Transforming the Challenging Bedtime

Copyright © 2011 Tina Feigal

“How do we take the pain out of a challenging bedtime?” Among the parents I coach, I find that that this nearly- universal issue arises at some point in the coaching process. Here are some solutions to this often-frustrating everyday issue.

Set up a family meeting. Using the same technique you would with a respected adult, ask your child if she will be available at 7 p.m. on Tuesday to discuss an important issue. This gives the child a sense of being respected and also infuses a feeling of importance into a family issue. I recommend this approach for any topic that needs discussion in your family life.

Use the meeting to lay out the issue of bedtime squabbles as objectively as you can. You might say something like, “I have noticed that we are having trouble settling down without an argument at bedtime. I know that when this happens, we have frustration, delaying, yelling, and tears.  The funny thing is, we go to bed every night.  Let’s do what we always do, which is say it’s time for bed, go to the bathroom, brush teeth, put on our p.j.s read a story, say good night, and turn off the light. Only let’s do that without the yelling!  Would you kids like that?  “Yes!” will be the reply.  Then ask, “What ideas do you have that might help our bedtime go more smoothly? What do you think the rules should be?”

Use Present Moment Parenting for bedtime behavior management. Establish the rules for bedtimes with the child’s input. Rules should start with “no”: no getting out of bed once the light is out, no asking for more time, no stalling, no negotiating, no whining, no bothering your sister, no crying, no excuses. Children know what the rules are, and the ones they offer will typically be more stringent than yours. Use the child’s rules religiously whenever practical, as this creates buy-in, which strengthens the likelihood that the rules will be followed. The clearer the rules are, the easier it is for the child to follow them.  Practice the bedtime routine when it’s not bedtime to help the child get a map in her brain for how it’s supposed to look.  This is great fun for the kids, and it increases the likelihood of buy-in, in the same way as creating the rules.

If a rule is broken, there is an immediate, non-negotiable break. A gentle, unemotional “broke a rule take a break”, is all that’s needed. The break should take place in the bed, since that is where the child needs to be, and should last 30 seconds. No energy (no talking, no negotiating, no engagement of any sort) should be directed to the child during the break. If the child refuses to take a break, say, “The break starts when you are calm, and as soon as you make it start, it can end,” with the firm conviction that you have decided that it is bedtime, and there will be no change in your decision.  This system builds a sense of security in the child. It implies that you are in charge, and also that you have complete faith that she can go to sleep on her own.

All requests for behavior should start with, “I need you to” rather than questions such as, “Would you please” or “Would you like to” which imply a choice. Remember, when you are clear and certain, you are giving your child a huge gift. It may take a few nights of this clarity for the child to adjust to the routine, but it will be well worth the effort. Every minute you spend making this work now will pay off significantly in the future. You are teaching your child that she can go to sleep on her own just like a big person. This is very valuable information for her, as it will help her to believe in herself in other areas, too.

For steps that are completed with cooperation, use heartfelt appreciation to show that you are noticing and valuing her actions. This creates a powerful heart-to-brain neural pathway for goodness, which strengthens the desired behavior significantly. You might say, “I see that you have your teeth brushed and are headed for your room. Thank you so much for following our plan, Kristi. Every time you do this stuff, I feel like you are making this house such a wonderful place to live!” Using the formula “When you … I feel … because …” for this feedback makes remembering how to deliver it much easier. (For more information on Present Moment Parenting, visit

Set a definite bedtime. Younger children should go to bed earlier than the older ones if there is an age difference of two years or more. Usually a half hour is ample time to separate the two bedtimes. If you have four or more children, you may want to make bedtime more uniform so that you assure your adult time at the end of the day. This is very important. Knowing that you, as a single parent or with your spouse or partner, can definitely count on some winding down time helps you to handle the challenges that will come tomorrow. Do not consider this optional. You need your time alone or time together. It is very good modeling for your children, as well. They need to know that time to oneself or as a couple is vital to healthy adult living, and that it also ensures that mom and dad will be in a much better mood tomorrow.

