The dream: After your four-year-old’s bath, you brush his teeth, put on his PJs, and read him a story. One story. Then you give him a cuddle and a kiss, turn out the light and go downstairs. Good night. The end.
The reality: After your four-year-old’s bath, he says he’s hungry. You get him a snack. You brush his teeth. He doesn’t like the PJs you picked out for him. You find him some other ones. You read a story. He wants another one. You finally give him a cuddle and a kiss, turn out the light — and before you can leave the room he says: “I need a drink of water.” After you get him a drink, he says, “I have to pee.” You walk him to the bathroom and back to bed. You give him another cuddle and kiss, turn out the light and go downstairs… Five minutes later, you hear little footsteps approaching. “I forgot to say good night to the dog.”
Sound familiar? A 2006 study by Kurt Freeman of Oregon Health and Science University showed that about a quarter of children aged one to five will actively resist bedtime by calling out from or leaving the bedroom after being put to bed. So yes, it’s common.
Calgary parent educator Donna Joy says the first thing parents need to realize is that bedtime is a big transition for many young kids. “It’s hard for them to separate from their parents at the end of the day,” she says. To reduce the nightly calls, she suggests:
• Try a change in bedtime. “Many three-year-olds who are still napping in the day are not really tired at bedtime,” Joy says. “You might want to put them to bed later until they are ready to give up that afternoon nap.” Or your child may just be getting older and needing less sleep than he did, say, a year ago. Even delaying bedtime by half an hour can help with some kids.
• Consider lying down with your child until she has fallen asleep or at least until she feels settled. “Bedtime is a great time to connect, especially if you’ve been apart during the day,” Joy points out. “My kids and I have had some great conversations lying there in the dark.”
• Accept that it may take some time to help your child navigate her way to dreamland. “You’ll feel less frustrated about it when you acknowledge that this is likely to take up a good part of your evening,” according to Joy.
• Try to cover all the bases before you tuck them in. Joy created a poster with pictures to show the steps of her children’s pre-bedtime routine, and found it helped her as well, reminding her to make sure that each child had a snack, drink, bathroom visit and cuddly toys before hitting the sack.
• Talk to your child about what would help her feel comfortable. Some won’t be able to tell you, but with others the answers may surprise you. Joy’s own daughter asked for a bed rail to be put on her bed; she’d never actually fallen out, but having the rail made her feel more secure and ready to sleep. A parent in one of Joy’s classes discovered that shelves of toys in her child’s room looked “creepy” in the dark. Once the shelves were taken down, the child was able to stay in his room.
Kurt Freeman’s research found that a “bedtime pass” technique was effective. He studied four unrelated three-year-olds who were resistant to staying in bed, and had the parents in each family give the child a small notecard “good for one trip out of the bedroom after bedtime.” If the child wanted to get up, he’d hand over the card and get a drink or use the toilet. If the child got up again, the parent was to return the child to the bed without comment. Freeman found that this approach tended to significantly reduce the number of times the child called out or left his bedroom.
“If you can be patient and consistent, eventually your kids will get better at going to sleep,” promises Joy. But don’t expect perfection. After all, haven’t you had nights when you climbed into bed, then got up again to have another drink, visit the bathroom or check email one more time?
Learning to sleep alone
If you’ve been lying down with your child at night as he falls asleep, but want to make a change, Manisha Witmans, Director of the Northern Alberta Pediatric Sleep Program and her colleague Alina Carter suggest these steps:
• Lie down with your child, but tell him that you are going to leave before he falls asleep. Remind him again about five minutes before you actually get up.
• After doing this a few nights, sit in a chair beside the bed and, again, leave before he actually falls asleep.
• Once he’s used to this, move the chair closer to the door and gradually shorten the amount of time you stay.
• Offer your child a teddy bear or blanket to cuddle when he can’t cuddle with you.
Not working? Witmans says no single strategy will work for every child or parent, and you may want to talk to your doctor or a parent educator for other ideas.
Stay in touch
Subscribe to Today's Parent's daily newsletter for our best parenting news, tips, essays and recipes.