time for sleeping. If he cries, try to return to his room as often as necessary to tell him briefly but sympathetically that’s it’s time to go to sleep. For example, you could say, “I know it’s hard to go to bed when there are so many fun things to do, but all three-year-olds are going to bed now.”
If your child continues to get out of bed and ask for another glass of water, in a caring and compassionate manner, do not engage with him. Simply walk him back into bed each and every time. It’s important to remain patient and kind. With your continued consistency, your child will come to learn that his attempts will only bring him back into bed.
Remember that your goal should be regulating your child’s behavior instead of disciplining him. By comforting him when he cries, you are showing that even though there won’t be any more water tonight, you care whether he is unhappy and you are available to help him feel better.
Keep in mind that your own self-care has a big impact on your ability to respond to your child with compassion in difficult moments. If parents are able to find some time for themselves, such as listening to a favorite podcast on the commute home, going for a short walk outside, or calling a friend, these moments can fill them up so that they are better able to respond to their children with patience and empathy.
As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “Your loving responsiveness will spare your child from falling asleep in a state of despair at his powerlessness to cause you to respond to him when he feels miserable, and it will teach him to put himself to sleep surrounded by the emotional warmth of your relationship.”
A Note on Co-Sleeping
We are often asked about whether parents should sleep with an infant or small child in their bed. We believe that this is ultimately a cultural issue. In some cultures, there are compelling reasons to do this. In Western culture, however, there are certain disadvantages. For example, nighttime is one of the few times parents have to be alone together, individuals need to learn to sleep alone, and the transition to sleeping in their own beds may be painful and difficult for children as they get older. For these reasons, we suggest that it’s usually better for parents to help children sleep in their own beds because they will eventually sleep in their own room or share a room with siblings and it is better to help them learn to put themselves to sleep in their own beds as infants.
When sleep problems occur, it is possible to make bedtime peaceful and happy again. Using the Smart Love approach, you can ensure that your child gets the rest he needs, and you can make bedtime a cozy period during which you and your child enjoy each other’s company.
Sleep Time Tips
Try to maintain a consistent bedtime and wake time for your child but be flexible enough so that the schedule can accommodate how your child is feeling on a given day, for example some days he may be feeling extra tired and need more rest, or sometimes family events will push bedtime to a later time.
Follow your child’s schedule for nap times and encourage regular daily naps, which can help your child sleep better at night.
Prepare your child for bedtime by taking advantage of nature’s biological clock. Try to increase the body’s sleep hormone by keeping lights dim an hour before bedtime. Doing this helps align your child’s natural sleepiness with bedtime.
Create a bedtime routine that helps your child transition peacefully from their day to sleep time. Following a specific order, such as taking a bath, brushing teeth, reading, etc., can create a routine that helps a child feel secure.