Without question, bedtime is my least favorite part of any day. Of every day. I hate putting the kids to bed. It always feels like there is so much to get accomplished in such a short amount of time (baths, pajamas, toothbrushing, pottying, reading books, etc.) and after 12 hours of mothering I often just feel WORN OUT. All I want to do is sit down on the couch and kick back with a chocolate chip cookie, but these four little obstacles are standing in my way.
Vera (my oldest) is the biggest offender when it comes to bedtime shenanigans. Left unchecked, she can come up with a hundred different ways to delay bedtime. Because we are (and have always been) consistent with bedtime happening on our clock and not hers, generally it all goes pretty smoothly. But every once in a while bad habits start to creep in and bedtime suddenly becomes a battle ground.
Vera’s three main strategies when it comes to delaying bedtime are:
- Prevent you from leaving her room after you tuck her in by asking endless questions or making incessant requests.
- Persuade you to come back in her room after you’ve left by identifying something you forgot to do (i.e. shut the closet door) or fabricating excuses to get out of bed (ie to go poop, to change pajamas into something warmer, to pick out a new book, etc.).
- Protest bedtime through whining, crying, screaming, or at times pounding the door. This tactic is always the most confusing to me because while the previous two have been effective at times, I have never -not once- come into her room when she was throwing a fit about bedtime and been like oh? you don’t want to go to bed? ok. you can get up and watch tv with me. Yet she continues to exercise this strategy periodically. Not often, but often enough for me to have thought up an effective solution for it.
Because I am tired at this time of day, I have no tolerance for this kind of attempted manipulation. I have learned that if bedtime shenanigans are not nipped in the bud, bedtime gets worse and worse every night. I think children feed on their success in this area: you display a certain weakness one night and that increases their stamina for the next night. Soon you find yourself laying in bed with your child for hours waiting for them to fall asleep. Kidding. I’ve never done that, but I’ve heard of parents who have!
Below are a few of the ways we handle bedtime shenanigans and/or disobedience. These aren’t necessarily the right ways or the only ways, but they have worked for us.
These are things we’ve done from the very beginning, regardless of whether or not bedtime has become a power struggle.
1. Have a consistent bedtime. This means we put them to bed at the same time every night. Of course there are some exceptions, but generally speaking we make being home for bedtime a priority – even on the weekends.
2. Enforce an early bedtime. My friends all make fun of me because my kids are in bed by 7pm and I’m in bed by 9pm. We joke that I live my life on east coast time (we live in California). They can make fun of me all they want; the fact is that a) children sleep better and longer with an earlier bedtime, b) later bedtimes increase bedtime shenanigans because the kids are overtired and c) I get at least two hours alone with my husband every single night and can still go to bed at 9pm. So they can just BE JEALOUS.
3. Use blackout curtains and white noise. My kids know that bedtime is irrespective of daylight, meaning the light or darkness outside has nothing to do with when they go to bed. In the winter they go to bed when it’s dark and in the summer they go to bed when it’s light. That said, it’s more difficult to fall asleep when the summer sun is beaming into the room, so we use blackout curtains. This helps facilitate the early bedtime. White noise is also necessary because my husband and I don’t go to bed for 2-3 hours after our kids do. The white noise drowns out our noise.
4. Have clear expectations. I have read that some people write out the sleep rules for their kids and hang them in the room. I do not go that far, but it is clear to my kids that when bedtime comes, they are expected to show obedience by getting into bed when told and laying there quietly until they fall asleep. We do allow my 3.5 year old to have books and dolls in bed with her which she can play with, but once we tuck her in and walk out of the room, the expectation is that she stay quiet until we come get her in the morning.
By starting with those four basic things, we have set a good baseline for bedtime. Generally, my kids go to sleep relatively easily. But like any children, they have their difficult moments. They each go through phases where they like to test the firmness of our expectations. They start to cry at bedtime, to place excessive requests (“mom! you forgot to give my stuffed elephant a kiss!”), or at worse, to throw wild tantrums. Trying to appease them instead of correct them only makes the problem worse, so we have learned to immediately address the power struggle with the following methods:
1. Rearrange the Bedtime Routine:
Our bedtime routine involves reading a book or two to the kids, which I think is a good way to calm them down and prepare them for the impending bedtime. Initially, we used to put our oldest in bed and read a book or two there. We would then spend a few minutes talking to her about her day, taking prayer requests, and saying a short prayer with her. This all happened with her tucked in and me (or my husband) sitting on the side of her bed.
