If you decided to google “bedtime chaos” or “bedtime battles” after a rough night putting children to bed, you must now know you’re not alone. This is a common problem that parents have, and it often starts early in childhood, around the toddler and preschooler years. As early childhood educators, we’ll try to break down the steps you can take to get a grip on your family’s nighttime routines, and avoid those preschool bedtime chaos battles once and for all!
Don’t just establish a routine, establish your authority
Many articles on childhood bedtime chaos will tell you to establish a routine with your child. This is true, and necessary. However, you may feel that you do already try to follow a routine, but it’s not getting you anywhere.
Every night, at 7 p.m. (or whatever time it is for your family), you begin asking your children to start getting ready for bed. You yourself are on time, but your children are not. You have a plan to put on pjs, brush teeth and read a story, but they don’t.
Their plan is to keep playing, watching TV, or whatever it is that they’re doing. And, to put it lightly, they’re simply not interested in your plan.
Every. Single. Night.
Why is it that 7 p.m. is suddenly when children feel like they need to jump on their bed? Or declare that they’re hungry? Or feel like telling you a sea story about some random topic?
Yes, in part, this has to do with routine. But it also has to do with a lot more.
One thing to pay attention to is their sense of your authority. Before we go any further, we must clarify that by using the word “authority” we are not referring to yelling, demanding or scaring children by way of over-reacting in anger. That can happen sometimes. But it’s not useful. See our article on “What is a balanced parenting style for toddlers and preschool-aged children?” for more on this topic.
Authority, according to Dr. Randy Cale, is about controlling the environment that children are in. This doctor sells an educational parenting product on sleep. We’re not sponsoring that in any way, and can’t speak to whether or not you should buy it. What we can say is that his article on “bedtime battles” does make sense. There, he encourages consequences. Not threatening, not bribing, and not trying to control the child (because those are useless strategies).
So for example, you tell your child to turn off the T.V. and they don’t. So, you turn it off. That is controlling the environment. That is also showing that YOU have authority over this situation, not them. They can scream and cry about it, but it won’t change your decision. They don’t control this environment. You do. And, notice how there’s no screaming on your part needed to do this!
If you’ve ever watched Supernanny on this topic, you’ll notice she always gives the same advice to parents who struggle with bedtime chaos (though she may not call it “authority”). When a child gets out of their bed, either crying in desperation or trying to be rebellious, a parent should do one thing: tell them “it’s time for bed” and then put them back in bed. Say nothing more. Ignore all sassiness.
When they get out of bed the second time, tell them again, “it’s bedtime,” and put them in bed. After that, no more words. Just put them back in bed every time they get out of bed. Then, do this on repeat until it sticks. Warning: if this hasn’t been established in your household yet, note that it could take hours!
Want to see Supernanny teach this in action? Here are just a few videos to catch a glimpse of how it works:
Are your children getting enough sleep? That could be key to all of this
Now, of course you want your children in bed at bedtime, that’s why you’re reading this article, right? The problem is, some parents want their children in bed at a time that is either:
- not consistent every day
- not early enough
Children need a lot of sleep. When they don’t get enough sleep, they begin having mood and behavioural problems. It even affects their ability to do well in school.
How much sleep do they need? In the preschool years, at least 10 – 11 hours per night, according to this Harvard Gazette article.
So on the one hand, you want your children in bed at the same time every night, since our bodies love cycles, per our circadian rhythm. There are opportune times for us to be awake, be active, eat and so on. It’s also why we generally poop at the same time every day! Routine helps our bodies function properly.
On the other hand, we need to recognize that convenience for parents can mean going to bed late for children. This is not ideal, since children need so much sleep. If your children are already not getting the sleep they need, they will likely be moody, cranky and ready to rebel at any time of day, more especially when they’re reaching the ‘end of their rope’ at bedtime.
So, this could be feeding a cycle you don’t want it to feed. Do yourself a favour and ensure your children are in bed by say, 7 p.m. every night, (if they wake up at 7 a.m. to get ready for school, for instance). They may not need the full 12 hours of sleep, but at least they’ll have some buffer time to wind down while they are in bed, before they actually fall asleep. This could include a 20-minute story time with mom or dad, for example. Or prayer (or affirmation) time. Or sibling ‘talk time’ (we all know they do it!).
Limit light, screen time and stimulating activities before bed
Winding down before bed is really important. If, as an adult, you’ve ever tried jumping into bed after a stimulating activity, you’ll know it’s not easy to immediately fall asleep, no matter how tired you are. Your brain may be ‘wired’ and super active, even though your body is exhausted. Children are like this too. They need time to wind down. We can’t expect anything more of them.
