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From Battle to Bonding: Transforming Your Child’s Bedtime Routine

written by Dr. Jennie Gary

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Welcome to another Kid’s Corner. I’m Doctor Jennie, and today I’m talking about bedtime battles.

Do you dread your child’s bedtime? Does bedtime feel more like a battle than a bonding time? If so, you’re not alone. Bedtime struggles are incredibly common.

These bedtime battles can be frustrating and upsetting for both you and your child. Many children do not want to go to bed when they should. They have so much energy and it can be hard for them to wind down.

Sometimes children refuse to go to sleep as a way to show their independence.

At other times, they may simply need extra attention or reassurance before they feel safe and comfortable enough to sleep well. But as caregivers, we know how important it is for our little ones to get a good night’s rest.

As a pediatrician, I recommend about ten to twelve hours of sleep per night for school-aged children between ages three to twelve years old.

Getting enough sleep is important for growth, development, and learning. When bedtime doesn’t go as planned, of course, we worry about our children getting enough sleep. But don’t worry. Today, we will be talking about some of the simple things you can do to help make bedtime go a little more smoothly.

Here are some of the top recommendations I give parents.

Make and keep a bedtime routine. A bedtime routine is a simple sequence of steps that you do every night in the same order to get ready for bed. Doing the same things in the same order every night teaches your child what to expect and eventually leads to less resistance.

For example, you might do bath time, brushing teeth, reading a book and then bedtime.

What you include in your routine is up to you, but try not to let it get too detailed or too long. Some children may also try a stalling technique where they keep asking for things like an extra stuffed animal, a different blanket, one more hug, one more book, and so on.

If you find your child often trying to stall bedtime, you can even leave a little room for this in the bedtime routine. By adding a finite number of last requests that they get to make, like one or two maximum, and then lights out.

As often as possible, have your child go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

Offer choices. Children may have less resistance to go to bed if you give them a bit of control over some portions of the bedtime routine.

As an example, I let my daughter choose which pajamas to wear and what books we will read. But even though we follow the same routine every night, there are still some nights she tries to suggest playing with her toys instead of reading our books. So be easy on yourself too.

Use bedtime as an opportunity to connect with your child. Try to put your phone away and really focus on your child without distractions.

To help bond with your child, you can ask them what the best and worst parts of their day were, or you could sing a special song together, or think of three things that you are each thankful for.

I also recommend shifting the focus to something to look forward to the next day to encourage your child to go to bed. For example, try telling them the sooner you go to bed, the sooner it will be the morning, and the more time you will have to play with your toys before school.

Try to avoid things that might be too stimulating for your child. Starting in the afternoon, avoid caffeine sources like soda and chocolate. Maybe avoid those altogether. And keep screens out of the bedtime routine. I recommend no screens for at least one hour before bedtime, as blue light from the screen can actually send stimulating signals to the brain to stay awake.

You may also need to remove screens from the bedroom altogether to avoid any temptations your child might have to turn on the TV or tablet at night.

And for teenagers, I recommend charging their phones out of the bedroom overnight.

Dim the lights and use a quiet voice during bedtime, and avoid reading scary stories or talking about anything stressful right before bedtime.

When it is time for sleep, keep your child’s bedroom dark, cool, and quiet. You can even use a sound machine to block out any background noises in the home.

Make sure your child does get a nutritious well-balanced dinner ideally at least one hour before bedtime.

Likewise, we don’t want them having to wake up to use the restroom so try to avoid offering your child any fluids for an hour before bedtime. This means you will want to encourage lots of water intake earlier in the day.

Use positive reinforcement. By positive reinforcement, I mean let your child know when they’re doing a good job. You can even use sticker charts to track the nights that they do a good job following their bedtime routine.

And for extra motivation, you can let your child know that after a certain number of good nights or stickers on their calendar, they can gain a bigger reward. Just remember to avoid food as rewards. Bigger rewards can be going to their favorite park or museum, a small toy, or choosing a favorite movie to watch that weekend.

If your child is getting out of bed too early in the morning, you can also try an okay to wake light. If that doesn’t help, then you should talk to your child’s doctor about their sleep schedule and how to gradually adjust it.

Bedtime struggles probably won’t disappear in one night, and there can be lots of ups and downs. These struggles with bedtime can be more common when children are going through transition periods too. This can mean starting a new school, or moving to a new house, or other transitions.

The best thing that you can do as a parent or a caregiver is to be as consistent as possible. And don’t be too hard on yourself on the nights when bedtime doesn’t go as planned.

If you are concerned about sleep issues that go beyond just getting to bed like sleepwalking, severe nightmares, snoring, or significant difficulty falling or staying asleep, then talk to your clinician. They can help.

I’m Doctor Jennie with Kid’s Corner, wishing you and your little ones sweet dreams.

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