You can put a 12-month-old to bed in their crib in a safely baby-proofed room and simply close the door, sure. But you can’t do that with your, um, 72-month-old.
Bedtime definitely gets trickier as babies turn into toddlers and preschoolers who are more mobile, more vocal and way more opinionated. We’re the parents still indulging endless bedtime requests (water, snacks, books, repeat), waking at 3 a.m. when kiddo climbs into the bed or enduring 90-minute bedtime routines. (My daughter’s involves drawing graphic novels, retelling stories of my childhood, guided meditation and reading for 45 minutes.)
But don’t beat yourself up wondering why you didn’t “Ferberize” back when your kid was still a baby. Experts say it’s not too late—try these five strategies.
Monitor your own bedtime
If you’ve ever stumbled out of bed to tuck your kiddo back in only to wake up on the living room couch to an episode of Paw Patrol, you know that sleep deprivation makes good parenting decisions difficult.
Chronic sleep deprivation makes us mentally foggy, more emotional and easily angered—just like our kids!—which only compounds our problems, says child psychologist Penny Corkum, a sleep researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Parents need healthy sleep schedules, too, which typically means going to bed earlier.
“I think a lot of times parents stay up extra late because they want some solo downtime when their child is sleeping,” she says. It’s been hard during COVID, but try to look for ways you can sneak in some of that precious alone time or self-care during the day, so you don’t crave it at night. Get your spouse to make and serve the kids dinner while you take a walk, or consider sneaking off for a bath while the kids are doing homework (if your kids are older). You’ll parent better with more rest, even if an earlier bedtime for yourself feels deeply uncool.
You could also look into respite care, which is for parents with kids who have high needs because of a disability or serious health condition. A caregiver, sometimes funded by the government, spends a few hours or stays overnight so exhausted parents can have a breather.
It’s counterintuitive, but research shows that allowing a few later nights, initially, can help kids adjust to earlier bedtimes. Paediatrician Craig Canapari, author of It’s Never Too Late to Sleep Train, suggests “bedtime fading.” Start by delaying bedtime by 30 to 60 minutes so your kiddo is sleepier than usual and falls asleep easily (and solo), without fighting or pleading. Do this for a few nights, until they’ve mastered falling asleep faster on their own. Then gradually reel bedtime back by 15 minutes every few days until you reach your target (this should be between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. for most children).
“Excuse me” drills
You can combine bedtime fading with “excuse me” drills, in which you give a series of excuses to briefly leave the room and then return to check on the child (and praise them for staying in bed). If your child is anxious about falling asleep alone, this helps desensitize them to your absence. The idea is that you begin with very frequent checks—perhaps every few minutes on the first night—but extend the time a bit each night until the child is calm enough to fall asleep independently. Boring excuses, like going downstairs to take out the trash or load the dishwasher, work best.
If your little monkey likes to cling to you while they doze off, many experts will tell you you’re going to need to get them to fall asleep solo at the beginning of the night. (If you’re snuggling with them until they fall fully asleep and then they wake up in the night, they’ll come to your bedside looking for you again.) Instead, try a gradual strategy for independent bedtimes, often called “camping out.” The idea here is that every one to three days, you change your position in the child’s room until you’re finally outside, in the hallway, giving kiddo ample opportunity to practise self-soothing. Begin in bed on the first night, rubbing their back, and then the next night, try sitting at the bedside instead. Next, try waiting elsewhere in the room or by the door while they fall asleep. Finally, move all the way to the hallway. At each stage, try to comfort your child with only brief, almost robotic interactions, and avoid getting into negotiations. (Canapari suggests a simple script you can repeat each time, such as, “I love you. It’s time to go to sleep. Good night.”)
Canapari also recommends a common strategy known as the “bedtime pass.” Each night, your child gets an actual card or pass (like a school hall pass) granting permission to leave their room briefly, just once (for example, for water, the bathroom or a hug). Research shows that most kids will stay in bed and not even use the card, secure in the knowledge that they could if they wanted to.
If your child still leaves their room, you may need a consistent strategy to stop the behaviour. Canapari suggests parents repeatedly walk their child back to bed with a short script, similar to what they might say during camping out, and without making eye contact. Then, close the door for a minute. Open it again, and if they still aren’t in bed, close the door for two minutes, even if they’re yelling or screaming. (You can close the door, but never lock a child’s door, as it’s a fire safety risk. A doorway baby gate is an alternative for smaller kids.) Continue increasing the time until the child gets back into bed.
This is easier said than done, as plenty of kids will protest, potentially waking siblings. Whatever you try, be consistent. Even if you almost always walk your kiddo back to bed, the one time you cave and let them watch TV on your phone or climb into bed with you is enough to reinforce the bad behaviour.