Ending Bedtime Struggles

Ending Bedtime Struggles

First published in Nurture magazine

Okay time for bed

Blank expression.  Continues to push car across the floor.

I get a bit closer “Bedtime

This time he turns his back and “brrm, brrrm”, the car drives away from me. I keep trying and somehow cajole him to the bathroom where the sight of the toothbrush causes jaws to be clenched and lips pursed tight. I attempt to gently persuade him with “it’ll stop your teeth going bad, it’ll only take two secs”, but don’t succeed. Miraculously we manage to go to the loo without too much fuss. However getting undressed and hopping into bed for stories becomes tortuous. I feel exhausted.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. According to parent surveys, 20-30% of young children have significant problems going to bed (Mindell et al 2006) and I think most families deal with some degree of bedtime struggle at one time or another. Resistance to bedtime is a big red flag that your child needs your help. And a good starting point is to try and figure out why they are struggling. In the vast majority of cases, I believe the causes are emotional.

But it’s worth ruling out other possibilities including: the wrong bedtime (putting a child to bed too early/late); poorly timed naps (napping too close to bedtime); caffeine before bed (sources include cola, chocolate, tea); TV watching both during the day and at night (numerous studies show links between screen time, including passive TV watching, and bedtime problems e.g. Li et al 2007); or allergies (kids with allergies are more likely to suffer from insomnia). Once you’ve ruled out these other causes you can be pretty confident your child’s bedtime reluctance is emotionally driven.

I think there’s something about the impending separation of sleep that kicks up big feelings. It doesn’t matter whether your child sleeps snuggled in your arms all night or whether they are in their own bed, either way, they seem to experience sleep as separation. We know that otherwise well-adjusted young children frequently experience anxiety when they are separated from their parents (Jenni et al 2005), so it makes sense that sleep triggers these normal feelings. Separation also has a way of bringing up any underlying upsets or feelings of disconnection and we know that daytime stresses raise stress hormone levels and fuel night-time anxieties (e.g. El Sheik et al 2006). Luckily, there’s much we can do to help kids build resilience, process daytime pressures and deal with separation anxiety. 

Some bedtime struggles can simply be solved by paying attention to creating connection. Because children depend on adults for survival, their highly developed emotional brains are constantly scanning their surroundings to check there’s adult attention available for them. If they sense the adults nearby are unavailable, the danger alarm in their brain gets tripped, flooding them with feelings. This impedes their ability to think, their behaviour starts to flare and they struggle to follow their bedtime routine. So a good starting point is to do what we can to help our kids feel connected.

Being playful

Nothing lights up children’s hearts more than adults being playful. It helps them feel safe, loved and happy. Here’s how, Paula from Adelaide, a mum on one of my courses, made bedtime more fun for her two young boys:

Just before bed, I get a blanket and I sit both my boys on it and go tearing up and down the corridor and they love it. We pretend it’s a train and we stop off at the bathroom and brush our teeth and then we stop off at the bedroom. It makes both of them laugh. It’s really good.”

Being playful is about loosening tension. As adults we seem to be so serious so much of the time. A little shift towards a lighter bedtime routine can make a world of difference.

There are a few things we can do that make our playfulness fill a child’s heart. We can: (1) look for laughter, touch and eye contact, (2) do rough and tumble play; (3) reverse roles; and (4) use puppet play. Let’s dive deeper:

(1) look for laughter, touch and eye contact: Laughter, touch and eye contact have positive effects on our biochemistry. Touch and eye contact stimulate the production of oxytocin, the hormone that makes us feel loved (Kuchinskas). Laughter reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine as well as causing the brain to release endorphines that help us feel good (Scientific American). It also helps shake off our lighter fears and embarrassment.

So setting up unforced laughter (without tickling); offering eye contact and gentle touch does wonders to build a child’s sense of connection and release some of the tension that is stopping them being able to follow the bedtime routine. Here’s how Keiko, mother of two boys in California used laughter and touch:

“I said I’d turn a movie as a special movie night.  Our two boys were saying “yes!” and excitedly giving me big hugs. They were connected after a good day playing.

But when it was time to turn off the movie, the boys were very reluctant. They were cross and disconnected.  I turned it off anyway and they were even more cross.  Now that it was time to brush teeth and go to bed, they were not in the mood.

So I used my index finger and started brushing their bodies, here and there, over their clothes playfully.  “Let’s brush teeth! Oh, this is not your mouth, let me see, brush brush, oh, this wasn’t your teeth again!”

The kids started protesting at first, then they started laughing.  We played with this whole body brushing for a while and not only did they brush their teeth soon after, their bedtime went very smooth, relaxed and reconnected.”

(2) Physical rough and tumble pay: At first sight this might seem like a terrible suggestion! Most parenting advice suggests winding things down before bed not revving it up. But wrestling, affectionate chasing games or pillow fights give kids little challenges that they survive and an opportunity to release tension through laughter. Their mind experiences thump, thump, thump – survive, survive, survive! Games that include laughter, rolling around, lots of body contact, so they get a real physical dose of your presence, and the reassurance that comes with confident touch, fill kids with a deep sense of connection. Younger children might need you to start tamely, just where the laughter is (try and catch them, kiss their toes or lick their elbows, failing to actually get them but let them scramble away). Older kids will delight in bigger challenges (maybe pick them up and dump them on the sofa). The laughter and physical contact before bedtime helps to reassure children in a very cellular way.


