On the surface, bedtime is a series of tasks to be checked off: pajamas, teeth, books, kisses. But for kids and parents, it’s also a tricky transition from a day of activity to a night of rest, from being together to being separate. At any point, the routine can plunge into a time sinkhole. Here’s a guide to avoid the biggest barriers:
Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams writes for the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco magazine, and Health.
Balking at basics
Kids are smart enough to know that putting on pajamas and brushing teeth will lead, sooner or later, to lights-out. So that’s the first place they drag their heels. “They’ve always resisted my timetable,” says Michelle Dixon of Aptos, California, mom of Blake, 8, and Paige, 6. When Dixon says it’s time to brush teeth, Paige replies, “I’m not ready.” Or “I’m doing something.” Or the classic fib, “I did already.” She’d rather continue dancing or coloring. “She wants to be cooperative, but she really wants it on her terms.”
To move through the conflict, Dixon starts by empathizing with Paige that, yes, it’s hard to stop a fun project. Then she offers what she calls “freedom within structure.” “I say, ‘Do you want to brush your teeth before a story or after a story?'” If Paige has made her own choice, she tends to follow through.
Other strategies moms swear by:
* Make a chart. You’ll be surprised how quickly you earn back the few minutes it takes to make the darn thing. Check off when he’s put on his pajamas, used the toilet, and brushed his teeth. Illustrate each step with little drawings or a photo of him merrily completing the task. If picking pajamas is overwhelming, have him make a schedule: blue jammies Monday and Wednesday, yellow on other nights.
* Get ready for bed yourself. Challenge your child to a race, and for best results, let him win. Offer your attention as an incentive. “When you’re ready for bed, I’ll tell you a story about when I was a kid.”
* Let him choose. If he resists brushing his teeth, let him select the toothpaste. Try an electric toothbrush or a handheld brush that flashes for 60 seconds. Show your child your own fillings. After he eats, have him look at his teeth in the mirror and explain that food left on teeth causes cavities.
Pajamas are on and teeth are clean, but, naturally enough, resistance often continues. One way to keep kids moving is to make bedtime more fun, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers. Yes, you’re tired, but having a playful (but organized) bedtime routine doesn’t take any more time than a stressful, disorganized one, says Pantley, mom of a preschooler and three teens.
Because humor deflates power struggles, it can quite possibly make your routine go faster.
Try having the stuffed animals ask him to get into bed. Sing a special song about what your child did that day and what he’ll do tomorrow. Dig deep and give him your attention so he looks forward to this time with you.
If tantrums erupt, act swiftly to keep the routine on track. “I’m not going to negotiate with a child who’s having a fit,” says Janeen Solberg, a mom of two in Boonsboro, Maryland, and the author of Staying Centered: The Art of Full-Time Parenting. “I say, ‘This is what you need to do and when you do it. I’ll be back, but I’m not going to stand here and listen to you while you’re acting this way.’ It’s been extremely effective!”
* Separate the siblings. Julie Douglas’s son Taylor, 11, loves to goof around with Tiffany, 5, as she’s washing hands and brushing teeth. “He’s making faces and noises and being silly,” says Douglas, who lives in Boise, Idaho. Her rule: one at a time in the bathroom. If an older sibling isn’t going to bed, send him downstairs or elsewhere.
* Focus on tomorrow. Direct his attention to what’s coming up. Have him lay out tomorrow’s outfit by making a “clothes kid” on the floor.
* Consider temperament. If he’s easily overwhelmed, break down tasks into small pieces (line up stuffed animals, kiss each one good night, and tuck them in).
Books as a burden
No matter how many books you read, there’s going to be a request for one more. “When Taylor was little, his thing was ‘One more story,'” says Douglas. “He loved the whole fantasy thing, and I got into using different voices.” Her son’s love of books was terrific, but, she says, “it was also about him not wanting to go to bed.”
The simplest solution to this is so obvious you may not have thought of it: Set a bedtime and stick with it. If bedtime is 8:00 and you’ve read one book instead of three by then, it’s still bedtime. Requests for another book can be met with “I’d love to read more, so let’s remember to start earlier tomorrow.” It’s not your fault — it’s just bedtime.
If you’re more comfortable with a looser approach, then take the opposite tack: “Every night we read three books.” Or “every night we read for fifteen minutes.” Give your child a sense of control by letting her choose which books to read and the order in which you read them.
* Read at other times. If your child reads plenty during the day, and the quiet of reading isn’t working its sleepytime magic, then just skip the books before bed.
* Keep excitement low. If books stimulate her instead of putting her to sleep, choose less exciting books for bedtime and read them in a level voice. Save action-packed stories for the morning or afternoon.
Begging for company
The lights are dim, but the bedtime party’s not over. “Stay with me!” is the cry heard across the nation.
To keep the routine moving, you’ll have to decide if you want to stay or go. “Very often parents feel ‘stuck,'” says Pantley. “They don’t want to stay, but they do to prevent tears or a tantrum.” If you stay, she suggests thinking of ways to lie in bed without feeling antsy, like mentally planning for the next day. If you can just sit in a chair nearby, headphones and an audio book might help, though some children may object to the lack of attention that implies.
If you aren’t going to stay, help her learn how to sleep independently. Temperament and age make a difference. For a sensitive 3-year-old, “take things very gradually,” says Stanley Greenspan, M.D., author of The Challenging Child. “Start with a half-hour cuddle, then twenty minutes, then fifteen, and so on,” he says.
Another approach is to move away from her on the bed so you’re not cuddling: Move to a chair next to the bed, to a chair across the room so you can read your book, to a chair in the hall where the light is better, and then up and off to your evening.
* Offer rewards. Motivate a 3-year-old to follow simple sleep rules with the promise that if she does, she’ll get a treat in the morning. Make a sleep-rules poster with the child’s name on it. It reads this way: 1. Stay in bed. 2. Close eyes. 3. Stay quiet. 4. Try to sleep. 5. You may leave the room when you hear the music.
* Be boring. Handle last-minute requests for a trip to the bathroom or a round of back-scratching with a flat, unexcited, matter-of-fact tone that lacks soothing or adventure.
* Make food rules. Jennifer Farrington’s son Charlie, 4, gets a wave of hunger just when it’s time to be in bed. “We had to make rules about what’s an acceptable bedtime snack,” says Farrington, of Chicago. Baby carrots, a banana, or an apple is okay — not Goldfish, cookies, or dried fruit. “If he’s not so hungry, he won’t ask for it,” she says.
* Keep your promises. When her daughter Ana, 7, was struggling with sleeping by herself, Solberg told her, “I will come up and check on you in five minutes.” And she did. After all, streamlining is one thing, but giving your child the security and love she needs to sleep peacefully and well is what it’s all about.