Getting Children to Sleep and Stay in Bed - Without Fears or Power Struggles

by Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE

little boy snuggled into bedMany children go to bed willingly, but have problems falling asleep and staying in bed. "I'm scared!" "Mom, I need a drink." "There's a funny noise in my closet." Have you heard these complaints?

There are many different types of bedtime hassles parents may experience. At least two of them occur after the child is in bed. Here are some tips for handling them.

To get the best results, your response must address and resolve the core issue causing the misbehavior. If all you do is try to stop the behavior without resolving this core issue, you won't get good results.

Problem #1: Children are Scared

Children's fears are real -- to them, so avoid belittling the child or denying the emotion. Instead, acknowledge the child's fear without agreeing that what they are afraid of is real. For example, say "It must be scary to think there's a monster under your bed" instead of "You're scared of the monster under the bed."

Brainstorm ways the child can overcome the fear. Empower children to be their own heroes instead of putting on your cape and rescuing them. Use their imagination to conquer their imaginary fears. Here are a few ideas:

  • They can make magic spray and use it themselves.
  • Tell them since it's their room all monsters must get their permission to come in. Have them practice telling the monster to get out in an assertive forceful voice.
  • Tell them they can control the size of the monster. They can point at the monster. As they move their finger down, the monster will get smaller. They can do this until it is so small they can stamp it out or kick it like a ball.

With children ages three years old and older, explain that fears always start with a thought and can be controlled by choosing a different thought. Help them create an imaginary safe place or protector to recall when they are scared. Guide them through this calming visualization the first few times. Then encourage them to do this for themselves when they are scared.

If they fear something that actually happened that was traumatic, explain what steps you've taken to assure it won't happen again. Teach the child EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) to de-program the post-traumatic reaction that haunts them.

Problem #2: Children Keep Coming out of Their Room

Prevent this problem by having bedtime routines that give positive parental attention. Then children must stay in their rooms even if they aren't asleep. Use a systematic check-in routine: Check on them every two minutes. If they aren't crying or haven't come out after two minutes, then increase the time and check on them every five minutes. When they handle five minutes, increase to every ten minutes, and so on. Only increase the time when children handle the current length of time.

You can also give children three objects. They must give you one object each time they come out.
The first time, take the object, deal with the issue, and return them to bed.

The second time, do the same with a reminder that they only have one more object, so they need to choose wisely whether they really need to come out of their room.

The third time, do the same with a reminder that they have no more objects, so you will ignore any further requests from them.

If they come out, ignore them; they are invisible. Just go back to their room at the regular check-in time, even if they aren't in the room. They'll follow you! Once in the room, you can notice them, put them back to bed in a matter-of-fact way, and tell them when you'll check on them next.

If the plan doesn't work the first night, tell children that however late they finally go to bed and fall asleep is how much earlier they will start bedtime the next night. For example, if they didn't stop coming out of their room until an hour after their scheduled bedtime, the next night you would start the bedtime routine an hour earlier, repeating the plan consistently.