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Do You Feel Like You’re Losing the Bedtime Battle?

Image source: Thinkstock
Image source: Thinkstock

Babble is partnering with PACER Center to help parents better understand and navigate the needs of children with mental health and behavior issues. This month, we’re talking about how parents can cope with the bedtime ‘battles’ and improve their child’s sleep habits.

Johanna felt like she had been having the bedtime battle with her 7-year-old son Sam for just about forever. When her other children were younger, Johanna had looked forward to their bedtime routine: a story, some one-on-one time, and then a warm goodnight hug. But Sam’s routine has been a struggle ever since he was a toddler, and nothing seemed to help him settle down.

First, it was the procrastinating. Sam would stall for time in the bathtub and then refuse to put on his pajamas. Then it was the glass of water followed by the inevitable trips to the bathroom. Screaming and refusing to go to sleep had become the norm, and the bedtime battle seemed to go on for hours. Johanna knew something needed to be done. After another sleepless night of her own, she called Sam’s pediatrician.

“I don’t get it,” she told the doctor. “Sam can’t relax or sit still, and he overreacts to every little thing. Why can’t he just fall asleep like a normal child? Is there something wrong with him?”

The pediatrician suggested that Johanna bring Sam in for a screening. He also offered a number of suggestions to help ease the situation. While most parents have dealt with the occasional bedtime battle, there are extreme cases that can have any mom or dad at the end of their rope and quite literally exhausted.

So what can parents do? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Find out if your child is getting enough sleep.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, preschoolers typically need 11 to 13 hours of sleep each night while school-aged children need 9 to 11 hours. Sleep helps our brains regenerate. It is as necessary as food and water. Once your child does settle down for the night, how many hours does she sleep? If your child is moody or hyperactive, if he is irritable and easily provoked, chances are he isn’t getting enough sleep. Sleep loss can cause a range of problems that impact concentration and impulse control.

2. Track your child’s sleep patterns.

Keep a journal for a few weeks to track your child’s sleep patterns. Does your child often wake up in the middle of the night? Do you have trouble getting him out of bed in the morning? Is there a connection between the activities your child does before bed and the quality of his or her sleep? Once you have a better handle on your child’s sleep patterns, you can share this information with your pediatrician so that he or she can screen for any possible health conditions.

3. Consider your child’s schedule.

Most adults are guilty of trying to cram too many activities into a single day. The same may be true of your kids as they rush home from school just in time to leave for swimming lessons or dance class or soccer practice. Then there’s homework, and play dates, and who knows what other activities may be on their agenda. Sometimes it’s a little bit much, and all of this rushing can have a negative impact on a child’s ability to settle down at the end of the day.

4. Close the kitchen, turn off the tablet.

Don’t let your child eat less than an hour before bedtime. Food activates the brain and sends signals to the digestive system that it needs to get to work. This isn’t going to help your child sleep. Even more importantly, eliminate screen time in that last hour, too. Video games, as well as movies and TV shows, stimulate the brain and your child can get wound up as a result. Turn off the electronic devices within an hour of bedtime and this may help your child relax.

5. Take time to help your child get ready for bed.

Establish a bedtime routine that includes transitions of 10 to 15 minutes each. First, she could have a bath and brush her teeth. Next, he could change into his pajamas and lay out clothes for the next day. Third, set aside some quiet time for reading books, telling bedtime stories, and saying goodnight. Some parents find it helpful to set a timer for each step of the routine and provide encouragement throughout the process, to help reinforce positive behaviors.

6. Establish an environment that can help your child sleep.

Most adults sleep better when they are in a comfortable environment and the same holds true for most children. For some children, the amount of light is important and a night light can be helpful. The temperature of the room may also be a factor. A special blanket or toy can make all the difference. Perhaps a very small glass of water on the night stand may be comforting for your child. Anything you can do to put your child at ease will make the bedtime routine go more smoothly.

After following the guidelines suggested by her pediatrician, things are getting better at bedtime for Johanna and Sam. She has been able to establish a comfortable bedtime routine that seems to be working by turning off the electronic gadgets an hour before bedtime, putting a nightlight in his room and letting him pick out three books to read with her prior to lights out. By spending a little more time helping Sam prepare for bedtime, Johanna is spending a lot less time on the nightly struggle. Sam seems happier and more relaxed and both he and Johanna are sleeping better as a result.

Do you have a child who has difficulty going to sleep at night? Have you been through the bedtime battles? Please share your experiences and offer ideas that might help other parents.

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