Include any special rituals in the bedtime routine that the children deem important, and that are acceptable to you. Rituals might be as simple as: wash your face and brush your teeth, take a drink of water, put on p.j.s, say goodnight to the fish, read with mom or dad, settle in for sleep. To communicate respect for her process, indicate that you are as bought in to the ritual as is the child; be sure to remind her to say goodnight to the fish if she forgets. Rituals are very important for children’s transition to the next activity, especially at bedtime. They provide a sense of continuity and comfort, which is vitally important to raising healthy kids. Reading together is my favorite bedtime ritual, as it points out that you value reading and learning, it offers a great opportunity for snuggling, and most important, it truly allows the child to feel your slowed-down, caring energy.

Requests for extending the reading time will be lovingly denied when lights out time has arrived. Make a comment such as, “It makes me so proud to see that you love to read this much, Honey, but tomorrow is another day, and you can read during any free time you have. Now I need to see the light out. Good night. I love you very much.”

Then leave the room and consider the day with children completed (unless, of course, there is a true illness.)


If your child has a problem with separating from you or with nightmares, here are a few options to consider: Place a nightlight in the child’s room. As part of including your child in the solution, have him go with you to the store and pick out a special one. Some nightlights are in the shape of child-friendly characters, but young imaginations can turn them ugly in the night. Neutral nightlights are probably the best. Some have fragrances that can be calming, but they do run out of scent. You may avoid trouble by buying two or three, so that there is always a back-up on hand.

When my youngest son was four years old, he had severe nightmares and was afraid to go to sleep. A friend gave me some room spray that made dreams sweet and not scary. We sprayed the room every night for a few months, and that, with some gentle reassurance, took care of the nightmares. Any type of pleasant spray can serve the purpose. Of course, if your child has sensitivities to chemicals, perfumes, or odors, you will want to avoid this one. Dream catchers are Native American creations in which small hoops with weavings, beads, and feathers, serve to filter out the bad dreams and only allow the good ones. They are wonderful, durable devices for helping children make the transition into a restful night’s sleep. They are fun and easy to make, as well!

Use lovies (dolls, stuffed animals, blankets) generously. Assigning characteristics to them gives the child a sense of control over the night. “My bear knows how to scare away the monsters” is a good indicator of coping in the child whose ability to tell truth from reality is not yet fully developed (typically after age four.) “My dolly can help me dream good dreams” is another helpful statement of empowerment over the night’s threatening feelings. If your child has not ascribed these characteristics to the stuffed animal of choice, it is all right to gently suggest them. “Do you know that this doll came with instructions that said it can help kids sleep well?” Never take away, or threaten to take away, an object that comforts the child at night for any reason. A break is always a better choice for helping the child to gain control of her behavior.

If the child seems too old for the blanket, doll, or stuffed animal, do not be the one to decide whether it is time to give it up. That decision is the child’s, and will be made when he or she is ready. It hurts no one for him to hang on until it’s time to let go, and may be a crucial aide in his emotional development. And never make a decision about the appropriateness of a lovie based on the child’s gender. Little boys who love baby dolls and little girls who carry around their G.I. Joes need the same love and acceptance as their counterparts who depend on same-gender lovies. A positive approach is to ask after the well being of the lovie. “How is Lucy Light today? Have you and she been having fun while I was away?” If spending the night at a friend’s house with the lovie becomes an issue, leave the decision about whether to take the lovie along to the child. Many friends are relieved to see their buddies unpack their lovies when bedtime arrives. It indicates that they are all part of the same “child club” still in need of certain comforts at night. If your child does receive some ridicule for having the lovie along, she can decide what to do about it. She may want to come home, or she may keep the lovie with her and let the ridicule go. She may decide to put it back into her bag for the night. Trust your child’s sense of what will keep her the most comfortable in the situation, and assure her that she can call you to consult on it at any time.

