In the parallel universe where children immediately do what you tell them to, it probably takes 15 minutes for your kid to go from "Time for bed!" to "Night-night!" In the real world though, the wrestling match known as the bedtime routine can take an hour or more, sapping your emotional reserves just when they’re at their lowest.
Naturally kids want to spool out the bedtime process. Why snooze when hanging out with Mom and Dad is more fun? But no matter what kind of won’t-go-to-bed kid you have, simplify your nightly tuck-ins with this advice from Craig Canapari, M.D., director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center. (Dr. Canapari, a dad of two, blogs about kids and sleep at DrCraigCanapari.com)
Getting ready for bed requires kids to perform five or six mini-activities, from eating a snack to putting on pajamas. That's a lot of switching gears, which can turn your grade-schooler into a slow-mo version of himself and offer opportunities for meltdowns and more delays.
PLUS: THE BEDTIME ROUTINE YOU NEED TO START TONIGHT
Be a little more linear. Your routine needs a clear trajectory toward your goal—tucking your child in—so every step of it should bring your child closer to the bedroom. If your child is going up and down stairs a lot (to get a snack after he’s put on his PJs, then returning upstairs to brush his teeth) cut out all the back and forth. Begin with the kitchen activities, like snacks and cups of water, and move toward mellower, personal-space activities, like baths and reading. The less your child has to move around the house, the quicker things will go.
Every night, your future litigator angles to stay up later or to skip her bath—and she'll beg more insistently if she sometimes gets her way.
Stick to your routine—even on weekends. "It’s absolutely critical—and there's less to argue about if the same thing happens every night,” says Canapari. Following the same get-ready pattern helps it become automatic—and faster. That said, some negotiators cooperate more willingly when they sense they have a bit of input, so together design a picture chart of the bedtime drill, letting her determine whether she brushes teeth or takes a bath first. Or give her some nightly flexibility: "Would you rather wear your blue pajamas or your purple ones tonight?" A little bit of choice is empowering—just don't offer one you wouldn’t permit, like brushing teeth vs. not brushing.
One more drink! Another question! No matter how many times you tuck your kid in, he finds an absolutely-can't-wait reason to pop out again. Canapari calls them "curtain calls," and they’re draining for parents.
Hand out a bedtime pass. A nightly pass is like a get-out-of-jail-free card, good for one post-bedtime interaction with Mom and Dad—and studies show it works. Create a few together on cardstock or index cards, and explain to your child that if he really needs to see you after lights out, he can use one—but only one. Most kids quickly learn to use the Bedtime Pass sparingly or save it for emergencies. If your child still hops out of bed after using his nightly pass, walk him back to bed without making eye contact or engaging in small talk. Then consider adding an extra incentive for proper Bedtime Pass use, like an ice cream cone in exchange for a week’s worth of passes or doing something fun with you the following day.
The Energizer Bunny
Just when you think your preschooler will collapse from exhaustion, she keeps going ... and going ... and going. One possible reason: Her bedtime may be too early. Most school-age kids need between 10 and 11 hours of shut-eye at night, so a first-grader with a 7 a.m. wake-up call might not be able to fall asleep at 7 p.m., says Canapari.
Experiment with later nights. Too many minutes staring at the ceiling may give rise to bad habits (like popping out of bed to see you). The first step: Move tuck-ins to the time your child actually falls asleep. When she's hitting the hay regularly on her own, gradually move it back 10 to 15 minutes every few days until you hit the sweet spot. For a first-grader, lights out at 8:30 or 9 p.m. may be just right.
The Clingy Kid
For some children, complaining about a monster under the bed is just another version of a curtain call. In that case, your best option is to use a Bedtime Pass. But if your child is truly frightened or anxious, you need another strategy.
Camp out. For true worrywarts, take the slow-and-easy approach to bedtime with a process called "camping out." Begin by sitting by your little one’s bed until he falls asleep. Then move the chair a little farther toward the door over several nights until you are out in the hall. To make your exit more predictable, you can mark the spot you'll be moving your chair to with tape. Once you've sat outside your kid's room for a few nights, you should be able to leave after the final good-night.
Canapari recalls nights as a child when he'd tell his mom, "I can't sleep, I've got a lot of energy in my legs." Later, as a medical student, he realized he might have had restless leg syndrome, which he says is an underdiagnosed problem among children.
Apply heat. Restless leg syndrome, along with other aches and pains, increases at night as they are more noticeable when kids are lying in bed, Canapari explains. A hot pad and a quick cuddle may provide enough comfort to help kids drift off. (Be sure to remove the hot pad after your child has drifted off.) But if the pain often interferes with your kid’s sleep, see the pediatrician.
Every child's going to raise an anti-bedtime ruckus now and then, but if 75 percent of the bedtime routine is spent embroiled in arguments, something's gotta change. Bedtime, says Canapari, should be "pleasant and enjoyable for everybody."
Provide a happy ending. Reconfigure your routine so that it has something for your child to look forward to. Some ideas: a snuggle session and a short chat, a look through an old family photo album, a read-aloud with a favorite chapter book (even if your child’s already reading on his own), 15 minutes listening to a Harry Potter audiobook—even a sticker on a chart. With something fun to anticipate, your kid will go through bedtime prep a lot more willingly.