Your children’s bedtime doesn’t have to be a nightmare

Bedtime is a nightmare at our house. It takes hours to get the kids to settle down...

Bedtime is a nightmare at our house. It takes hours to get the kids to settle down. They call out for us, they get out of bed, they cry, they keep each other awake.

By the time they finally fall asleep, we are exhausted, mad at them, mad at each other and too worked up ourselves to think about sleeping. Truth be told, we thought it was normal for kids to hate going to bed and that bedtime in all families was a similar fiasco.

Then a couple weeks ago, we were at another home for the evening and the kids practically put themselves to bed. How did they do that? Is it really possible that it can go so smoothly?

Yes! Bedtime can go smoothly! Teaching kids to have good sleep habits is of great benefit to them for their whole lives.

Things will run more smoothly for you if you have a fairly consistent bedtime routine. The routine you set will depend on the ages of your children, their individual needs, your needs, and the needs of the family, but most good routines have a few basic elements in common: They are consistent, there are three parts (getting ready for bed, settling down, sleeping), and always, the parents are well in control of their emotions and behaviours.

Since you haven’t stated the ages of your children, I will outline a general routine that would be appropriate for a family with pre-school aged or early school-aged children. As long as you have the basics, you can adjust and adapt to suit.

Getting ready for bed:

Determine how much time is needed to get ready for bed (snacking, teeth brushing, bathing, putting on pj’s, etc) and start your routine that much earlier than when you want them in bed.

Settling down:

This step is very important because in order to sleep, brains need to adopt a rhythm different from the alert, wakeful part of the day. This can be accomplished by decreasing sensory stimulation and physically slowing down.

Quieter activities help with this. Activating activities such as doing homework, talking about problems, tickling, arguing, planning the next day are not a good idea close to bedtime.

Think about reducing sensory input for everyone in your home as bedtime approaches. Reading is a great way for kids to settle down and most kids love being read to and reading to themselves (even before they can actually read).

Once kids are ready for bed, tuck them in for reading time. Keep the overhead room light off and use a much-dimmer bedside lamp, book light or headlamp for reading time.

Set a time limit for reading and decide if you will read to them and for how long and also how much time they will have for solo reading.

If the kids have dawdled through getting ready for bed, then their reading time will be shorter. Kids are often motivated to get ready for bed quickly to maximize their reading time. Reading time has the added benefit that it is more palatable for a child to hear that “it’s reading time,” rather than “it’s bedtime.”

Other quiet activities can be substituted if you have a child who hates being read to. There is some evidence to suggest that TV watching before bed interferes with sleep and experts are advising to avoid screen time 30 minutes before trying to sleep.

Sleep time:

Lights out! You can set a firm time for this and return to the room to turn off the light or you can let the child manage this. Some kids manage this really well!

Some useful tips to consider are:

• Make sure the bedtimes you set are reasonable for the ages of the kids. No child will be able to fall asleep if their bedtime is set too early.

• Try putting younger kids to bed earlier than the older ones. Even if you separate the bedtimes by 15 minutes, the older ones will like having a later bedtime than their siblings and will be more motivated to make the new routines work and, ideally will be more compliant, which models nicely for the younger ones.

If kids continue with their disruptive bedtime behaviours, stay calm, inform them that if they are unable to sleep, they may continue to read and that they are expected to stay in their rooms and that you are off duty and will not be responding to their calls. If they need to use the bathroom, they can go on their own and return to their rooms without involving you (assuming they are old enough to do this.  If not, you will have to help).

Bedtime routines usually need to be temporarily abandoned in the event of illness, stressful life events, and anxiety problems.

Good luck with your new bedtime routine. I expect that if you are consistent, your friends will soon be envious of bedtime at your house.

If you wish to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at info@pacifictherapy.ca. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Sara Lynn Kang at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Friday in the Record.

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