Battling the Bedtime Blues - Part 1

The holidays are over, and you have returned home from visiting the relatives. It's half-past nine in the evening and you've just put your daughter to bed. It's time to prop up your feet and listen to the new CD you got and relax. You close your eyes and...

"Mommy? Can I have another hug?"

You give her a hug, and send your pride and joy back to bed. You close your eyes once again and...

"Mommy? I forgot to tell you something..."

Why is it that at nine in the evening, the pitter-patter of little feet that you so yearned for before having children is more like fingernails on a blackboard after you've put her in bed?

For many parents, bedtime presents the ultimate challenge. Even parents who seem to have conquered its intricacies tend to find that after a vacation, or having visitors, the dragon once again rears its ugly head, and numerous evenings thereafter are spent trying to get a reluctant or stubborn child back to bed.

To conquer the bedtime blues, it's important to understand that our children resist bedtime because they have developed a sense of the world as being separate from themselves. Prior to that development, a child believes the world revolves around him -- when he opens his eyes, the activities of the world begin, when he closes them, the world ceases to exist. But once that important developmental leap occurs, a child knows that when he falls asleep the world will continue to exist, and therefore, closing his eyes might mean missing something very important. Most children are very reluctant to have that happen, hence the repeated getting out of bed.

When does this occur?

The first step in making bedtime a more pleasant experience for you and your child is to develop a bedtime routine. Older children can help in developing this important aspect of bedtime, younger children can simply be told what the "routine" will be. Many times, simply instituting a routine will so comfort a child that she will not get out of bed once she has been tucked in. (For what to do if the routine by itself doesn't work, see next month's issue!)

There are three components to a successful routine: a warning, a "work" phase, and a "play" phase.

* The warning. Bedtime is an important transition for a child. Children of all ages (and a lot of adults) have difficulty with transitions as a rule. Therefore, to ease your child through this daily transition, it is necessary to give her a warning that bedtime is approaching. Simply say "In a half hour, it will be time to start the routine." It's important that you use the word "routine", even with very young children, because if you encounter resistance at this point, you can always give your child a choice: "You can either do the routine or you can skip it and go straight to bed. What would you like to do?" After the half hour warning, give a fifteen, then a ten and a five minute warning, finishing with: "It's time to start the routine now."

* The "work" phase. For many parenting challenges, the institution of a "work first, play later" philosophy is an effective solution. Bedtime is no exception to this rule. Order your child's routine so that the work part of the routine, such as brushing teeth, bath, getting pajamas on (anything your child might resist other than getting in bed itself) comes at the beginning of the routine. Again, there is a very simple reason for this order. Should you encounter resistance to any of the "work" parts of bedtime, you can offer the choice to your child of either doing the "work" or skipping the routine altogether. It might sound something like this: "You can either brush your teeth, and then we'll do the rest of the routine, or you can skip the routine and go straight to bed. What would you like to do?" Because the most pleasant part of the routine is saved for last, it's unlikely that your child will want to skip the entire routine.

* The "play" phase. This is the most pleasant part of the bedtime routine. It should be as pleasant for you as it is for your child. What it actually consists of is up to you and your child, but for many parents it includes reading their child a book or telling him a bedtime story, tucking him in bed, singing a song, or discussing the day's events.

Once the "play" phase of the routine is finished, leave your child's room with confidence. Don't let your child talk you into reading another book, or giving another kiss or repeating another part of the routine. If you do, you may be stuck in his room all evening, which doesn't leave you much time for yourself!

Another important component of a successful bedtime routine is that it doesn't vary from night to night. That's not to say that you can't have some flexibility, or that you can't go out to dinner and let the sitter put your child to bed. But what children derive from a non-variable routine, and the reason that it keeps many children in bed who previously got up 10 times, is that it gives the child a sense of security and safety. Children need to know what to expect, and when they do, they relax and, in this case, go to sleep faster, without worrying that they might be missing something exciting.

Something to be prepared for:

* Testing. At some point, your child may decide to "test" you, to see if you will actually stick to what you've said about "skipping the routine." Testing is when a child says something like: "Okay" (in a defiant voice) "I don't want to brush my teeth. I'll go straight to bed." Children test, because, as parents, we tend to waver about our decisions in order to keep the peace. In the past, you might have told your child firmly that she has to go "straight to bed". Then, when she sees you're serious about carrying through on it, and she acts contrite, you may have given in and allowed her to stay up "a little longer" in spite of your original plan. Remember that by doing this you're sending the message to the child that a display of contriteness (genuine or not) will change the outcome of the choices your child has made. This only increases "testing" in the future. In addition, it may actually have serious consequences in your child's future. While this example of bedtime may seem trivial, the lesson it teaches is not. If your teenager chooses to have unprotected sex and gets pregnant or contracts AIDS, no one -- not you, not your child -- can take that choice back. It's therefore imperative that you do NOT allow your child to take back the choices you present to her which have unpleasant but safe consequences. It is only through experiencing these "minor" consequences that your chill can learn about "cause and effect" for the future.

While a bedtime routine won't solve every parent's "bedtime blues", in the majority of the cases it works surprisingly well. But what happens if your child is still getting out of bed numerous times during the evening? We'll discuss this in Part II.