Taking Back Bedtime

Ask Dr. Bronwyn

Taking Back Bedtime

Q: Bedtime has gone off the rails this summer and I can’t get my kids to sleep! Help! –Running on Empty

Written By Dr. Bronwyn Charlton
Photography Victoria Will

Dear Running on Empty,

As I sit down to write this, I have just returned from a trip to Asia with my three young children, so sleep is on my mind too. But for many families like yours, sleep challenges aren’t just remnants of far-off travels; they are everyday trials. Good news: If sleep isn’t your child’s forte, you can change it.

When your child isn’t getting the sleep she needs, it’s not just her behavior that suffers – her sleep does too. Sleep problems can happen all at once, as in, “She used to be an amazing sleeper, but then we went to Israel with my in-laws and it’s been a total nightmare ever since.” Or they can sneak up on you, as in, “It never used to be so hard, but now every night it’s something else. She’s also waking up earlier than she used to, and I’m losing my mind.” Whatever the scenario, the end result is sleep loss, or Accumulated Sleep Debt (ASD), coined by famed sleep researcher Dr. Marc Weissbluth.

When ASD happens, bodies try to compensate by producing the hormone cortisol. Cortisol enables your body to stay awake despite being tired. Basically, your body says, “You didn’t let me sleep when I needed to, so I’m going to kick up the cortisol to wake up.” Cortisol is the reason we get a second wind. It’s why we can hardly keep our eyes open while reading bedtime stories to our kids at 7 p.m., but we have to force ourselves to stop trawling Instagram at 11 p.m. Cortisol can mean “missing the window” for the little ones and “getting the crazies” for their older siblings.

Often the result of ASD is an overtired child, albeit one who is usually whining that he or she isn’t tired. That’s typically when you start to see negative nighttime behaviors develop such as delay tactics or sudden intense fears just as you start to leave the room. Some sleep resistance is temperament-based: In the same family with the same rules you can have one good sleeper and one not-so-good sleeper. But the struggle is real. Many parents have confided in me that they prefer the nights in which they have to work late and miss the bedtime drama altogether.

Thankfully, these research-based strategies will encourage your child to get with the sleep program.

1. Fill up your child’s sleep tank.

If you have a challenging sleeper, you probably have an overtired sleeper too. This makes all of your sleep goals much harder to reach. Try to figure out where the sleep debt is coming from and tackle it. Is her nap too short? Is it too long, pushing bedtime later? Did you drop a nap prematurely and not adjust her bedtime? Are nightly delay tactics or bed hopping disrupting her sleep? The first step is a much earlier bedtime for a few nights. Weissbluth refers to this step as the “reset,” and for nursery-school-age children, this could be as early as 5:45 p.m. For older children, make adjustments based on their sleep needs.

2. Make a sleep plan.

When it comes to sleep struggles, parents often admit that they don’t handle them particularly well. When kids go low, parents can too. Take some time tomorrow to write out what the perfect bedtime with your child would look like. Not just the one in which she gets right in bed and sleeps through the night, but the one that actually depicts each transition and is enjoyable for her too. Your new bedtime plan needs to be clear and succinct so that you can describe it to your child, beginning with something like, “So we both know that bedtime has not gone well lately, and I want you to know what is going to happen from now on.” Then lay out the steps, e.g., “After we read two books together, you will get in your bed and mommy will sing you our special goodnight song.” Except for bathroom stuff, routines should be done in your child’s room. Your child may benefit from a bedtime transition chart — something with pictures and words of the routine as a reminder that each night the bedtime routine will be the same events in the same order.

3. Consider your child’s incentive to comply.

What’s in it for your child? If she willingly goes along with the bedtime plan, does that mean she’ll get more time with you than if she refuses, cries or ignores you entirely? Probably. Always make sure there is an incentive for compiling with a sleep plan. Often, the best incentive is time with you, e.g., “And here’s the thing, if you’re able to brush your teeth the first time I tell you, then the two of us will have some time together to organize all of the Pokémon cards you have been collecting. How great!”

