Why does my child still have trouble at bedtime?

      Many parents believe that six- to nine-year-old should go to bed on their own without arguing, and when their own child doesn’t, they feel frustrated. They get tired of saying, “Brush your teeth.” “Now put on your pajamas.” “Now put your clothes away.” They also are bothered if she dawdles or gets up once she’s been put to bed.

     Independent bedtime habits develop slowly. Most children can fall asleep without having their parents stay with them, and many can take care of their middle-of-the-night needs: going to the bathroom, getting a drink, finding an extra blanket. However, it’s still common for young children to need help at bedtime. Most require prodding at night and some won’t get ready at all unless their parents guide them through almost every step of the process. All these reminders are necessary because they have difficulty separating themselves from their activities. They’d much rather continues playing or watching TV. And because bedtime is of no interest to them, they’re easily distracted and need to be kept on track. The procrastination that bothers so many parents is the result of the young child’s inability to focus on something she doesn’t want to do.

     Children this age also need their parents for bedtime rituals, which continue to be important. Some kids can’t go to sleep without a story, a conversation, or a hug and a kiss. In busy families or on rushed days, bedtime may be the only time parents and children have quiet contact.

     While most children need some parental help at night, if your child has consistent trouble at bedtime, try to find out why. Observe her and talk to her about the problem. Depending on her age, there might be a simple explanation. Perhaps she’s hungry and needs a snack in the evening. She may avoid bedtime because she’s afraid of imaginary creatures or the dark and wants to put off going to sleep as long as possible. If that’s the case, spend fifteen minutes or so in her room while she falls asleep; try keeping a light on at night or suggesting that she sleep with a personal treasure or newly received gift. She may also sleep more securely in a room shared with a sibling.

     Your child may have trouble because she simply isn’t tired. Some parents, understandably eager for time alone in the evenings, set early bedtimes without considering their child’s actual sleep needs. If you know that your child isn’t sleepy, you can send her to bed later or set a flexible bedtime, including later hours on weekends. As an alternative to changing her bedtime, you can stick to the early hour but allow her to do something quiet in her room, such as read, draw, do a puzzle, or listen to music before she falls asleep.

     If her bedtime problems just seem to be habitual, you’ll have to set limits and tell her the consequences of too much dawdling: “If you don’t get ready quickly, you won’t have time to play before bed.” “When you take so long to get in bed, I don’t have time to read to you.” It’s important to anticipate evening struggles rather than let annoyances build up to an angry battle of wills.

      You also can try rewarding your child for getting ready on time: “If you’re in bed in five minutes, I’ll let you listen to a tape before you fall asleep.” One child would get ready quickly in order to hear favorite stories about her family.

      Bedtime will be less stressful if you try to be patient and remember that your child will gradually assume her own bedtime responsibilities. Meanwhile, as long as she responds to your reminders and does get ready, you don’t have to worry or feel defeated. If there are evening arguments, try to resolve them with a bedtime talk. Discuss what happened that day, tell your child about something exciting that’s coming up, suggest that you both try a little harder to cooperate with each other, and remind her of how special she is.

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