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How to Prevent Bedtime Battles With Your Children

Welcome back to our regular series with certified sleep educator Terry Cralle, MS, RN. In this post, Cralle shares why nightly routines are so important for young children and how to establish the best bedtime routine for kids.

If you’ve been following my columns, by now you’re well aware of the importance of sleep for young children’s growth and development. (If not, here’s a quick refresher.) That’s all well and good, you say, but how can we as parents get our kids to establish good sleep habits when bedtime so often turns into a battle zone?

That’s where a nightly bedtime routine comes in. Children (and teens and adults too!) like regularity—even if they don’t always like to admit it. Younger children (toddlers included) especially thrive on structured activities that help them feel safe and secure. Pre-sleep rituals, with their calming sense of order and predictability, encourage kids to look forward to bedtime and, by doing so, help ensure that they’re getting a sufficient amount of sleep every night.

The importance of a bedtime routine for children

A successful bedtime routine is all about creating a calm, positive, and predictable transition from wakefulness to sleep. The best way to do that is to perform the same steps in roughly the same order at roughly the same time every night. That way, your child’s routine can remain consistent in any environment.

An effective bedtime routine doesn’t have to be a major production; it can be as short as 20 to 30 minutes. But it serves several critical functions in the achievement of healthy sleep—and mental and physical health in general. Studies have shown that:

And let’s face it: A bedtime routine isn’t just good for kids, it’s good for parents too. (In fact, if bedtime resistance and power struggles are the norm rather than the exception in your house, I’m willing to bet that lack of sleep on both sides is part of the problem.) In one study of over 400 mothers and their children, a consistent night routine not only led to better sleep for the children, but it also improved the mood of the mother.

A bedtime routine checklist

It’s easy to see how a child could view bedtime and the requirement to go to sleep as the ultimate timeout. So the first rule of a kid’s bedtime routine is that it be pleasant and not punitive in any way.

Start the steps early enough so that your child is in bed at a time that accommodates sufficient sleep. If you’re having trouble, try pushing the routine earlier in 15-minute increments. Make it a team effort; active participation and engagement in the process gives kids a sense of ownership and accountability for their own sleep. Even when the inevitable interruptions occur (stuff happens), try to stick to the same steps in the same order, just at a more accelerated pace.

Here are the steps I used when my son tried to take us on at bedtime:

  • Curtail playtime (or shift to quieter, less active play) and turn off electronics at least one hour before bedtime.
  • Give a 10-minute warning that bedtime is approaching, and it will be time to stop what we’re doing and start the nightly routine.
  • Dim the lights, lower noise levels, and use a calm tone of voice to help the wind-down process.
  • Be matter of fact and don’t negotiate. Going to bed, just like brushing teeth, is not optional.
  • Narrate your kid’s routine. A picture or chart with each element in sequence—bath, pajamas, prayers, stories, bed, etc.—is a great way to engage a child. Children like routines in which things happen in order and they know what’s coming next.
  • Avoid overly bright bathroom lighting for brushing teeth, bath time, and other steps that take place in the bathroom. Bright light at night is stimulating and interferes with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
  • Let your child make choices, like choosing which pajamas to wear or book to read, or making their own bedtime snack (a healthy one of course!).
  • Speaking of bedtime stories, stick with familiar ones, and avoid renegotiating books at bedtime (especially new ones that might ratchet up excitement).
  • If your child likes a night light, keep it low to the floor, not too close to the head of the bed, and preferably amber colored.
  • Say goodnight and leave the room while your child is sleepy but still awake. That way he or she will learn to fall asleep independently and return to sleep again if he or she wakes up in the middle of the night.
  • Finish the bedtime routine with cuddles, hugs, and goodnight kisses!
  • If “curtain calls” ensue (Mom! I need a drink of water!), limit conversation or interaction as much as possible and calmly guide the child back to bed. Avoid pleading, arguments, and getting angry. Some children prefer any attention—even if it’s negative.

A healthy sleep lifestyle begins in childhood

The ability to smoothly transition from awake to asleep is one of the most critical tasks of healthy childhood growth and development. While establishing a night routine for kids can aid in that process, it also serves as a catalyst for early adoption of positive attitudes toward sleep that can last a lifetime.

Unfortunately, when bedtime turns into a battle—arguing, negotiating, pleading, and threatening—no one gets the sleep they need. Help your child understand just how important sleep is by serving as a role model for respecting, prioritizing, and obtaining adequate sleep yourself. That way bedtime becomes a precious and inviolable thing, not just for young ones but for every member of the family.

The right bed can also help your child sleep. Here’s how to find the best mattress for kids.

More from Terry Cralle:

• The Essential Back-to-School Supply: Sleep

• The Student Athlete’s Sleep Playbook

• Teens and Caffeine: A Wakeup Call

Terry Cralle, MS, RN, is a certified clinical sleep educator and Saatva's sleep consultant. She is the author of Snoozby and the Great Big Bedtime Battle, the first nonfiction book directly messaging the benefits of sufficient sleep to young children, and Sleeping Your Way to the Top, the ultimate guide to success through better sleep. A nationally recognized sleep health and wellness advocate, her work in the field of sleep medicine has ranged from patient care to clinical research and continuing education for nurses.