By Astrid Van Den Broek
A frightening lightning storm one summer evening led to my husband and me alternating sitting outside our then three-year-old daughter Annika’s bedroom door for a few nights to assure her it was okay to fall asleep. But what started out as a gentle comforting tactic quickly morphed into a maddening ritual that lasted five months.
Sound familiar? Indeed, bedtime battles can manifest in many forms. Whether they’re suddenly lying awake at bedtime, or you’re accommodating repeated bedtime requests, it’s important to remember that there could be something bigger behind the battle. “Most children are not that manipulative,” explains Dr. Carol Crill Russell, a senior research associate with Invest in Kids, a national charity focused on parenting and early childhood development. “Most are struggling to figure out how to grow up without tension and anxiety.”
So we asked Dr. Crill Russell, Dr. Jodi A. Mindell, the author of Sleeping Through the Night (Harper), and Dr. Graham Reid, associate professor, departments of psychology and family medicine at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., for their tips on taming bedtime troubles.
BATTLE: Your three-year-old is playing dance party in her room, not getting ready for bed.
PLAN OF ATTACK: Create a more relaxed atmosphere to help her wind down — including turning off any music or the TV. “Start playing quiet games, even to the point of lowering the lights in the room,” suggests Dr. Russell. “You’re trying to lead them into sleepiness even if under other circumstances they would normally be wide awake.” Or if she’s just having problems switching gears, Dr. Mindell suggests a countdown strategy. “Go for a warning that in five minutes it’s time to get ready for bed and when the time is up, follow through with it,” she says. A kitchen timer can help your child know when her five minutes are up.
BATTLE: “I need to go potty. I’m thirsty. I need a hug.” PLAN OF ATTACK: Stalling is a wonderful way to attract attention. Aside from fulfilling all your child’s requests before he’s tucked in, try offering a one-time bedtime pass. “Give them a card that they can exchange for whatever request such as an extra trip to the bathroom, drink or hug,” says Dr. Reid. Once the pass is gone though, that’s it for the night.
BATTLE: Bedtime has always been 7:30 p.m. but lately your little guy isn’t falling asleep until much later. PLAN OF ATTACK: Very likely you’ve hit that grey zone where your child still needs a nap, but it’s making it difficult for him to fall asleep at bedtime. You can drop or scale back the nap to maintain the earlier bedtime, advises Dr. Mindell, but if he still needs that nap, keep the bedtime routine the same. When it’s normally lights out, give him a half-hour of “reading” in bed — he can look at books or play quietly. This way you maintain the routine, but recognize that he may not be ready to snooze yet.
BATTLE: Mommy, there’s a monster under my bed! PLAN OF ATTACK: Fears can keep the sleepiest child paralyzed into staying awake. “As kids develop, their imaginations and creativity develops in wonderful ways,” explains Dr. Mindell. “But it can also cause problems in that they can also now imagine scary things that can hurt them.” The key is to empower your child, but not reinforce the fear. If you lie down with her until she falls asleep, she might think she needs you for protection. Instead, repeat assurances that there are no monsters, that she’s safe and that you are right nearby, suggests Dr. Mindell.
Coeur Riley’s three-year-old daughter McKenna recently started thinking there was a monster in her room. “I talked her through it by being curious about it and asking what colour it was, if it was big or little,” says the Calgary mom. “Next thing I knew, the monster’s mommy had found it and it was gone before I had a chance to ask too much about it.”
Some children, who refuse to be convinced, may respond better to using “monster spray” — a spray bottle labeled and filled with water — that empowers her to spray at “monsters” herself. “Again, it’s using their imagination to fight it so you’re teaching them coping skills and at the same time you’re managing their current fears,” says Dr. Mindell.
Astrid Van Den Broek often calls for troop reinforcement in the effort to get her kids, Annika, 5, and Desmond, 2, to bed at night.