Bedtime – A nightmare or a nice end to the day? Tips for improving bedtime in your home

byRona Benhorin, Ph.D.

Bedtime is often a somewhat stressful time of day in households with preschoolers and school age children. After a full day of work, shuffling kids around to different activities, keeping up with household chores, dinner preparation, helping with homework, and chasing after one or more energetic children, parents often have little or no energy left to deal with bedtime refusal. The end result is often cranky and upset parents and children. Children who are not well rested are more likely to exhibit health, academic and behavioral difficulties.

The following tips may help you make bedtime a smoother and more relaxing activity for you and your child and assist you in ending the day on a more positive note.

  • Bedtime and waking time. Pick a bedtime and waking time that is right for your child and stick to it. Preschoolers and grade school children require between 10-12 hours of sleep per night. A consistent bedtime would help set your child’s biological clock so that it functions more smoothly and should, over time, help your child fall asleep and wake up more easily at the appropriate time. This would also ensure that your child does not get overtired, get a good night sleep, and is well rested in the morning.In order to avoid becoming overtired, toddlers and preschoolers should nap during the day, and older children should have some “quiet time” during which they engage in quiet and relaxing activities that allow their bodies to rest (e.g., lying down, reading, building with blocks or leggos, coloring). Overtired children often find it more challenging to “turn off their engines” and to settle down at bedtime. Make sure, however, that your child does not oversleep during the day and is therefore not tired enough at bedtime.
  • Set up an environment that is conducive for sleep. Your child’s bedroom and bed should be set up to enable and encourage relaxation and sleep. A clean and organized room as well as a comfortable bed and pajamas would make it easier for your child to unwind at the end of the day. Stimulation and distractions from toys and electronics should be eliminated and studying and playing in/on the bed should be avoided so that the child’s bed is associated with rest only. In addition, electronics should be turned off at least 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime and ideally, the child bedroom should not contain a television set.At bedtime, your child’s room should be dark or only lightly dimmed with a nightlight or hallway light. Being in a dark/lightly dimmed room would encourage your child’s body to release the sleeping hormone, Melatonin, and should result in your child becoming sleepier.
  • Follow a Bedtime routine. Create and follow a consistent bedtime routine that your child enjoys and looks forward to. A bedtime routine should last approximately 30 minutes long and should be kept simple. Have your child engage in a quiet and calming activity before bedtime. Activities that involve/require competition, high level of noise and/or activity and that may over-stimulate your child or increase stress level should be avoided. If taking a bath is calming for your child, include it as part of his/her bedtime routine, if you find that your child becomes more alert and energized after taking a bath, have him/her bathe earlier in the evening.When creating a bedtime routine, attempt to decrease resistance from your child by avoiding a situation in which you require your child to terminate his/her most preferred activity (e.g., playing outside, watching television) in order to get ready for bed (least preferred activity). In addition, reward completion of less preferred activities (e.g., brushing teeth) with more preferred activities (e.g., quiet play). Keep a calm tone of voice while reminding your child of his/her bedtime routine steps and provide him/her with a five-minute reminder before bedtime.

    Your child’s “tucking in bed” routine should not be too elaborate or involve too many steps. Tucking your child in bed, reading a story, and giving him/her a tight hug and a kiss before turning off the lights and leaving the room, is an example of a good routine. Make it clear to your child how much time would be devoted for reading, and stick to it. Older children may be allowed to read alone in bed for about 15-30 minutes before turning off the lights.

  • Avoid Stalling. The key to a successful bedtime routine is to avoid prolonging the routine or allowing your child to stall! In addition to sticking to the bedtime routine, ensure that your child has everything that he/she may need (or ask for later) prior to him/her getting in bed. This may include using the bathroom one last time, putting a cup of water next to the child’s bed, or finding a favorite stuffed animal that your child likes to sleep with. Also, be sure that all important matters that should be taken care off (e.g., signing permission slips, discussing a school problem) are addressed prior to bedtime and are not used as an “excuse” to delay going to sleep.Once the bedtime routine has been completed, exit your child’s room. To decrease/eliminate your child’s attempts to stall and avoid sleep, do not continue to engage with him/her and answer questions after you completed the routine and your child’s bedroom lights have been turned off. Whining and “attention seeking” crying should be ignored as well. If your child exits the room or follows you, walk him/her calmly back to bed, without saying anything, and leave the room. Repeat this step until your child stays in bed. If you stay consistent and follow through with your plan, your child will soon learn that bedtime is meant for sleeping, bedtime challenges will decrease, and you will be able to have some adult time to unwind and prepare yourself for the next day.
  • Teaching Your Child to Relax. If your child finds it challenging to relax and fall asleep, teach him/her strategies to calm his/her body down and prepare it for sleep. This may include listening to classical/relaxing music, writing a journal entry, taking deep breaths, using progressive musical relaxation or reading.
  • Nutrition and Exercise. Good nutrition and exercise play an important role in your child’s sleep. Your child will find it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep if he/she eats nutritious food and is physically active. Provide your child with healthy food options and discourage him/her from skipping meals. Low blood sugar can result in sleep disruption and acting out behaviors including, difficulty falling asleep, nighttime wakings, and even nightmares. Limit the amount of sugar your child consumes, particularly before bedtime. Good pre-bed snack options that can keep your child’s blood sugar stable throughout the night include a combination of a complex carbohydrate and protein such as low-sugar yogurt and granola or a whole wheat bread with cheese or peanut butter. Be sure that your child receives a sufficient amount of activity and exercise during the day. Since exercise is stimulating, however, it should be avoided an hour before bedtime.