Bedtime Battles—Helping a Child Who Resists Bedtime

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-la