When it comes to the topic about children’s bedtime, most parents will have lots of funny experiences to share – about how their children will come up with the weirdest excuses just to avoid bedtime. Some use hunger or the bathroom as an excuse, or toys or itchy bed sheets, while others like my son Sam, often insists that he should be read another book or screams with conviction to tell us that he is not done with prayer time (we usually do a short prayer before we put him to bed).
A child I know will insist on staying awake even when her eyelids are shutting down on her. She will respond like any adult would, who is trying to stay awake to complete his or her deadline at the eleventh hour, by shaking her body in attempt to “shake” off the tiredness! It’s funny, I know! But it isn’t funny for her mother who has to manage her tiredness and crankiness thereafter.
Children, no matter how tired they are, just don’t seem to want to go to bed when you want them or need them to. They are often wind up just when we are winding down. And when that happens, the plan for a relax time of settling down will be thrown out of the window. Putting them to bed will be a struggle. The National Sleep Foundation believes that sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development. So how can we encourage our children to go to bed when it is time to take their rest?
Like parenting, bedtime routines can come in different forms and many will have different kind of values to how it should be done. For my husband and myself, we have found that having consistency in bedtime routines helped our children to sleep better. The ideas may not necessarily work for your child, but if you are struggling with setting a bedtime routine, you could give this list a shot.
1. Set a regular bedtime routine
For Sam, his routine starts from his bath time. His dinner will usually start between 6 – 6.30pm, then if our energy allows, his father will bring him down to the playground. Thereafter, he would be given a bath and will be in his pyjamas by 8pm. We will try to read two short stories (in his bedroom) – a story from a book he can choose from and another from the toddler bible, then he would brush teeth, say our prayers, give our kisses and he would be in bed by 8.30pm.
As Sam is used to this routine since he was one year old, he knows that it is time to go to bed when we close his storybooks. Then the bedtime fuss and excuses would begin. Hanging on to the routine will allow him to know that it is bedtime and that he will have to go to bed.
If your child is old enough, you could make a visual bedtime chart for him or her to follow. Having this visual chart may help them to keep to the routine and prevent any opportunities for a third round of book reading or a fourth round of toilet time. It can include the bath, brushing of teeth, bedtime story, and his or her usual request such as moon watching or kissing his teddies goodnight.
2. Set last minute reminders
Like adults, children will not be pleased if they are taken out from their activity without any notice. Give them some notice before it’s time to start the routine each night. Setting last minute reminders for them to know that it is soon time for bed may help them to mentally prepare for the routine to begin. For some, setting a timer may help them know that the ‘five minutes’ that mom has set is up.
3. Quiet play
Some toddlers may find challenges to go to bed immediately after a fun time of play at their cousin’s house. They may need a period of quiet time such as reading of a book or some quiet play on their own before they can settle down for the night. Sometimes after a day of play, I can hear Sam babbling to himself in his bedroom before he knocks out for bed. There are also times that I notice he would ‘retreat’ into a corner of the house to play with his toys quietly before bedtime. Such behaviours are normal, and may be their ways to help themselves unwind before their bedtime.
4. Processing the day
For some toddlers, unwinding with them such as talking about their day may help them to unwind. Such opportunities are also beneficial to help them process their emotions about the events that happened in the day, and rid off any negative emotions that may be bothering them or affecting their sleep.
5. The power of choice
I find that the bedtime battles lessen with Sam when I provide him with acceptable opportunities for him to be assertive (than refusing bedtime) during bedtime routine. By this I mean allowing him to choose his pyjamas for the night, letting him choose the storybooks he would like to read for the night (reading in his bedroom of course), asking him if he would like to brush his teeth, have a sip of water or say goodnight to his teddy bears before he goes to bed. Such opportunities maybe helpful as it diverts their attention away to fight against their urge to refuse bedtime, and also grant them an alternative outlets to assert their autonomy and freedom of choice.
6. Snacks before bedtime
If your child has a habit for snacks before bedtime, choosing the right kind of food may help make the battle a little easier. We all know that drinking milk will help one sleep alittle better during bedtime, but do you know why? It is because milk contains a sleep promoting amino acid known as tryptophan. Carbohydrate foods will make tryptophan more available to our brains, and thus we will often feel drowsy after a carbohydrate rich meal.
You could try to offer such foods like cereal with milk, peanut butter bread, bananas, nuts, honey, eggs, cheese or crackers before their bedtime. But bear in mind not to overfeed your child before bed, because it may cause them to have trouble sleeping and it may also lead to more nighttime trips to the bathroom.
7. Be firm and decisive
If you have decided that its time for bed, making sure that we do not allow their excuses distract bedtime may help in reducing the bedtime battles. For example, stopping by and allowing them to play with every toy that they walk pass, on their way to their bedroom, may cause them to be more frustrated to leave their “fun activities” and to go to bed.
There is a need for us to find a balance between the need to comfort them as they fight bedtime, and being firm that it is time for bed. If you have set a rule and allowed him to have a sip of water or to read two bedtime stories, then stick to it. You can gently remind them that this was what they agreed before bedtime. If they would like more stories or play, we can do it tomorrow night.
While it is all right for our child to not fall asleep immediately, it is good to let him know that it is important to stay in bed. One of the most commonly used phrases in my motherhood journey is “stay in bed”. If your child do get out of his bed after you have emphasized to remain in bed, it is best to walk him back to his room and onto the bed with as minimal engagement and eye contact.
8. Have something to look forward to
Whenever Sam starts to make never ending amount of excuses or wails before bedtime, assuring him that I would allow him to do the activities the next day helps him to settle down (a little). Some children will try to settle to bed faster so that the next day will arrive faster, when they know that there is an exciting activity the next day (such as going to the zoo or bird park).
9. Praise and assurance
Offering rewards and praises can be an effective method to sustain a positive behaviour. So, if your child has been staying in bed all night or wails lesser, you can acknowledge the behaviour verbally and praise him or her for the effort. “You stayed in bed the whole night and waited for me to come get you in the morning! Very good!”
Setting up a visual chart progress on the positive effort he or she has taken to stay in bed all night, will help you and your child know when a reward is to be expected.
10. Eliminating naps
If you do find that your child is having difficulties settling down for bedtime after many attempts, he or she may not be tired yet. When Sam was 18 months old, it was challenging to put him to bed. He would wail on the top of his lungs and fight bedtime, and I never knew why. If he could successfully fall asleep, he would wake up as early as 5 am to start his day! It was after a few weeks that my husband and I decided to move his bedtime later, in attempt to see if it will work. Soon, he fell asleep much easier and wakes up only at 6.30 am – 7 am. As our child grows up, their need for sleep may be shorter, unlike when they are babies. You can try moving his bedtime back by 30 minutes to an hour or eliminate one or both his naps to try.
By Yvonne Chee