Meet Lily: a sweet, 5-year-old girl who is engrossed in the latest episode of Paw Patrol.  As the clock strikes 8pm, Lily, too focused on the adventures of Ryder and company from Paw Patrol, does not hear her father yell for her to get ready for bed.

‘Lily?! Turn it off now, it’s time for bed!’ her father commands for the fourth time, now with more transparent frustration.

‘But my show is not finished,’ Lily complains to her dad.  Too exhausted for an argument, Lily’s father caves and allows her to finish Paw Patrol.  As Lily finishes the episode and heads upstairs, everything she passes on the way to her bedroom is seemingly more exciting than the prospect of sleep.  From her brother’s Lego set on the kitchen table to the family cat adorably sprawled out in the upstairs hallway, everything seems to grab her attention.  Lily’s father, understandably losing his patience, yells for her to knock it off and go to bed.  When Lily finally does get in bed, the nighttime battle has just begun.  For the next hour, Lily repeatedly leaves her room every few minutes asking for something different from her father.  Whether it be a glass of water, another bedtime story, or calling her grandparents, Lily seems to be looking for any reason to leave her bedroom.  Alas, now deep into the night, Lily finally falls asleep.

Many families are familiar with Lily’s talent for bedtime stalling.  Bedtime is often an area rife with conflict and power struggles between parents and their children.  There are many reasons a child may have a difficult time going to bed, and it’s important for families to always start by consulting their pediatrician or a licensed child sleep psychologist.  Regardless of what the reason may be, there are a couple of strategies that can help parents take the battle out of bedtime. 

The Bedtime Train

Oftentimes a child has a difficult time going to bed because they simply prefer whatever it is they doing more than going to sleep.  For other children, bedtime symbolizes a stressful separation from parents, leading them to avoid or stall on bedtime related tasks (e.g., brushing teeth, putting on pajamas).  The “bedtime train” is an effective and fun way to provide kids with a predictable and consistent bedtime routine.  The bedtime train involves 3-5 bedtime tasks that culminate with the child getting in bed.  Parents who wish to get creative can use construction paper to make a picture chart in the form of a train with all bedtime tasks clearly shown.  I recommend the first and final task on the bedtime train involve something fun and rewarding since the beginning and end of a bedtime routine is where conflict most frequently occurs.   For example, perhaps the first task is playing a game of Uno together (something the child enjoys) and the final task of the bedtime train involves reading a short story together (also something the child enjoys).  Sandwiched between these two tasks are the comparably more mundane yet necessary tasks (e.g., brushing teeth, changing into pajamas).  It is important the bedtime train moves toward their bedroom meaning that each “stop” (i.e., task) on the train should move the child closer in proximity to their bedroom.  Parents can feel free to “blame the train” if a child pushes limits (e.g., “I’m sorry honey but the train has left the ‘book station’ and is now at the ‘brushing teeth station’).  It can also be helpful to reward and praise the child after they complete each stop on the bedtime train.

The Bedtime Pass

Once in bed, many children have a hard time staying in bed while trying to fall asleep.  As was the case with Lily, getting her in bed was half the battle.  Once in bed she exhibited what are called nighttime “curtain calls.”  Curtain calls are when a child leaves their room multiple times after they get in bed in a clear attempt to delay bedtime.  While there are many reasons for this, it is often the case that a child experiences anxiety when separating from their parents at bedtime and wishes to delay or avoid this as much possible.  The bedtime pass is a simple and effective way to set limits on curtain calls.  For children who love their nighttime curtain calls, a parent can provide their child with a tangible “bedtime pass.”  The child can use their bedtime pass to leave their room and summon their parent for any reasonable request (e.g., another goodnight hug, a glass of water, etc.).  The child is rewarded the next morning if they do not use their bedtime pass.  Remember that this is only for children who have a clear problem with nighttime curtain calls.  What most parents find is that children rarely use their bedtime pass.  In fact, the mere presence of the bedtime pass provides the child with a sense of control over their surroundings.  This perceived sense of controllability is usually enough to alleviate nighttime anxiety and therefore make falling asleep easier.