How To Help Your Child Go To Sleep: Bedtime Tips

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Now that school has been in full swing for about a month, there is one common thread I hear while chatting with other mommas. The dreaded BEDTIME.  Yep, it can be a bitch.  And let’s face it, if your child isn’t sleeping, you aren’t sleeping.  This not only interferes with your sleep, but can also seriously interfere with your work.  This may be especially true if you work from the house, have a side hustle, or are building a new business and need to work when your child goes to bed. It can also impact your time to wind down, have “me” time, or spend quality time with your partner. For your kiddos, lack of enough sleep may result in behavioral issues and difficulty learning. In short, it’s tough stuff when your kids won’t go to bed. Everyone feels cranky, emotions run wild, and over-reactions to little problems happen frequently (oh, yeah, the kids overact as well).  😉

Do one or more of the following scenarios sound familiar? Your sweet boy has been in a good mood throughout dinner and is now starting to get sleepy. That’s perfect because bedtime is 15 minutes away.  You’ve given sweet, sleepy boy the 15-minute warning.  Sweet boy then suddenly looks like a live wire zapped him as his eyes open wider and he begins running through the house and jumping on furniture, yelling at the top of his lungs that he’s not tired at all!  Little Jane suddenly announces she’s thirsty and hungry and remembers homework she has to do TONIGHT or her teacher will “literally kill her”. The toddler?  He cooperates with getting into jammies and bed but then proceeds to crawl out of bed laughing the whole time for the next 2 flippin’ hours.  Oh yeah, this could drive you to drink.  It can certainly cause us mommas to dread bedtime, that time of the day when our children “turn”.

Don’t worry, I have some tips on how to support your kiddos in going to sleep before the roosters start crowing. First of all, please know it’s not uncommon for children to test boundaries at bedtime. You are not alone in this tough struggle, and while there aren’t always “easy” fixes, the following strategies are important to have in your “toolbox”.

In this post we will explore strategies from 2 main areas: cognitive/behavioral strategies and sensory strategies. You will benefit from consistently using several strategies from each category to form the nighttime routine. These strategies are for use with toddlers and children of all ages.  They are not for use with infants.

Cognitive/Behavioral Strategies:

  • Post a visual schedule of the bedtime routine, perhaps in the bathroom your child uses.  You can make your own, or look for a free one online.  (Heads up, I’ll be posting a variety of visual bedtime schedules in a few days.  Check back soon).
  • Consistent routine.  Seriously, consistency is KEY.
  • Go over expectations with your kiddo before implementing. Nothing lengthy or emotional; just go over the new rules.
  • You may need to gradually back up the bedtime to get to the ideal time.  This is called bedtime fading.
  • Stop tv and tech at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Give a 10 or 15 minute “heads-up”.  Time Timers are great to use with young kids.
  • Positive behavior chart.  This is a reward chart for your child following the bedtime routine.  The reward might be a sticker, or you could choose to have the child work toward a larger reward.  For example, “After you earn 3 stickers, you can choose a toy from the special toy basket”. (You have purchased toys from the Dollar Tree or Target Dollar spot ahead of time and placed them in a basket).

Sensory Strategies:

  • Turn off tv and tech at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime.
  • Start to turn down dimmer switch 15-30 min prior to bedtime.
  • If you don’t have a dimmer switch, turn off overhead light & turn on lamps.
  • Warm bath
  • Use essential oils or fragrances that are calming, such as lavender and chamomile (bath wash, body lotion, diffuser).
  • Comfortable pajamas and bedding. Remove tags if they bother the child.
  • Cool room
  • Bedtime yoga
  • Breathing: 2 deep breaths
  • Deep pressure/heavy work activities (proprioceptive input) have a calming and organizing effect on the nervous system. Incorporate such activity 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.  Examples include bear hugs or pushing a box of stuffed animals (with books in the bottom of the box for weight) down the hall to their bedroom.
  • Calming music, such as nature sounds or classical music.
  • White noise (repetitive low frequency).
  • Tent bed
  • Stuffed animal or pillow cocoon (Do not use with a baby or very young child who cannot move in the bed easily due to risk of SIDs).
  • Bedtime story
  • Soft stuffy or favorite cuddly blanket to hold during the bedtime story.
  • Weighted blanket or heavy quilt (but do not cover the face or overheat).
  • Use your own voice to demonstrate slowing down, becoming calmer, more monotone.

Additional Tips:

  • Stay calm (at least your outer demeanor), keep a calm voice, don’t argue.
  • Broken record: Once it’s time for your child to be in bed, when he /she tries to talk with you about something else say, “We’ll talk about that tomorrow”.  Just keep saying that same thing.
  • Remember that kiddos will try to bend, stretch, and break every rule in a variety of ways…stay consistent and determined.  This is KEY.
  • A child’s protests often increase at the beginning of a new routine implementation.  This is normal and will likely pass.
  • Even if you have tried several of these strategies in the past, please hear me…it’s using a combination of them and finding the right combination for your child that makes all the difference.  That, and your consistency with the routine.  Hang in there; don’t give up.

Sample Routine To Get You Started:

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, I’ll get you started with a sample routine…Let’s say you have a 6 year old whose bedtime is 7:30pm but he has been staying up regularly until 9:00pm.  Rather than initially setting the new bedtime for 7:30pm, start with 8:30pm.  After 2-3 weeks, back it up to 8:00pm, then eventually to 7:30pm.  Implement the following:

  • Make a visual schedule (just draw pics on paper or print out a freebie).
  • Make a reward chart (this can be as simple as drawing circles for stickers on a sheet of paper).
  • Go over the schedule and reward chart with your kiddo.
  • 30 minutes before bedtime turn tv and tech off. Redirect to quiet activities.
  • Turn off overhead light and turn on lamp.
  • Turn on calming music.
  • Get in some proprioceptive (deep pressure/heavy work) activity: Play a game where you give each other bear hugs for 5-10 seconds each. Then you each give yourselves bear hugs. You could even make up a sweet bear story to go along with this).
  • Give a 15 minute “heads up”.  You could use a time timer so there is a visual.
  • Walk with your kiddo to bed and turn on a diffuser with lavender or chamomile.
  • While your child holds or rubs a soft stuffed animal or blanket, you read a bedtime story in a calm, somewhat monotone voice.

Remember that a combination of strategies is frequently needed and that often involves some trial and error.  And then of course, as your child grows the strategies might need to be tweaked as well.  But you know what?  That’s okay because we are strong mommas and you have some kick-ass strategies in your tool belt! (And then there’s wine…).

If you continue to struggle with bedtime or feel your family needs extra help, reach out to your pediatrician, local pediatric occupational therapist, a counselor, or your county’s public health department for assistance.

-Kristen M. Rodgers

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