Dear Marjie, My child can’t settle down at bedtime unless I lie down next to her until she falls asleep. I’m not able to get anything done in the evenings or have time alone with my husband. Help!  – Worn Out Mom  

Yes, many parents have been here! This is an opportunity to set limits and provide training in valuable life skills. The funny thing is, a routine has been established, it just isn’t one that works for you nor does it meet the needs of the situation. The tough challenge is, how do we establish new routines – especially ones that are respectful to: 

  1. The child
  2. The parent
  3. The needs of the situation 

First, it can be powerful to start by owning our role in the old routine and apologizing. Children love it when we own our mistakes. It might sound like: “I’m sorry, I’ve been disrespectful to you and am not allowing you to gain a valuable life skill.  I’ve also been disrespectful to myself. I need help setting up a new routine. Would you be willing to help me?”  

Second, plan together how to make it work for everyone.  Create a routine chart together (this is a great project to work on in the morning or anytime during the day when you are both fresh, fed, and relaxed). Ask the child what things need to happen before going to bed. Together, draw and write each of these things on slips of paper or cards. Then, work together to organize the tasks in the order that works for both of you. Glue all of the tasks to a bigger piece of paper and put it up on the wall. You might consider taking photos of your child doing each of the steps. Some families even find it helpful to practice the routine and walk through each of the steps during the day.

Key: bedtime routines should be less than 30 minutes and the parent should leave the room with enough time for the child to gain the valuable self-settling and self-soothing experience before nodding off to sleep.

A routine chart can be really helpful when you’re in the thick of it and things start to slip off task. A simple, “What’s next on your bedtime chart?” can be all that it takes to refocus. It can also be helpful to redirect and look ahead to the next task. For example, if it is time to head towards the bath, you might give limited choices such as, “Which bath toy are you planning you’ll bring into your bath tonight during your five minutes of play time after your body is clean?” 

Next, it can be helpful to think of this as a training opportunity. When we train in a new skill, we:    

  1. Break the skill down into small pieces and train on each piece
  2. Express confidence in the child’s ability to learn the skill
  3. Expect it to be a process, not perfect skill mastery on the first try  

Talk together about strategies for settling down for sleep and share what you like to do when you are about to go to sleep. I like to share my own personal preferences and also general preferences from outside experts – to give the child a chance to create her own experience. Ask whether a comforting stuffed animal or blanket would help.  Acknowledging that being next to a loved person is a really nice feeling, perhaps you decide to make time for snuggling together in the morning before the morning routine begins.

Finally, expect your child to test the new routine to be sure you can be trusted to keep your word. The first night there might be some whining or complaints and tears. Express confidence: “I have confidence you can put yourself to sleep. This feels hard and you have what it takes to get through it. After our goodnight, I don’t talk anymore. It’s quiet time.” 

Say it once then act. “Goodnight, sweet sleep.” Then walk out the door.  

If the child calls from bed, don’t respond. (If you do respond, you’re teaching him that your “goodnight” isn’t really a goodnight!)  If the child gets up from bed to look for you, it can be helpful to guide him back to sleep, without eye contact or words. Simply, gently take his hand, guide him back to bed without engaging in conversation, then promptly walk out the door. Don’t be tempted to go through a “tuck-in” routine again and again. For some children, they will test the new limit a couple of times and then settle into the routine, others might test it over and over for a longer time.

Be consistent. 

Consider the first three to five nights as valuable learning and testing time and stay consistent, quiet, firm and friendly. These nights of lost time will be worth it as both of you learn new respect for limits and for each other.