Almost everytime I speak, the question of bedtime comes up, especially for parents of preschoolers. They want the magic method. While I don't have any magic, I do have a method that I use and recommend regularly. Here's the golden ticket...and by that I mean, it's not a free ticket at all, it's work. Most everything worthwhile is.
Putting the BED back in Bedtime
A few common sense questions need to be asked before we jump into problem solving.
- Is your child scared, and if so, why? Does she have a nightlight, security item? Has she seen something on TV or heard about something too mature or violent? Find out.
- Is she at least a little bit tired? If not, is she napping too long or too late in the day? Has there been an opportunity to wind down from the stimulation of the day; a warm bath, story time, etc.
- Is it too loud in your house? Is she kept awake by hearing talking, laughter, or your TV? Keep your own volume level in mind, and if necessary, use a sound machine or play low soothing music in her room.
Once you’ve determined that she’s not scared, it’s not too loud, and it’s not too early for bed, you know you’re most likely dealing with a motivation issue. She’s just not that motivated to stay in bed. It’s lonely in there, and it’s far more interesting to come see you every 7 minutes.
Here’s a method that has worked over and over again, not only for many of my clients, but for my own little sleep avoider:
*Once you’ve completed your bedtime routine, tucked her in and kissed her goodnight, close the door (at least most of the way). Grab a book, your laptop, your headphones, whatever your need, and park yourself in the hallway.
1. The 1st time her door opens and she sees you, stand up, pick her up, put her back in bed. Whisper ONLY, “It’s bedtime. I love you.” Leave immediately, close the door and return to your post in the hallway.
2. The 2nd time the door opens, pick her up and return her to bed. Whisper ONLY, “It’s bedtime.” Leave immediately and close door, return to your spot.
3. The 3rd-117th time, pick her up calmly and silently and return her to bed. Say absolutely NOTHING. Close the door and leave immediately, return to your spot.
The good news is, if you stick with it, it totally works. The first time she may get up 10-15 times. But once she finds out you won’t engage her, and that she can’t outlast you, the number of times she gets up drops off drastically until they pretty much stop altogether. Usually by the third of fourth night, she will only be getting up half as often, and a week later, she’s not getting up at all.
The trick is to stick to the script. If she can lure you into a conversation, or answering questions, or anything at all that’s not urgent, she wins. Also, if she can get you worked up emotionally, she wins. We need to eliminate any and all payoffs to getting out of bed. You have to want it more than she does!
What if she has to use the restroom?
That should be taken care of during the bedtime routine, and her liquids should be limited after dinner to help with that. A very small amount of water (no more than an inch) in a sippy cup can sit on her nightstand.
What if she has a question?
Questions are for the morning. You’ll answer them then.
What is she’s crying, yelling, talking?
Do your best to ignore it. Pop in your earbuds, listen to music or watch something on your laptop. By answering the first three questions you’ve already made sure all her needs are met; she’s not scared, it’s not too loud, and she’s at least somewhat tired.
What ages does this work for?
I recommend this starting at about age 2.5, because before that she doesn’t have enough language to verbalize pain, fear, etc. Obviously it’s a judgment call, and you know your child best. This should work up until about kindergarten.
What about separation anxiety?
Bedtime is a common time for this issue to kick up. Part of what I like about this method is that it is not only effective, it is also kind. She can open the door as many times as she needs to to reassure yourself that you are right outside, and she is safe.