Sometimes bedtime can feel less like a routine and more like a battleground. If you’re dealing with constant crying, last-minute snack requests, or pleas to join you in your bed, here’s how to win the war.
Battle One: Your Child Won’t Stop Crying After Being Tucked In
Come up with a “mantra”—something that you say to the child every night. “You say the same thing to the child every single time: ‘Night night, I love you, I’ll see you in the morning.’ That way, it’s warm, but it sets limits,” says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “You feel like you have something to say, the child will get sick of hearing it, but there’s really nothing bad about what it is you’re saying.”
Casually leave the room after you deliver the mantra. If your child keeps crying, you can head back in and do it again. “You can go in as many or as few times as you prefer, saying and doing the exact same thing every time,” Mindell says.
Battle Two: Your Child Comes Up With Excuse After Excuse to Get Out of Bed After Being Tucked In
Make sure you set the rules firmly and clearly: Once the lights are out, you need to stay in bed. However, there is one strategy Mindell suggests, particularly for the 3- to 8-year-old set: Make a “bedtime pass,” which can be as simple as an index card that you write or draw on. You give this index card to your child, who is allowed to use it one time—and one time only—to ask for something after bedtime has technically passed. “That way, they can have the one they need or want, while you’re still setting limits,” Mindell says. “Then, as your child starts to understand how to use the pass and do well with it, you can transition a bit and say, ‘If you have your card in the morning, then there’s a reward.’ Then your child will debate, ‘Hm, is using the pass at night worth one more cup of water, or the prize in the morning?’”
Another suggestion Mindell offers, particularly for 3- to 5-year-olds, is to create a “bedtime chart,” which shows all the steps of the bedtime routine: Taking a bath, brushing your teeth and using the bathroom, reading two stories, then getting tucked in before turning the lights off. “That way, all the excuses that could possibly happen—‘I need a drink,’ or ‘I have to take a last trip to the potty’—you can just blame the chart, and it gets rid of a lot of the extra requests,” Mindell says. While she encourages parents to take ownership of the rules—even those around bedtime—sometimes it can just be easier to blame the chart.
Battle Three: Your Child Insists on Coming to Sleep With You In Your Bed
Again, it’s important to make the rules clear: Once you say “bedtime,” your child must sleep in his or her own bed all night. That being said, Mindell says you can consider setting up a schedule where, say, every Friday is “sleepover night,” meaning your child is allowed to sleep with you in your bed. “You just have to be pretty clear about your rules on all the other nights of the week,” she says.
What if you have a child who just can’t fall asleep (or back to sleep) unless you’re physically lying there with them? Mindell suggests slow, progressive changes: start by sitting on the bed with them a few nights a week, then move to the floor, until you’re eventually outside the room.