Bedtime. Why is it so hard?
Shouldn’t kids be tired? Doesn’t practice make perfect? We go through the same routine every night… and yet, children are wonderfully creative in their methods when it comes to protest and sabotage.
(Podcast alert! Listen to a frank and hilarious discussion of all things bedtime… link at the end of this post!)
“Why must I perish in this cave of horrors?”they wail. “Don’t leave us, for we shall surely die!” they beg. My youngest sister once put it well, as she raced through the house yelling: “I WANT TO LIIIIIIVE!”
Logic doesn’t work. Begging doesn’t work. Threatening doesn’t work. Appeasing doesn’t work.
Why can’t it just be easy, simple, cozy and fun? (I spend a lot of my day wishing someone would tell me to just go to bed, and it’s sort of puzzling that children aren’t more GRATEFUL for a chance to lie down and rest!)
So we explain. We promise. We growl. We stand with one hand on the doorknob and stay to listen to “just one more” question, over and over and over again. We yell important things through the door. We escort little people back into their rooms on an endless loop.
Why do our best efforts backfire?
Here’s the reason: they don’t satisfy the two biggest enemies of bedtime bliss: anxiety and attention. When children are worried or lonesome, nothing is as gratifying as the presence of a parent, even if that parent is yawning, grumbling or even yelling. Before we can make a change, we have to understand what our children need most.
It starts with a conversation that invites everyone to share their bedtime needs and ideas.
Then you start to bring those ideas to life, using role-play to practice, trouble-shoot and encourage.
Here’s how to create a bedtime routine that’s comforting and consistent. Just follow the script!
Stage 1: Recruit cooperation
Gather your wee terrorists (I mean, darling children) around the breakfast table. Why breakfast? No reason, except that it’s not bedtime. Any time but bedtime is fine. To clarify: DO NOT ATTEMPT NEGOTIATIONS AT BEDTIME! Pick your moment, and use this format to help your children express their feelings, listen to your perspective, and plan out the routine together.
“Remember last night? Remember when I said ________ and you were feeling so ____________? Let’s make a new plan.”
Ask questions to dig deeper and discover what your children want most at bedtime.
“What do I usually say at bedtime? … What do you want me to say instead?”
“How do you feel at bedtime? … What would help you feel comfy and cozy?”
Once you have a clearer picture of the your child’s “ideal” bedtime, share your bedtime dreams and let them see the situation from your eyes.
“Can you guess how I feel at bedtime when you… ?”
“Do you know what I would LOOOOVE for you to do instead?”
Stage 2: Let’s Pretend
Here’s the fun part. This is the step that takes your script from “friendly lecture” to ACTUAL BRILLIANT PLAN.
“Okay kids! Let’s pretend. I’ll be the kid, and you be the grown-up. Show me how it’s going to go.”
Using whatever props or soft surfaces you can find, play through the bedtime routine together. Try acting up a little, and see what your little “grown-up” does. Try doing it perfectly, and see what delighted reaction you get.
“Awesome! Now it’s your turn to be kids again. Let’s practice the bedtime we planned so we can get it just right.”
As you play through each step of your new bedtime routine, your kids are:
- practicing what you expect them to do
- looking forward to encouragement and praise
- showing you where problems might arise
- giving you a chance to trouble-shoot ahead of time
- probably doing a hilarious impression of you
Why does this work so well?
This little routine is your escape route from the bedtime battles, because it solves your two biggest problems….
Sometimes it’s hard to be alone. It can be hard to be in the dark. Maybe your children are still figuring out the difference between dreams and reality, or they just feel more safe when you are around.
Having a solid routine, even a little ritual or a script, can give your child an extra sense of security. If you’re not sure what kind of script would help, ask your kids! When we heard my son getting emotional at bedtime and repeating the same phrase over and over (“I’m afraid to go to sleep!”) we asked him what would help him feel better. He told us what he wanted us to say: “We’ll talk about your dreams in the morning.” He just likes the familiarity of that little back-and-forth, and we’re happy to repeat it for him.
Your new, improved bedtime plan might also include some nightlights, songs, stories, “monster spray” or whatever you and your children decide to try, so they can drift off calmly.
Your child wants to spend more time with you! I guess that’s good, right?
If your child is angling for extra attention at bedtime, all that bickering and pleading might be backfiring! Your new bedtime routine should include a PLEASANT way for your child to ask for (and receive) “just one more hug and kiss” or whatever that all-important last-minute request is. Plan it out.
For example, I noticed that my children were whining and yelling at bedtime, and I didn’t want to encourage that. I told them what I wanted to see instead. In our case, I thought it would be just dreamy if I could say “Goodnight children!” and the kids could reply “Goodnight mummy!” (rather than what they were saying before, which was “ARGLE BARGLE DON’T LEAVE!!!”)
Every time we go through this pleasant little exchange, my heart bubbles over with happiness, and I rush over to deliver that last smooch and snuggle. We all get what we want.
Here’s a sample of that script:
“You know how you say “[specific thing]” when you want just one more minute? How about you say “[much nicer thing]” and I will say “[adorable parent thing”] and give you another snuggle to show you how much I appreciate it!”
Just one more thing…
This approach will probably be much more effective than yelling, begging or appeasing, but it’s not going to work 100% of the time. Your children WILL find clever ways to sabotage it.
For example, just last week, my children figured out that asking me extremely sad questions about life beyond the grave was a good way to keep me in the room a little longer. One of them mournfully asked about whether the sun would explode, while the other burst into tears and declared that Heaven had NO TOYS and he just wanted to STAY HERE FOREVER. They stayed on this theme for a few nights before I caught on!
There will be nights like these, but remember the script you created together. If it’s full of fun and fondness, you will be able to come back to it. If it’s not working for you anymore, make little changes, and solve the problem as a team.
Now you have the tools to solve bedtime battles as a team, so go forth and snooze peacefully!
p.s. if you want to hear a deep, funny and honest conversation about putting all this into action, including report from a family who really tried this, check out this podcast hosted by Legendary Marriage: http://www.legendarymarriage.com/2018/04/01/episode-070-getting-your-kids-to-go-to-bed-amelia-bowler/