"If she willingly goes along with the bedtime plan, does that mean she’ll get more time with you than if she refuses, cries or ignores you entirely? Probably. Always make sure there is an incentive for compliance with a sleep plan."

4. Anticipate.

Chances are by now you know all of your child’s bedtime tricks. Anticipate them, and build them into your plan. Don’t let him or her throw you off! If every night when you finally get your child in bed, she claims that she has to poop, make sure she knows it was the last opportunity to be with you for the evening as you leave the bathroom and head to her room. The same is true for water or anything else. Build all of your child’s requests – delays, stories, etc. – into the sleep plan. That goes for the trickier scenarios too, including:

When a parent returns from work as the child is going to sleep. As with all things children: Plan, plan, plan. If you’re going to start the bedtime process, and your partner will be rolling in before lights-out, build that into your plan so there are no surprises and saying goodnight to her other parent is part of a reward or incentive, e.g., “Tonight, Daddy is going to be home in time to say good night. If you keep your body in your bed, he will join us for the last book when he gets home.” If you know your spouse will be home post-bedtime but before your child dozes off, make sure to be in touch via text and to tell him or her to hold off. Give your child the chance to be successful in her bedtime routine for a while so that you can reward her with positive attention for doing so.

When you have a night visitor. This is one of the hardest behaviors to change because co-sleeping is a great reward for a child, and many parents cave because it’s hard to keep marching them back to their own rooms night after night. But if you want to break the habit, you can't cave. Additionally, consider putting your child to bed earlier because night wakings make sleep debt more likely.

When they stage an encore (aka when they keep coming out of their rooms after you put them to sleep). Does your child pop out to give you one more kiss or because she forgot to ask you how your day was? Pop-out encores happen because they get rewarded, even if it’s with angry attention from you. So, either ignore them entirely (seriously, ZERO attention from you or anyone else) or make sure to catch your child for a quick snuggle or kiss before she has the chance to come out.

5. Reward the positive.

This is very important. Most of the time, frustrating sleep challenges persist because they are being rewarded. Think about it: Even if you are angry and raising your voice or making threats, your little bambina is with you instead of the alternative. Although it might be hard to believe because of the anger part, your child is being rewarded for misbehavior and defiance by your attention and presence. A critical part of your plan must be to explain to your child that from now on, you will only give her attention for positive behavior or when she complies with the sleep steps. Instead of constantly returning to your child’s room because she keeps jumping out of bed after you’ve said goodnight (rewarding negative behavior), tell her that you’d love to come back in for a last goodnight kiss or back scratch if she is able to keep her body in her bed (rewarding positive behavior). Really think about what behavior you are rewarding because it's the one you will continue to see.

6. Fix the fears.

If your child seems anxious at night or frightened by things before bedtime, discuss her trepidations during the day and fix them. For example, if she tells you there are monsters under her bed, create a monster repellent with a spray bottle and some water and spray them away. (It's also sold on Amazon if you think it would make more of an impact arriving from a third-party potion master). If she says that the fireplace in her room looks creepy at night, then put a screen in front of it. Let her keep the door cracked open or sleep with the light on. Whatever it takes!

7. Practice.

It might sound strange but research shows that practicing a behavior through simulation makes people better at it. So, for younger children especially, it’s very helpful to practice bedtime and sleep transitions well before bedtime. Continue to do so daily until you begin to see positive changes. Let your child know that you’re just pretending or practicing. Tell her that you want to try out your new sleep plan to see how well it works and if she is able to follow it. Make sure she knows she’s not being tricked. She’ll likely be dubious at first. But, when she actually gets in her bed the first time you ask her to, and lets you walk out the door and close it (only for a split second if you think she might not stay), make sure to come back in and reward her with your enthusiastic praise, just as you would if she had really done it at night, e.g., “Oh wow, you got in your bed the first time I asked you and you kept your body in it. You really can do it!”

8. Exercise.

Getting exercise during the day helps children sleep better at night. If your child does not get regular exercise at school, try to schedule an activity in which she will. One note: Make sure the activity ends two to three hours prior to bedtime.

9. Don't cave. Seriously, don't cave.

10. Good luck!

Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of seedlingsgroup.