What does winding down look like? We’ll explain below:
Limit exposure to light before bed
It’s no joke that exposure to light keeps us awake. Our bodies produce melatonin (the sleep hormone), when we are exposed to darkness at night. But in our modern society, electric lights can throw us off kilter.
In preschool children, this waking effect of light is magnified, since their eyes take in more light. According to this New York Times article, researchers found that even when children get out of bed to use the bathroom (where lights are on), their melatonin is affected. This means that the more children are exposed to light at night time, the more they can be tired, while not getting the brian signals to fall asleep. Hence, they really don’t want to go to bed!
Try to dim your home lighting in the evening. Use night lights and softer lights in hallways and bathrooms, if you can, for those night time pee pees. Even when children are in bed, or about to go to bed, find ways to make your whole home dim. Use blackout curtains in summertime, if it’s still light out at 7 p.m.
Stop screen time early
We hear a lot about how blue light from our devices causes us to stay awake at night. Researchers are finding that even yellow light suppresses melatonin, according to this Time article. So those blue-blocking glasses and screen hue changers may not be doing much.
Not to mention, TV content itself can be stimulating.
In an effort to help brain signals get ready for bed in tandem with our bodies, it’s best if we encourage preschoolers to read books or do other relaxing activities in the evenings. This is also a great way to spend family time with your children.
Don’t do stimulating activities before bed
Like we mentioned above, being an adult does not preclude us from having a hard time falling asleep if we’ve just been active. Try to avoid the rowdy visits with cousins, the exhilarating hide-and-seek games, the fort-building and other stimulating activities before bed. These are exciting and necessary to let off energy, but only at the right times.
Stimulation can also be eating. While bedtime snacks may be helpful in some cases, avoid excess liquids, heavy meals or unhealthy diets which can affect sleep. More on that in this article on our website.
Don’t forget love, affection and attention
As a last word, we’ll say that it’s important for children to feel loved. Some may say this is ‘filling their love tank.’ When they get attention from their adults, they feel secure. That need in them must be met. Ideally, ‘filling’ the ‘love tank’ should be happening throughout the day, in preparation for bed time.
Don’t neglect the power of listening to how their day went, reading a story with them, or hugging and cuddling them before bed. The more you show your love to children, the more they’ll want to return that love. That can be displayed as obedience, and wanting to please you.
On the contrary, if you’re always criticizing them, making them feel bad for their age-appropriate mistakes, neglecting to give them an opportunity to tell you what’s wrong, or failing to meet them half-way, they’ll likely act out in retaliation.
Their needs are important. But, when you treat them like they’re a nuisance to your day, and your schedule, they’ll feel like there’s nothing to work for. Those sighs and annoyed facial expressions can be picked up. If you’re preemptively sending the signals that they can’t please you, they won’t try. If you yell, they’ll ‘get back at you.’ That can show up as rebellion.
Be patient when you explain why bedtime is important. Don’t make bedtime a dictator’s rule. Yes, you have authority. But you have love too. Show them how happy you are when they jump in the bath without a fight. Give them a hug when they get their jammy’s on. Show them you are pleased, and you love them. It will make bedtime so much sweeter.
And, it’s ok to meet them half-way, as mentioned above. If they want a snack before bed, make it part of the routine every night, and offer it before they brush their teeth. If they insist the light stays on, offer them a night light they get to pick out at the store. Find bedtime solutions with them.
Preschooler bedtime chaos can be transformed with the right approach
As we’ve seen above, preschool bedtime chaos doesn’t have to be a permanent part of your life. It takes consistency and perseverance on your part as a parent to solve it. It also takes some backbone, to show you are the one in charge. But children are smart. The idea that you’re not kidding around won’t ‘turn on’ in their minds all of a sudden. It takes follow-through and actions to show them you’re serious: not empty threats and outbursts of anger.
But on the softer side of this puzzle is the need for deeper, meaningful parenting. Pay attention to what children are doing after dinner, and how calming their environment is before bed. Don’t expect that they’ll wind down as soon as you say so; a lot is dependent on how you direct their schedule. It also matters how much attention they get from you throughout the day. Fill their ‘love tank,’ and you may notice they’ll be happier overall. This can make them feel that they’ve had enough attention from you for the day, so they’ll be more willing to fulfill their responsibility of going to bed.
See more on our blog:
- The importance of sleep in early childhood
- Do young kids need sleeping aids like melatonin? Keep these things in mind
- 4 Strategies to help your toddler get a good night’s sleep
- Pros and cons of co-sleeping with your toddler or child, and how it affects daycare
- 3 Top benefits of downtime for kids and why they need it