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Simple Strategies to Conquer Bedtime Battles

by Stephanie Wagner, PhD

Simple Strategies to Conquer Bedtime Battles

Many parents of preschoolers are all too familiar with their child’s curtain calls. The requests for an extra hug, kiss, story, and water are typical in children ages 3-5. Parents often feel frustrated when their child asks for their third glass of water after they’ve tucked their child in bed twice, given them an extra kiss, and are now ready for some much-needed time to themselves.

Oftentimes, bedtime difficulties first emerge after the child transitions from a crib to a toddler bed. This transition can be challenging because the boundaries of a bed are less clear than a crib, which places more importance on parents to set limits at a time when they and their child are usually exhausted. Bedtime resistance can result in your child getting less sleep than needed, which negatively influences daytime functioning. This resistance can also strain the parent-child relationship. The good news is that bedtime problems are common and respond well to specific strategies.

Strategies that can help lessen bedtime battles:

  • Set a sleep schedule based on your child’s sleep needs. An effective sleep schedule should include regular times for bedtimes, wake-times, and naps to stabilize body’s biological clock. While a consistent schedule can be difficult to implement initially, establishing regular sleep times will make it easier for a child to fall asleep independently over time. Children ages 3-4 generally need a nap and will have more trouble at bedtime without it. Naps should be planned at the end of the morning or in the early afternoon. Napping too late in the afternoon can result in difficulty falling asleep at bedtime. If your child has trouble falling asleep at night, avoid letting your child fall asleep in the stroller, while watching TV, or in the car or public transportation unless it is during the regular naptime. Sleeping in on mornings following a rough night of sleep and falling asleep throughout the day essentially lets a child make up for a poor night’s sleep without fixing the schedule problem. Overall children in this age group should sleep between 11-13 hours including nighttime sleep and naps. Keeping bedtimes and wake-times consistent across school days, weekends, and vacations is important.

  • Create a comfortable, relaxing, and consistent sleep environment. Your child’s sleep environment should be relatively dark and quiet. Consider blackout curtains and a white noise machine or fan to block out the sights and sounds from a busy city street. Nightlights are okay as long as they are not too bright. A good rule of thumb is that if you can read a book in a room lit by a nightlight, it is too bright and will interfere with sleep. In addition to nightlights, stuffed animals and special blankets can be very comforting to children. Consistency is also an essential component of the sleep environment. Make sure that your child falls asleep in his or her room every night. This includes bedtime and following any nighttime awakenings.

  • Establish a consistent bedtime routine. Bedtime routines help children wind down by creating a repetitive and soothing pattern to cue sleep. Prior to starting the bedtime routine, start lowering stimulation in the home by turning off electronics, playing relaxing music, and dimming or turning off some lights. As a parent, you can help your child relax by staying calm yourself. Bedtime routines should include 4-6 steps that occur in the same order daily and end in the child’s room. For instance, a bedtime routine might include a bath, pajamas, tooth brushing, bedtime stories, and a tuck-in with a kiss and cuddle following lights out. Simple sticker charts and praise can help parents reinforce appropriate behavior and establish a routine. Being out of the bedroom at the point when your child falls asleep helps your child learn to self sooth.

  • Reward appropriate “sleep compatible” child behavior. Most parents quickly realize that their child is seeking their attention rather than their third cup of water when they call out and/or leave the bedroom. Avoid giving positive or negative attention to calls from the bedroom or trips out of the bedroom. Instead, let your child know that you will come back and give them an extra kiss and snuggles as long as they are in their bed and quiet. Make periodic brief trips to their bedroom to catch these “sleep compatible” behaviors with hugs, kisses, and praises such as “I love how you are staying in bed like a big girl.” If your child calls out, do not respond. If they leave the bedroom, neutrally remind them that it is bedtime and escort them back to the room. For children who leave the room frequently, consider creating a bedtime pass good for one trip out of the bedroom.

Although bedtime struggles are common, consider seeking professional help if you try these tips and they do not work. This could mean that you may need a more individualized plan to improve your child’s sleep or that your child has more difficulties with behavior and/or anxiety during the day making it difficult to change nighttime behavior. Our Child and Adolescent Sleep Program (CASP) offers assessment and brief behavioral treatment for sleep problems. Our other clinical services such as ADHD and Disruptive Behaviors and Anxiety and Mood Services offer evaluations and treatment of daytime problems.