My Toddler Won’t Go to Bed
My four-year-old thinks of a hundred excuses at bedtime, from a drink of water, to one last kiss, to boogie men in the closet. Where should I draw the line when my toddler won’t go to bed?
Bedtime Procrastination Explained
Procrastinating at bedtime is a common ploy of young children. The more children we raised, the more we observed that children do what they do in order to meet their needs. Unless they are angry or have a distant parent-child relationship, kids don’t use bedtime ploys deliberately to annoy parents. There are three reasons why a toddler won’t go to bed: fear of going to sleep, not wanting to be separated from parents, and wanting more “quality time” with their parents. Because of changing lifestyles, rigid bedtimes are not as common or as realistic as they used to be. Decades ago, when most families lived in rural settings, the family got up early, worked together most of the day, and went to bed together early in the evening. Because today’s parents are so busy and often do not have much time with their children during the day, children put their bid in for prime time with mom and dad at night. The before-bed hour may be the only time during the whole day your little one has your focused attention. Even if your toddler won’t go to bed when you would like them to, relax and enjoy it with them as much as you can. Unfortunately, this is difficult for parents, since in the late evening children are tired and not the most fun to be with, you’re tired, and you would like some couple time or time just for yourself.
Children are especially prone to procrastinate bedtimes following a family upset, such as the arrival of a new baby, change of daycare or caregivers, or one or both parents returning from a trip. It’s unlikely that your child is being stubborn or disobedient. Most likely your child is just angling for more time with you. Take this as a compliment, yet there reaches a point when your child needs to go to bed and you need some time for yourself.
What You Can Do
Sleep is not a state you can force a child into. It must naturally overtake the child. Here are some suggestions on creating a sleep-inducing environment to help wind down your wide-awake child and save some evening time for yourself.
Use an alarm clock or stove buzzer to signal “bedtime in five minutes.” Or, use an egg timer: “When all the sand hits the bottom, the lights must go out.” Your child may get tired of watching the sand fall.
Begin the bedtime ritual earlier, say around 7:00 p.m. Avoid activities such as wrestling and exciting play after this time, which can instigate if and when your toddler won’t go to bed.
Develop a consistent bedtime ritual, such as a warm bath, a back rub, a soothing story, and gradually dim the lights. In fact, one parent can gradually be dimming the lights as the other parent is winding down the child. Whichever parent doesn’t get the children up and going in the morning should be the one to put the children to bed at night.
Try the back rub game. “Plant a garden” on your child’s back using different touches for different foods that your child selects. Gradually lighten your stroke as you smooth out the garden.
Lie down with your child as you read the story and remain there until she is sound asleep.
Have a continuous audio recording of your child’s favorite bedtime stories, which can be used if you are unable to do the full ritual that night.
If your child still procrastinates, choose bedtime stories that you enjoy, ones you don’t mind reading over and over again. Expect your child to plead “read it again.” Choose books that emphasize sounds that are repetitive, rhyming, comforting, and lulling. Make up your own stories. A story that got many of our little bedtime procrastinators to sleep was telling them fish stories from my boyhood past: “I caught one fish, two fish, three fish…” Usually by twenty fish, one of them would be asleep.
Watch a video together. On nights when you feel low on patience, videos may be helpful to wind down the child who fights sleep or to pacify the bedtime procrastinator. Choose a calming video that you can enjoy together. Then you can snuggle up together, giving your child bedtime closeness without expending a lot of energy. Many nights when Matthew was three to four-years-old, we snuggled together in a bean bag and he dozed off to Lady and the Tramp.
Sometimes a toddler won’t go to bed because they are not truly tired. Providing an hour or two of outdoor exercise may tire him out and set him up to relax as bedtime approaches.
The way your child goes to bed is more important than when he goes to bed. If you are a busy family and don’t have much time with your child during the day, a later bedtime may be more realistic. Yet, children do better when they have consistent bedtimes rather than sometimes staying up late and other times being put to bed early.
“Tuck me in, Dad”
Little minds are in a receptive state at bedtime. Bedtime stories can reflect on the day and neatly tuck in a little teaching. Your growing-up years can make some great stories. Surround your child with pleasant thoughts and admirable values as they drifts off to sleep. Do this night after night and these bits of wisdom will be filed away in their library of experiences. Years later these bedtime lessons will be an important influence in his or her life. Bedtime prayers are a time-honored tradition effective for smoothing out the wrinkles of life and for passing on parental values and beliefs.
A word of advice: Even though their eyes are closing, children’s ears are very keen to follow a story. A seven-year-old friend of ours instructs his mother to “Keep reading – I can still hear you even when I’m sleeping.”
It takes me an hour to put our four-year-old to bed. She finally goes to sleep, but by this time I’m too exhausted to get anything else done.
Get behind the tired eyes of your child. First, take your child’s bedtime attachment to you as a compliment. She likes being with you and doesn’t want to give up the delights of the day.
Consider if your child needs more attachment rituals during the day. Children seem to recognize the benefit from a certain amount of touch time each day in order to thrive. They learn very quickly that bedtime gives them this opportunity. Try to give your child the attention she craves during the day as well as when you tuck her into bed.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.