Sometimes this routine worked fine, but many times it felt like it was a considerable struggle to get out of the room. It was like having a phone call with one of those friends who keep going on and on and just won’t shut up. You keep trying to find a natural pause to bow out of the conversation but 30 minutes later you’re still on the phone. Bedtime with a chatty three year old can be like that.
In On Becoming Toddlerwise, Gary Ezzo recommends moving the location of storytime from the bedroom to the couch. He says
“If you keep storytime in the bedroom, you never finish because the child has no place else to go; “off to bed” helps cure the habit of “read me another story” (pg 56).”
I have found that to be undoubtedly true and following that advice immediately cut down on both the length of the bedtime routine and the frequency of bedtime conflict with both of our older children.
I now read 2 books on the couch, put the 2 year old to bed, spend 5-10 minutes talking to the 3 year old (on the couch), and then take her into her room to tuck in.
2. Consequences (Shutting the door)
My 3 year old strongly prefers having her bedroom door cracked open, which is a request I have no problem granting so long as she remains quiet in her room. The moment she is no longer quiet (or if she were to come out of the room, which actually has never happened), we shut her door. It has not occurred to my son to ask for his door to be kept open yet, so his door is always shut. Instead, his logical consequences for too much noise could include removal of the night light or removal of his books.
3. Earned privileges
For this to work, you need to figure out your kids’ currency. In Vera’s case, the open door is a good currency. For another child it might be the night light or for another it might be storytime before bed. You just have to find something that matters to them so you can take it away. With Vera, typically one night of shutting the door is enough to get her back on track with bedtime. But sometimes one night just isn’t enough. In these cases, I draw out a super rudimentary chart with 5 numbered boxes. I tape it to the fridge and explain to her in the morning that because she has not been obedient at bedtime, she is going to have to earn back the privileged of having her door cracked open at night. Each night that she is quiet at bedtime, she can color in one box. When all 5 boxes are colored in, she has earned the privileged of having her door open. If along the way she has one night where she does not obey our sleep rules, this chart is thrown away and a new one goes up – meaning she must achieve 5 consecutive nights before she earns back the privilege.
My son (almost 2) is too young to understand the chart concept, so we do not use it with him.
I just know someone is going to read this and think I’m a terrible mother, but truthfully, I don’t care. This strategy is quick and effective for putting an end to bedtime shenanigans (or tantrums of any kind, really).
We have a small 4 bedroom house. The kids rooms are smushed together in the corner with only thin walls in between. White noise can only drown out so much, so big tantrums have the potential to wake the other 3 sleeping children. Although we do spank, I have not found spanking to be effective in stopping a tantrum (at bedtime, middle of the night, or really any time at all).
The most common scenario is this: we put our 3 year old to bed, but she protests by excessively whining, so we shut her door. She does not like the shut door, so she starts to cry. When we don’t respond to her crying, she gets louder and louder and she might even throw in a few fist pounds on the door.
Or, she has gotten into a bad habit of waking in the middle of the night crying. The first night, we respond because she could be sick, had a bad dream, or have another legitimate reason to need our help. But after two nights of going to her when she cries, it has become a habit and she is now crying multiple times a night.
These are two cases in which I would use isolation, which she affectionately calls “the garage treatment“.
For the garage treatment, I open her door, pick her up without saying a word, carry her out into the lit garage and put her down. I calmly tell her that it is not fair to the rest of the family that she wake everyone up by making so much noise when they are sleeping. I tell her that I am going back inside and that she may come in as soon as she is completely silent. I then leave her and go inside to wait by the door. If she continues to tantrum, in a few minutes I open the door and remind her that all she has to do to come inside is be silent.
Once she is completely silent, I walk into the garage, pick her up, bring her back to her bed, tell her goodnight, and walk out. If she starts crying again, I repeat the above. It has never taken more than two times in a row for her to calm down, be quiet, and go to sleep.
As a side note, I use the garage to stop tantrums of any kind – night or day. On Becoming Toddlerwise suggests isolation in the crib, but this is not realistic for our family because there is often a baby napping. The garage treatment has been one of my most effective strategies!
So there you have it. That’s how we get all 4 of our kids in bed and quiet at 7pm (not that the 3mo old twins really count…). We are moving our 2 year old to a big boy bed at the end of the month which I’m sure will provide quite a refresher course on handling bedtime disobedience and shenanigans.