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Turning Bedtime Battlefields into Dreamlands

Do you ever feel like you’ve just gone through a battlefield getting your kids into bed instead of sending them off to dreamland with a smooth transition, hugs, and kisses?  If so, you’re not alone!  What to do about “Bedtime” is one of the more common questions I get asked – How to make it go smoother, what to do if it goes awry, and how to stay calm and help kids become more independent in getting to bed are just a few of the phrases I hear from parents and grandparents! 

To help things go right, about an hour or so prior to bedtime, make sure that you are creating an environment that invites a smooth transition – things should be calmer, less stimulating, and as consistent as possible so that young brains pick up on cues that say “it’s getting to be ‘that time’ of night and will anticipate what is going to happen next.  This is when parents may want to turn off the TV (DVRs are great, aren’t they, to record any show for later after kids are in bedrooms, falling asleep?), shut down the computers, play a quite board game, finish up homework or talk about the day with their child.  Then, at the same time each night, you can start bed time with a wonderful transitional phrase:   

Parent: “Hey sweet ones, it’s almost time for bed, what would you like….3 minutes or 5 minutes to finish up what you are doing before we start your other choices?” 
Child:  5 minutes 
Parent: Do you want me to set the time or you to? 
Child:  You do it! 

Next, offer choices… lots of choices!!  Collaborating with your child about their bedtime routine will help them take ownership of getting each task accomplished and ending up in bed in a timely fashion.  The younger they are, the more detailed the choices should be and the more involved the parent is going to need to be. 
Here is an example of some bedtime choices: 

Parent: Would you like to brush your teeth first or take your shower first? 
Parent: Would you rather have a song or a book?  Do you want me to read it or daddy? 
Parent:  Do you want to sing the song or have me sing it with you?   
Parent:  Would you rather have the light on or the light off? 
Parent:  Would you like 5 minutes or 10 minutes of talk-time with me tonight? 

Some children need more structure than others.  If your child likes to check things off a list or if verbal choices don’t seem to be doing the trick, try visual ones.  For example: take a picture of your child doing each bedtime activity, like brushing their teeth, reading a book, sleeping, picture of a clock with the start time for bedtime routine, etc.  Take the pictures and put them on cards.  Then each night, have them choose the order of their routine (always beginning with the picture of the clock and ending with the sleeping card – they choose the order of the cards in between). 

Allowing them to choose the order of the routine often squelches any tantrums since you are sharing the control with them by collaborating together. 

Still, there are a few kids who just want to test the waters and see what will happen if you do (or don’t do)…. something.  If that happens and they decided to throw a fit, you can, with lots of empathy, lovingly say: 
Parent: “Ohhhh…. man…looks like we’re all done for tonight.”    

Gently scoop them up and take them into their room.  Give them a hug and a kiss; while still giving the child choices followed with a powerful “I WILL STATEMENT” which tells the child what you are willing to do, not what you won’t do, for example:   
Parent:  “Did you want the light on or off?  The door open or closed?  I will leave the door open for kids who stay in their bed…etc.” 

Whatever choices you normally offer them when you’re leaving their room. 
Remember, there’s always tomorrow to try again!  Ending the bedtime routine in this way should only need to happen for a few nights – the child generally gets the idea that they are welcome to be with you and get to do the routine with choices when they can be calm, cooperative, and sweet to be around. 

Remember a few weeks ago, I talked about Responsibility and Accountability?  I said that we had to first teach children what they needed to know prior to being able to hold them accountable for the responsibilities we expect them to take on.  This applies to bedtime routines.  Make sure they are clear about your instructions, that what you are asking is age appropriate and that they have mastered it prior to you having them take in on independently. 

Really important: Have a practice session during the daytime!  Have lots of fun and role play how the bedtime routine might go….  Then finish it off with a treat!  Here’s how it might go: 
Parent:  “Hey buddy, let’s do something really silly….  Let’s pretend its bedtime and see who can do their whole routine the fastest.  Then when we are all done pretending, we’ll eat some ice cream.  Ready?  Okay, it’s time for bed.  Let’s get our cards out…..  etc.” 
In this role-play with small children, I like to trade places with them and play the child and them play the parent.  It often gives me insight as to how it feels for them during our bedtime struggles.  I’ve learned a lot! 

Once in bed, when a kid falls asleep will depend on the individual child.  Some kids fall asleep quickly; others struggle with an active mind that wants to keep on going…  Trying to “MAKE” a child fall asleep, in my experience, is a futile effort.  I wish I could make myself fall asleep whenever I wanted to…but alas, I can’t even seem to do that!  Sometimes my brain just doesn’t seem to want to shut off – that’s true for our children, too!  Soothing, soft music (ear buds or headphones are helpful), white noise machine or a fan going in their room can help, allowing them to read can help.  Melatonin can be very helpful, make sure you check with their pediatrician, first, however.   

Make sure you continue to give lots of choices that night (and every night) after the practice session.  If this doesn’t improve after a week, there may be something else going on.  If this is your concern, please send me an email and I’d be happy to discuss it with you 

Have fun parenting!
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