Bedtime rituals: 8 ways to end before-bed battles

My toddler fights going to bed each night. This has become exhausting for both me and my husband. (We drop into bed ourselves after she finally gets to sleep.) Friends have recommended that we establish consistent bedtime rituals. Will this really help?

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Toddlers are busy learning about their bodies: how they work, what they can do and whether or not they really need to sleep. They may also be starting to realize that things go on while they are asleep. When they were younger, they didn’t have any concept that the world continued on while they were asleep, but now they wonder if they are missing out on interesting activities. Three year olds may also be experiencing feelings of separation anxiety around bedtime since they are just figuring out that when they are asleep, they are not "with you."

Your little one may also be exploring power and control. "When Daddy says, ‘It’s time for bed,’ do I really have to go or is it negotiable?" They may begin to test things they never tested before. Another possible factor is that some children have a harder time settling down to sleep than others do and at three, their world is more busy and interesting than ever. It can be hard to let it go to fall asleep.

For parents, several issues can come up around bedtime. If you feel you haven’t spent enough time with your child, you may feel ambivalent yourself about the final good-bye in the evening. You may also be tired yourself, less resourceful and resilient. You may also feel torn because of all the other things you have to do, making it hard to really focus on your child.

8 Ways to Put an End to Bedtime Battles

1. Observe your child to learn when she is really tired. It is important that you help your child get to bed when she is tired, rather than too early or too late.

2.Make a plan. Talk through the bedtime routine before you are in the middle of it. Since everyone is tired by the time bedtime rolls around, it is easier to decide on a plan earlier in the day. Talk together with your spouse to come up with a time, a routine and a way to set limits, if necessary.

3. Create a routine which fits everyone's needs. Bedtime routines can include: bathing, teeth brushing, stories (books and story-telling), songs, cuddling, massage, listening to music, recalling events from the day, talking about feelings, laying down together until the child falls asleep, saying prayers, saying "good-nights" to people present and not present, talking about the next day, meditating, visualization or thinking about up-coming dreams.

Ideally, these activities should be enjoyable for both parents and children. For many children, having a predictable, consistent routine helps them by giving them a familiar sequence they can begin to relax too. Once you have decided on your routine, you can tell your daughter what will be happening: "Tonight at bedtime, after you brush your teeth, you can choose a story to read and then I will rub your feet while I sing you a song. After that, it will be time for you to rest. Mommy and I will kiss you good-night and leave so you can go to sleep. Do you want your door open or closed?"

4. Help your daughter make a plan for what she can do. You can talk to your daughter ahead of time about how she can help herself fall asleep. "If you are still awake after we leave the room, you could help yourself go to sleep by thinking of your favorite friend, or by holding your bear, or by singing yourself a song." If you think your daughter is experiencing separation anxiety, you can offer to put pictures of you around her bed or let her listen to a tape of you singing or telling her stories.

5. Decide on a plan for follow-through or limit-setting if necessary. Once you have completed your sweet little routine, you daughter will, no doubt, call for you, cry or get up out of bed. At that point, you need to be clear about how you are going to respond. If you really want your daughter to go to sleep by herself, your actions need to convey this to her. When she calls you or cries, you can peek your head in once and remind her that it is bedtime and that she can help herself go to sleep.

You can tell her that if she needs to keep calling or crying, she can, but you won’t be coming in any more. If she gets out of bed, you can gently, firmly and without anger, talking or fanfare, put her back in bed. You may need to do this many times before she gets the message that you are clear that she needs to stay in bed.

If you understand that she needs to test you many times in order to learn you are serious, it may prevent you from feeling angry. It is more effective if you stay calm, clear, gentle and quiet. If you keep talking to her, lecturing her, bribing her or getting angry, she may feel compelled to continue the interaction longer.

6. Tell your daughter the plan. "Once we leave the room, it will be your job to stay in bed and help yourself fall asleep. You can cry or call if you need to. If you get out of bed, we will put you back in bed, because it is your bedtime."

7. Give your daughter information about the importance of sleep. "Your body needs sleep so you can have energy to play tomorrow. Sleep helps you feel better, grow and be strong."

8. Make time to connect with your daughter during the day and/or early evening hours. If you feel like you have had enough time with your daughter, it will be easier to be clear about her bedtime and to give her consistent messages that it is time for her to rest.

There are many ways to help children find sleep. All of these suggestions have been geared to helping a child go to sleep independently in her own bed. Many families prefer to sleep in a family bed. There is no one right way. Your family can discover the way that works the best for you.

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