How to Avoid Bedtime Battles

Posted by Dr Sophie Bostock - Sleep Expert on 15th Mar 2022

How to Avoid Bedtime Battles

If bedtime is starting to feel like a fight, it’s time to take action. It’s entirely normal for children to resist bedtime. Surveys suggest that around 1 in 3 preschool children and 1 in 8 school aged children resist going to bed. There are many different ways that even the most angelic child may make bedtime hard work, such as..

  • Stalling: insisting on just one more story, 5 minutes more TV, or one more game
  • Point blank refusal: the ‘digging heels in’ approach might mean not changing into pyjamas, brushing teeth, or even going into the bedroom
  • Refusing to sleep in their bed: sneaking into your room, or a sibling’s room to sleep
  • Getting up repeatedly: getting up after lights out for a drink, a snack, to turn the lights on or off.. or any other excuse they can think of to avoid going to sleep.

Why do bedtime battles occur?

Any parent of multiple children will know that temperament has a lot to do with it. The same parenting approach might lead to one sibling taking themselves to bed, while the other wants to assert independence and test boundaries. If one parent is lenient about bedtimes and routines, the child may spot an opportunity to exploit the inconsistencies.

When young children are over tired, they will often become wound up and over excited. If you think this might be the case, experiment with bringing the bedtime routine forward by 15 minutes at a time. It could alternatively be the case that your child’s internal clock simply isn’t ready for sleep. If they are really not tired, you will need to transition to a later bedtime.

You might find that you had a great bedtime routine, but all of a sudden, it starts to fall apart. This might simply be a phase they are going through. It could be triggered by some sort of insecurity or change in their routines. Look out for increased fear of being alone, or being scared of the dark, which will necessitate extra reassurance. Family tension, for example between parents, or conflict between an older sibling and their parents, can also have knock-on effects on younger children. If they feel unsettled or anxious, they will find it harder to transition into the mindset for sleep.

How can you create an enjoyable bedtime experience?

When it goes well, bedtime can be a positive bonding experience for parents and their children. How you feel about bedtime may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.. If you are anxious and irritable (because of lack of sleep!), your child is likely to pick up on the tension and may take longer to settle.

For this reason, try and design a bedtime routine which includes something you both enjoy. This might not be something that is traditionally done at bedtime, such as 5 minutes of playing lego, or practicing a magic trick before lights out, but if you both look forward to this time together, the whole routine will become easier.

Make a plan for the bedtime routine that everyone knows

Devise a bedtime routine which you can repeat consistently. It should include some calm and enjoyable activities, such as a bath and bedtime story. Talk this through with your child and let them know what you expect. Encourage your child to make or decorate a chart of the activities which you can tick off when you first introduce a new routine. A visual chart will mean that if you go out, your babysitter will be able to stick to the same routine. If the last part of the routine is something you enjoy, this gives incentive to get through teeth brushing and getting ready for bed. Of course it won’t be possible to do everything every night, but the more consistent you are, the less small deviations will make a difference

Set a bedtime, and give frequent reminders

Agree bedtime which is appropriate for your child <<link to blog post on age based recommendations>> and work out when you need to start the bedtime routine to allow enough time. Give your child warning and let them know what will happen: “10 more minutes and then it’s bath time”.. “5 more minutes then it’s time to brush your teeth”. This sets expectations. By referring to the chart you can make it less about you say, and more about what

Consistency will win

No matter what they might tell you (!), children benefit from structure and boundaries. If you say no to a later bedtime on 4 occasions, but give in on the 5th, they will keep asking, and testing your limits. Your patience will help them to learn self control.

Transitional object

When it comes to lights out, a familiar blanket, doll or cuddly toy can help with the confidence to fall asleep by themselves.

Avoid arguments by ignoring complaints, and staying calm

It takes two to argue. Try to be firm and continue with the routine, in spite of possible protests. Ignore negative comments. Try not to ask questions where you want to give an instruction, such as “Time for bed” rather than “Ready for bed?”. You could however provide acceptable alternatives, such as, “Do you want to go up now, or in 5 minutes?” Focus on increasing good behaviours, rather than punishing bad behaviours. When the bedtime routine is complete, ensure that they feel safe and cared for, and leave the room. Leaving the room while your child is still awake will help them to learn to fall asleep by themselves. If they are reluctant to let you leave, check in frequently to reassure them, but make the visits brief and boring. <<Link to blog post on what to do if your child keeps coming to your bed at night>>

Making being awake boring

If your child does insist on getting out of bed, be consistent in returning them calmly back to bed. This may happen a few times. When they do get out of bed, make the interactions brief and uninteresting - you don’t want to reward them with attention for getting out of bed. Check in on them when they have returned to bed, and positively encourage them if they manage to stay in bed.

Reward your child, and reinforce good behaviour

In the morning, review the bedtime routine from the night before and give praise, stickers, or points for good behaviour. When you first introduce a new routine, the rewards will probably need to be immediate to get their interest in the process. Once the routine is established, you could reward multiple good nights per week. Try not to penalise them for poor behaviour, but focus on the positives as much as you can.

authors profile
Dr Sophie Bostock
Sleep Expert
Sophie brings a wealth of expertise to the role having spent the last six years researching and championing the importance of sleep science in NHS and corporate settings. Sophie was responsible for improving access to the award-winning digital sleep improvement programme, Sleepio, as an NHS Innovation Accelerator Fellow. She has delivered hundreds of talks, including for TEDx and Talks@Google, and regularly features as a media sleep expert.
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