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Sleep Tight: Establishing a Consistent Bedtime Routine for Young Children

Last week, we addressed how difficult the morning routine can be, but parenting often feels a lot like whack-a-mole. Since tackling the morning routine, our evening routines seem a little more difficult than usual. My four-year-old has been pushing boundaries and flat out refusing to stay in her room and go to bed on some nights. For me, sleep is non-negotiable. I need my full 8 hours, she needs a good 10 hours at this age, and my husband needs to get to bed early because he wakes up at the crack of dawn to teach middle school kids. Because of this, we knew the bedtime pushback had to be tackled as quickly as possible.

In this post, we will discuss two components. The first addresses establishing a consistent nighttime routine, and the second addresses common issues that arise even with a consistent nighttime routine. Feel free to post questions or additions in the comments!

Consistency is Key A consistent nighttime routine not only helps children feel calm and secure, but it also promotes healthy sleep habits. As a parent, applied developmental psychologist, and a behavior analyst, I understand the importance of a consistent routine, and I want to share a bedtime routine that I recommend for young children. With this routine, I hope to help parents establish a calming and effective bedtime routine for their children.

  1. Wind Down Time: The first step in any nighttime routine is to establish a period of winding down time. This is a period of about 30 minutes where the child engages in calming activities such as reading a book, taking a bath, or listening to soothing music. This helps to signal to the child that it is time to start preparing for sleep. It’s important to note that this strategy isn’t for every child. Some children actually do better with gross motor play right before bed to tire them out. I recommend trying wind down time for at least a week, and if you feel it’s not working, give gross motor play a try. Ultimately, you know your child best!

  2. Brush Teeth and Potty Time: After wind down time, it is important to establish a consistent order of events. The first step in this order should be to brush teeth and use the bathroom. This helps to ensure that the child is comfortable and ready for sleep.

  3. Bedtime Story: Once the child has completed their teeth and bathroom routine, it is time for a bedtime story (or three!). This can be a great opportunity for you to connect with your child and bond over a shared activity. Reading a story can also help to calm your child's mind and prepare them for sleep. To limit struggles around books, I recommend allowing your child to pick one book, and for you to pick the other book.

  4. Lights Out: After the story is finished, it is time to turn off the lights and say goodnight. It is important to establish a consistent routine for saying goodnight to the child. This could involve giving them a kiss, saying a special phrase, or simply wishing them a good night's sleep. We give “sweet dream dust” and turn on a sound machine for our four-year-old. Whatever routine you choose, make sure that it is consistent every night.

  5. Consistently Reinforcing Boundaries: If your child struggles with going to bed or staying asleep, it’s important for you to consistently enforce any expectations around sleep that you’ve set for your child. There’s no such thing as “just this once” when it comes to the bedtime routine. If you allow your child to come out of their bedroom and get a snack, then they’ll expect this to continue in the future

Following these five steps will lay a successful foundation for any bedtime struggles that may arise in the future. As all parents know, there will be bedtime struggles, as children are meant to push boundaries, and it's not uncommon for young children to have difficulty staying in their room at bedtime. If your child struggles with staying in their room or falling asleep at bedtime, there are a few strategies you can try:

  1. Establish Clear Expectations: Make sure your child understands what is expected of them at bedtime. Use clear and simple language to explain that it is essential to stay in their room and try to fall asleep. We explain to our child that her brain needs to rest so she can be ready to play the next day.

  2. Use Visuals (when appropriate): A visual sound machine, such as the Hatch, can be an effective tool to help your child understand how long they need to stay in their room. You can let them know that the sound machine will stay on blue when it's sleeping time, and then turn green when it's wake-up time. It's crucial to stick with those visuals, so your child can trust this system.

  3. Provide Comfort Items: Sometimes children feel more comfortable staying in their room if they have a comfort item, such as a stuffed animal or blanket. Make sure your child has access to these items at bedtime. It can be tempting to threaten to remove items when a child isn't following directions or staying in their room. It's important that these comfort items are never removed during the bedtime struggle, as that can create additional stress and anxiety around bedtime for your child.

  4. Bedtime Passes: Providing your child with a specific number of "bedtime passes" where they can come out of their room to request a hug or water can help maintain boundaries while allowing some flexibility. Start with 3-4 passes, and once the child has used these passes, they should be redirected back to their room.

  5. Gradual Fading: In our house, we call this a "check on schedule." When our four-year-old is having a difficult time falling asleep, we reassure her that we'll come back to check on her in five minutes, then ten minutes, then thirty minutes, etc.

  6. Patience: This is key during bedtime struggles. It's easy to lose our temper, especially when we're tired or ready to binge-watch our favorite shows. But patience will prevail over bedtime struggles. Your child will eventually get tired and fall asleep. Practicing patience will help you maintain a positive relationship with your child at bedtime. Remind yourself that they're pushing boundaries because they want to trust that the boundaries will stay in place. It's your job to keep those boundaries exactly where you promised they would be!

It's essential to remain calm and patient when dealing with bedtime struggles. Remember that it may take some time for your child to adjust to the new routine. If you continue to have difficulty, consider consulting with a behavior analyst or other child development specialist for additional support and guidance.

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