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6 Ways to Streamline Bedtime

The last page of the perennial bedtime story "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" is a crowd-pleaser around here: "'Thank goodness,' said the mama. 'Now I can go to bed!'"

My kids love this part because the mama, who has just spent 34 pages yelling, "No more monkeys jumping on the bed!" is now pictured -- har, har -- jumping for joy on her own mattress.

I can relate -- to the words. Thank goodness, said the mama! Thank goodness, my monkeys are in bed. Thank goodness, another bedtime routine is over.

I adore my kids. It's their bedtime I hate.

Okay, "hate" is a strong word, but the nightly tuck-in is surely overrated: The endless routine of it, the 5,948th reading of Goodnight Moon, the procrastinations, the miles to go before I sleep. Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush. And goodnight to the old lady whispering, Okaythat'sitnomoregettingoutofbedIsaidgotosleep!

Moms are served a lot of mush about bedtime. It's supposed to be this golden time together, with your cherub so darling in footed pj's, sweet toothpasty breath bestowing a sleepy good-night kiss. Yes, it's delicious. But the magical moment doesn't come until the tail end of the interminable saga.

At 7 p.m. my heart sinks. For the next 60 to 90 minutes, I'm bathing, pj finding, toothbrushing, book reading, etc. Times four, since I have four closely spaced children.

On a good night, I finish my rounds merely exhausted. On a typical night, I'm exhausted and responding to one child or another's complaint about thirst, wet pants, lost blankies, or bad dreams. Or to what appear to be miscellaneous creative stall tactics. ("I lost count of the sheep. What comes after 49?" Or "I wanted to tell you that you have beautiful eyelashes, Mommy.")

The upside to ten years spent doing this is that I have become something of an efficiency expert on the subject. Bedtime can be sweet and cuddly -- and over in under an hour.

Start earlier than you'd think

I usually get the ball rolling at 7 p.m. Don't wait for the official "bedtime" if your goal is those golden minutes -- or even hours -- to yourself at day's end.

Actually, the bedtime routine kicks off long before first yawn -- about 12 hours before. Kids are like windup toys -- they start each day with a set number of revolutions. And that energy must be expended before their bodies are sufficiently wound down for the night. Woe to the mother who hasn't provided enough opportunities for running, jumping, and wriggling. Rainy day? Too-long nap? It happens. But by evening they'll be more likely to keep going and going.

On those days, try to resist the marathon-video solution, and keep them busy -- whether it's building a fort out of blankets, cooking with you, a treasure hunt -- as long as their bodies are moving and their minds are engaged.

Make it like pudding

That is, sweetly wholesome, rich in consistency, a little wobbly. The components of your nightly routine should be calming (think reading, not pre-bed gymnastics). They should make your child feel good (think a warm bath, a back scratch, a glass of milk). The particulars, however, matter less than that they follow a predictable order. When kids know what's coming next, it helps them feel more secure -- and therefore act more agreeable. There's less protesting about getting into their pj's before they can have a bedtime snack if that's how they do it every night.

This makes life easier for you, too, obviously. But leave a little wiggle room by cutting some parts short (the bath) while making others longer (an extra book or song) -- the wobbly part of the pudding. Just too pooped? Let it go. Skip the bath if nobody's dirty and read six books if you're having an especially pleasant snuggle. Keep your eye on the prize: sleep!

Be the leader, not the follower

Let bedtime flow willy-nilly, and that cup of water you kindly fetch one time becomes a standing order. One evening you help your baby say night-night to her teddy bears. The next, it's good night to all the rest of her stuffed animals. A week later, you're bidding more bye-byes than the matriarch of a seven-generation clan at a reunion.

Sanity check: If your nightly routine is so long and exacting that you'd have to write it down for a babysitter, it's time to pare back. Choose the parts your child likes best, and every night or two cut out another bit. It helps to casually announce the evening's "menu" at the start: "Okay! Time for bath, then pj's, then Mommy will tuck you in and read you a story." If your child wants something added back, stand firm. A complicated bedtime is like any bad habit: Just as it was started, so with perseverance can it be stopped.

Choose lullabies with care

I'm no Alicia Keys, but each of my kids wound up with a signature "song" sung only for them at tuck-in. It's just a little mommy-time ditty -- short, sweet, calming, and pleasant to sing. With Henry, it was "Home on the Range." Eleanor favored "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." How I went awry with my youngest, though, I'm not sure.

One night when Page was sick, I sang a medley of every Christmas carol and Barney tune I could think of, including a long, slow folk song called "The Water Is Wide." That was three years ago. "The Water Is Wide" has been requested almost every night since. I could almost ignore the fact that it's a rather cheerless song about love that "grows old and waxes cold" if it weren't also so slow and long that my patience waxes cold, too. And, yes, she protests if I skip any of the verses or try to speed up the dirgelike tempo. Set the mood with bedtime stories

It wasn't until I became a mother that I realized how many children's books end with a bedtime scene. Brilliant! Everyone from Harold and his purple crayon to the Hush Little Baby bunny drifts off to sleep on the last page, making these books sublime choices after 7 p.m. Not-so-good: titles that involve finding hidden duckies or have cliffhanger chapter endings. The idea is to wind 'em down, not rev 'em up.

Also, pick books whose number of sentences per page match your child's age -- one for a 1-year-old, two for a 2-year-old, and so on. (No scientist or reading specialist came up with this formula, just me.) And negotiate the number of books you'll read at the start: One long one? Two shorts? Resist the whines for "Just one more?"

Watch the clock

I've never been a stickler for scheduling in other areas of parenting, but by bedtime I'm happy to be alarm-clock prompt. My goal: a puffy chair and an empty lap by 8:05 p.m. It doesn't always happen, but I always try.

Just as I know that by 7 we run the bathwater, I expect that by 7:30 we're toweling off. (We bathe in multiples around here, and the older they get, the more pj-donning and book reading they do themselves.) Forge through all that threatens to knock you off schedule -- the errant tantrum, the ill-timed phone call, a sibling squall. Fight your own mind-numbing fatigue urging you to let the kids crash on their own just this once. Tomorrow they'll expect it to be the new routine, and it will take them twice as long to settle. Onward!

Not least, it's a terrific feeling to look at the clock at 8:05 and know that, although I broke my diet again today and still haven't done laundry, at least I've met one goal: They're asleep!

Thank goodness, said the mama. Now I can...do all those things I didn't get around to doing when my little monkeys were awake!

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is coauthor, with Jill Stamm, Ph.D., of Bright From the Start.

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