(3) Role reversal: sometimes we can lighten the tension and build emotional connection by playing with power reversal. Here’s how one Mum did it:


My daughter has always been difficult when it comes to nap or bed time. Last night, I put her little brother to bed. I came down, her and Daddy were reading together: she was holding one of his novels pretending she was the Mommy. They immediately asked if I was okay and why I was out of bed. Well, they must have caught me in an "on" moment because I immediately said I had to potty, and began asking could I stay up later with them. She took on the Mommy role beautifully, and a fabulous game of pretend ensued. I mimicked many of her usual behaviours and she did mine. It went on for nearly an hour and came around to her putting me to sleep. (at her bedtime she always likes to pinch my neck and often asks to do so, and asks for me to lay with her). So I asked if I could pinch her neck. She lit up with a great smile and answered sure, and quickly snuggled next to me. She then
asked me if I wanted her to lay with me, to which I said yes, and she was sure to remind me that it would only be for a few minutes and then she had to go to her bed. We went a few rounds of me pretending to wake up, her putting more blankets on me, singing me lullabies, getting me a toy to hold, and laying with me one more time. Then out of the blue, she told Daddy (i was sleeping - pretend) that she was going to bed, and began to go upstairs to her room. Daddy asked for hugs (her usual response to this is no), and she immediately came to him engulfing him in a long hug resting her head on his shoulder. I had to get in on that, and woke up to ask for some too. She walked over to me and gave me great hugs and kisses. Then straight up to bed, all by herself, without a story, without a neck to pinch, without someone to lay with her. I could not believe it.”


(4) Puppet play: Larry Cohen, Author of Playful Parenting suggests a great way of getting out of stuck patterns with our kids is to have the argument through soft toys (or dolls, or puppets or even using your hands as a puppet). Teddy says “I don’t think she should go to bed now look at her, she’s having so much fun” doll says “but it’s her bed time she really needs to go to bed so she can get her sleep”. Doing this immediately shifts our own seriousness, and makes us more approachable. Children will join in the conversation or just sit and watch amused. Either way your connection is building, any laughter eases the tension and helps your child have more access to their thinking brain.

Helping shift the feelings

Once we’ve loosened some tension and offered connection through play we might be lucky enough to have a kid who’s happy to go to bed. Or we might need to switch gears: despite the connection filled play our child still might not want to go bed. But we have built the emotional safety a child needs to release the tension causing them to struggle. We can help by shift things by (1) listening to their feelings (2) and/or holding the expectation that they are going to bed.

(1)Listen to the upsets: After goofing around for a good chunk of time, our child might find some pretext to cry about something. For example, if we were roughhousing they might have a little bump that brings out big fat tears way out of proportion to the little hurt. We can help our child by simply staying close and listening warmly to their upset rather than trying to move them away from their feelings. If we are able to listen all the way to the end of the crying we will find they are much more able to be cooperative and feel close to us. They may snuggle on our lap or just bounce up and skip off to bed without prompting. The tears cleared out a back log of feelings that were hijacking their brain, now gone they can feel our warmth and think again.

Here’s how Sandra Flear, in Toronto, Canada, listened to her daughter’s feelings at bedtime:

My daughter, who is 7, had trouble separating at bedtime. One night, she was very mad and started punching and kicking me. I met her aggression with warmth. I kissed her hands when she punched, deflected her kicks. After a good long while, she lay on the bed and told me about something that happened at gym that day. They did a parachute game, which she had never done before. It was familiar to all the other children at her new school, but she was confused about what to do, and felt scared when she was under the parachute. She said everyone loved the game, but she hated it. She cried in my arms and after about 5 minutes cuddled up and said she was ready for sleep. She hasn’t cried since when she can’t sleep in my bed, though she still doesn’t like it, and it still holds some fear for her. The difference before and after this bedtime is remarkable though, and I was surprised and happy that one time listening to her feelings had such a big impact.”

(2) Hold the expectation about going to bed: Other times we’ll need to switch from playfulness to a more serious tone and warmly hold the expectation that it’s bedtime. Here’s how it can go:

You give a little warning that it’s going to be bedtime soon. Then after a few more minutes of play, you warmly and calmly say “it's time for bed". If your child protests, you put your arms around her, and say "It's time to go upstairs." Not angry, not hurried. Just say it in the same way you might say, "The sky is dark now." She’ll likely resist. So you gently nudge her in the direction of the bedroom.

Put all your energy into connecting but at the same time hold that expectation about bed. By touching and nudging her towards the stairs, feelings will start to rise in her. Say little, just be close. She might scream, cry, or sweat. Keep connecting, listening and holding a safe space for her to show you her feelings for as long as she needs to before she can go to bed. 


To begin with this is going to make bedtime a lot longer. But it's also going to allow her to drain the tension that she holds inside that’s been stopping her from going to bed easily. When she’s reached the end of the upset, you'll get a more relaxed and cooperative child.


Support for yourself

Listening to feelings and being playful is hard! Our feelings get ignited as our children open up theirs. So it’s important we get the support we need. It can be particularly helpful to find a warm non-judgemental person to listen to us as we offload our own emotional tension. That way we are more and more able to warmly help our kids go to bed without struggles.


"Why Laughter May Be the Best Pain Killer". Scientific American. Retrieved 11 October 2011.

Li S, Jin X, Wu S, Jiang F, Yan C, and Shen X. 2007. The impact of media use on sleep patterns and sleep disorders among school-aged children in China. Sleep 30(3):361-7.

Mindell JA, Kuhn B, Lewin DS, Meltzer LJ, Sadeh A and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 2006. Behavioral treatment of bedtime problems and night wakings in infants and young children. Sleep 29: 1263-1281.

Jenni OG, Fuhrer HZ, Iglowstein I, Molinari L, Largo RH. 2005. A longitudinal study of bed sharing and sleep problems among Swiss children in the first 10 years of life. Pediatrics 115(1 Suppl):233-40.

El-Sheikh M, Buckhalt JA, Mize J, and Acebo C. 2006. Marital conflict and disruption of children's sleep. Child Dev. 77(1):31-43.

Kuchinskas “the chemistry of connection”