Battling the Bedtime Blues - Part II

In Part I we talked about the importance of instituting a consistent bedtime routine in order to help your child stay in bed. But what happens if your child is still getting out of bed numerous times during the evening?

There are two more things to try prior to the disciplinary technique which will follow.

1) Eliminate sugar prior to bedtime, especially chocolate. Chocolate has caffeine, and sugar stimulates your child. Both of these can make it difficult for your child to fall asleep.

2) Eliminate TV prior to bedtime. Many parents believe that TV helps make their child sleepy. In reality, however, while TV is a passive medium, it can over stimulate your child's mind and result in difficulty going to bed, a less than restful sleep, and sometimes vivid (and even nightmarish) dreams. A far more effective solution to helping your child become drowsy is reading a book, or talking a bit before bedtime.

When you've tried all of the above, and your child is still having difficulty staying in bed, it's time to use discipline.

Disciplining your child in a way which will help him stay in bed involves setting firm limits, and helping him take responsibility for his actions. While no parent (or technique) can force a child to go to sleep, parents do have the right (and responsibility) of determining what time their child will go to bed. Once the child is in bed, he should be expected to stay there, even if he doesn't go right off to sleep.

First, make sure that your child's needs are taken care of. For example, make sure she's gone to the bathroom, has her teddy bear and that there is a drink of water by her bedside. This initial step insures that there are no "legitimate" excuses for getting out of bed. Many a parent is swayed by the child who says "But I have to go to the bathroom", even if it is the fifth time it's been used that evening. When you're sure that her needs are satisfied, you will be more confident in employing the technique to keep her in bed. And as you will see, confidence plays a crucial role. If you come across to your child as less than confident (both in her ability to go to bed, and in your own decision that it's bedtime) then your child will push you to the limit, and the technique may well fail.

The Technique:

When your child gets out of bed the first time that evening, you'll want to give him an "I" message. It has four parts:

1) When you __________________

2) I feel ____________________

3) Because ___________________

4) I would like you to _______

Put into context, it might sound something like this: "When you get out of bed after bedtime, I feel annoyed, because this is my time to be alone. I would like you to go back to bed and stay there." As you can see, an "I" message is a concise explanation of what you see going wrong, how you feel about it and why, and what you want your child to do differently. It is not "reasoning" with your child. You can't reason with children because they are not developmentally capable of reasoning in the same way that an adult is. I am also not asking you to "talk" instead of act. Action comes later, as you will see. By giving your child an "I" message first, however, you'll give him the opportunity to respond to words instead of action.

If your child does not respond to the "I" message -- either she goes back to bed and gets up again a short time later, or she stands her ground and insists upon staying up, you'll want to give her a choice. Offering children choices is important for two reasons:

* First, it gives your child a limited amount of power. Many times the struggles which ensue between parent and child are power struggles. When a child feels powerless, she's likely to yell longer, cry harder and stand her ground more firmly just to feel in control. By offering her an appropriate amount of control in a situation, you can bypass this roadblock.

* Choices are also important because they give the child responsibility for her own actions. A child who feels ownership of a decision or action is more likely to carry through with that decision night after night.

To formulate an appropriate choice for your child involves some thinking ahead. Take a few minutes to examine the things your child needs in order to sleep. For example, some children need the light (or night light) on. Some prefer to sleep with the door to their room open, some need a special stuffed animal. The choice which you offer your child must involve one of the things he needs in order to sleep. Some examples:

* If your child needs a light on, the choice will sound something like this: "Honey, you have a choice. You can either go back to bed and stay in bed, or I'm going to think the light is keeping you awake and turn it off so you can sleep better. What would you like to do? Go back to bed and keep the light on, or should I turn it off so you can sleep better?" (I suggest that as you're giving the choice, you gently lead your child back to his bedroom.)

* If your child needs the door open, suggest that you think the noise from the other room is keeping her awake. The choice will be to sleep with the door open or closed.

* Stuffed animals might be "crowding" him in bed. He can choose to sleep with them or without them.

If your child resists, it's time to take action.

* If he refuses to make a choice, simply say "If you can't choose, I'll choose for you" Then choose the thing you think he'll least prefer: turning the light off, closing the door, getting rid of the animals. Most of the time, the child will then hop back into bed and, for example, choose to have the light on. They do this in order to feel as though they have some control in the situation.

* If he gets out of bed again, say "When you get out of bed, it seems to me that the light is keeping you awake, and you're choosing to have it turned off." Then take action by escorting him back to his room, firmly turning the light off, and walking out. If he begins to cry, tell him that he'll have a chance to try again in a few minutes. Giving him a chance to try again allows him to take responsibility for the choice the next time. Wait the few minutes and ask if he'd like to try again. (The answer will probably be "yes"!)

You'll find that if you're consistent in implementing this technique of "I" message, choice, and action, your child will soon begin taking responsibility for staying in bed. When this happens, be sure to offer lots of encouragement the next morning: "I knew you could do it! I'm really proud of you."

In Part III we'll talk about the child who expresses fear (about monsters, the dark, etc.) If your child is using fear as an excuse to get out of bed, or if you believe your child is genuinely afraid, don't use the technique described this month. We'll handle this next time.