Banishing Bedtime Blues

by Chick Moorman

"My son won't go to bed at night without a struggle. He keeps getting up with all kinds of excuses. It doesn't seem to matter what we tell him. Nothing works. What do you recommend?"

This question was posed by a concerned parent in the middle of a fifteen-minute question and answer period following one of my Parent Talk System presentations. I knew a five-minute response to this important question was inadequate, but I offered advice anyway. I don't recall my exact answer -- I think I mumbled something about consistency and the need to keep to a schedule. I'm sure I suggested returning the child to the bedroom as many times as he vacated it. I'm also sure my words were not very helpful or comforting.

Later, as I thought about the bedtime issue and talked it over with friends, I realized there was no way I could have offered a quick solution to this complicated situation. There are too many variables -- too many reasons for getting out of bed and too many possible responses.

One effective response is to create a bedtime routine, an evening ritual that remains consistent. This ritual could include a ten-minute warning, dirty clothes in the hamper, bath, pajamas, teeth brushing, stories, prayer, hugs, and kisses. Routine provides security. When the routine is repeated with consistency, both the parent and the child begin to rely on it. Everyone knows and can anticipate what comes next. Each step follows the previous one, every time.

When there is no set routine, bedtime is easier to resist. There is no expectation of what will happen next, no order of events to fall back on. The evening becomes too open-ended, too open to interpretation, too subject to change.

If you have an ongoing bedtime ritual and your child still resists staying in his or her bedroom, ask yourself, "What does my child need? What is my child trying to get? What does my child want to accomplish?" Then invest some time in figuring out what it is that your child really wants.

For some kids, getting out of bed is related to fear. They may have just had a nightmare, or they may have remembered one from the evening before. Perhaps they are scared of the dark or of being alone. Perhaps they feel insecure when you are out of sight.

If fear is the issue, ask your child, "What would help you feel more safe?" Tell your child that one of your main roles as a parent is to help him or her feel safe. Then create a plan together. This could be turning on a fan if your child is afraid of noises, or turning on a light if he or she is afraid of the dark. Leave the door open if your child is insecure, or provide a comforting teddy bear to increase feelings of security. Perhaps you could allow the family dog to sleep in your child's room. One parent agreed to check on his child every half hour, "so you'll know I'm here," he told her.

One woman I know had a child who was afraid of monsters. The solution? She filled an old window cleaner bottle with water and labeled it "Monster Spray."

"This will rid your room of any old monster," she told her child, "and send it back to its own mommy and daddy." The "Monster Spray" sat on a bedside table to provide constant reassurance.

Another need that children have is to get in on the action. When exciting things (or perceived exciting things) are going on downstairs, who would want to stay in bed? Your child may hear you laughing, talking on the phone, or watching TV and not want to miss out on any of the good stuff.

If this is the case, make sure the "good stuff" isn't that good. Turn off the TV. Do something quiet for a few minutes. Or invite your child to join you in doing the dishes, scrubbing the kitchen floor, or bringing in firewood.

Tell your child, "When you're up, I do things with you. When you go to bed, I have to get my work done. That's when I do a lot of grown-up stuff. You're welcome to join me if you want to, but you'll have to help. Tonight I'm folding laundry. Come on, join in."

Another reason children resist bedtime is that they aren't tired yet. Their brains may still be racing at breakneck speed. If so, a routine that encourages them to wind down is helpful. It might be that your child needs a later bedtime, or perhaps it's time to eliminate that afternoon nap. Without a nap, evening tiredness descends more quickly. Or it could be that you're letting your child sleep in too late in the morning -- of course your child isn't ready for bed if he or she slept in until 10 o'clock in the morning. It's a lot easier to get kids up than it is to get them to sleep, so wake your child up earlier.

If your child keeps getting up to get a drink, add a drink of water to the regular bedtime routine. Provide a special cup that stays in your child's room. If he or she gets thirsty during the night, your child can use that cup to get a drink and then go directly back to bed.

Remember, the goal with bedtime problems is containment. The idea is to contain the child in the bedroom. Create a safe place and keep returning the child to that safe place. Use the broken record technique if you have to -- that's when you repeat the same sentence over and over as if you were a broken record.

"I know you'd like to stay up. It's time for you to be in your bed."

"Just five more minutes, please?"

"I know you'd like to stay up. It's time for you to be in your bed."

"I'm not tired."

"I know you'd like to stay up. It's time for you to be in your bed."

If you want to banish the bedtime blues, you'll have to invest time and energy in doing so. There is no quick fix, no simple answer, no solution that works for every child in every situation. Hang in there. Stay consistent. And remember: This, too, shall pass.

(Special thanks to Tom Haller for collaboration and encouragement on this article.)

Chick Moorman has over 35 years experience as an educator and parent. He is the author of Couple-Talk and Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Child in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility, now available in paperback; Simon and Schuster, a Fireside Original.

Copyright © Chick Moorman. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.