An example of implementing the plan:

Alan and Alicia Elberg had had it with their children, Madison, age 6, and Josh, 11, at bedtime. They were in a constant state of disruption and sleep deprivation especially from Josh’s behavior. He was getting out of bed after lights out, arguing that he was not being treated fairly, saying he was scared, and insisting on more water and food. By the time the battles had been fought over each of these issues, Alan and Alicia were so exhausted and angry that they were at the end of their rope. They were open to any and all suggestions, and decided to give Present Moment Parenting a try.

The Elbergs had their first family meeting, and included their children in creating solutions for the bedtime routine. They made sure that they paid close attention to the input and used a talking piece for the meeting. Whoever has the talking piece at the moment gets the full attention of the others with no interruptions. When finished, that person passes the talking piece to the next person and then gives him full, uninterrupted attention. The talking piece serves as a powerful physical symbol of respect for children and adults alike. The Elbergs wrote down all ideas and used ideas from each family member in their final plan. Josh, who has had the most trouble settling in to bed without conflict, suggested that Alicia or Alan give a ten-minute warning before bedtime. Madison said that she would like the warning to be given in a quiet voice. Alicia responded to their input by saying, “I notice that you are really thinking hard about ways to make our household happy at bedtime. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate hearing your ideas. I wouldn’t have thought of some of them myself.  That’s what makes all of these thinkers together so valuable!” Alan contributed the phrase, “I need you to get ready for bed” as the signal for bedtime and said it would be delivered only once. Alicia added that there would be a break for anyone who doesn’t listen. She set the start of bedtime preparation at 7:30 for Madison and 8:00 for Josh, with lights out at 8:00 and 8:30 respectively, and all agreed on the plan.

The Elbergs wrote out the kids’ rules that started with “no.” Their list included no whining, no dawdling, and no getting out of bed, no bothering your sibling, no calling for mom or dad, no arguing, and no excuses. Although these rules struck Alicia and Alan as a bit more harsh than they had envisioned, they thought about the pleasant nature of an evening without these behaviors, and decided to go for it. Each child gave input to the bathroom routine, which ended up with Madison brushing her teeth and using the bathroom first, and Josh following with a nighttime shower to make the morning routine more simple. Madison added, “I want to say prayers with daddy every night, and I want to sleep with my new stuffed giraffe.” Josh said, “I want mom to help me set out my clothes every night so I don’t have to decide in the morning. That will be a lot quicker.” Contingency plans were created for evenings when Alan or Alicia would not be home at bedtime. Alan and Alicia stated that they would read or tell stories with each child, and that they would alternate reading with them. Dad would read a page and Madison would read a sentence, and mom and Josh would work out their plan as they went. A three-minute back-rub for Josh and a head-rub for Madison completed the plan for the nightly routine.

The Elbergs decided that lights would go out at the designated time and that Alan and Alicia will continue with their evening’s activities. If Madison or Josh breaks a rule, s/he will serve a break in the bed with no discussion at all, other than, “Broke a rule, take a break.” Alan or Alicia will be present in the room for the break to monitor it, but will not have any interaction with the child. After the break is completed, the parent will leave the room. (These steps may have to be repeated several times at first, until the child realizes that there is no emotional energy from the parent for breaking a rule.)

Alan and Alicia expressed their heartfelt appreciation for a great meeting to both children and to each other. They followed through with more appreciative expressions the next morning by saying, “I just love it that this is the way we do bedtimes now! I woke up so full of energy today and it looks like you did, too! You kids are the greatest.”

For many parents who read this, the preceding may look like a lot of extra work. No doubt it is extra energy out-put, but the amount of energy is about the same as the energy expended on negativity, and in contrast, it actually results in great improvements! Parents soon realize that the forethought and follow-through they give to bedtimes pay off in a huge way, and they get hooked. And once the children realize that their bedtime routine is solid and predictable, their need to test the limits diminishes significantly, and the chaotic bedtime scenes subside. There is, of course, no guarantee that every single night will be quiet and serene, but progress toward that vision is very possible. Parents who put in the effort toward planning bedtimes and thoughtfully implementing their plans say that it is well worth it when they realize the rewards: peaceful evenings, well-rested children and happy parents!

Copyright © Tina Feigal 2011

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