How To Win The Bedtime Battle With Your Kids

“Ironically, to my children, bedtime is a punishment that violates their basic rights as human beings. Once the lights are out, you can expect at least an hour of inmates clanging their tin cups on the cell bars.” ~ Jim Gaffigan, Dad Is Fat

The bedtime battles. We’ve all either seen them or experienced them. By the time sleep actually arrives everyone in the household is exhausted. The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way. 

First, let’s talk about why your children need their sleep. Besides avoiding daytime tantrums because of fatigue, children need their sleep to remain healthy and to allow their bodies to grow. While they’re sleeping, digestion amps up, brain, heart, and muscles repair themselves, and little bodies grow. During sleep mental processes are alive and active. Memories are stored as if in a filing cabinet; this process is how children learn and recall information. A good night’s sleep is also necessary for your child to pay attention in school and record information accurately.

So how much sleep does your child need? 

  • Toddlers need 11-14 hours of sleep a day (total time—naps count in this time)
  • Three to Five year-olds need 10-13 hours.
  • Six to thirteen year-olds need 9-11 hours of sleep.
  • Teens need 8-10 hours 
  • Adults need 7-9 hours 

The next question is often, ‘do my children need naps?’ The answer is yes if they don’t sleep the amount of hours listed above for their age. If a three year old sleeps 8 hours at night, then they need at least an hour or two for a nap. Most children stop taking naps around the Kindergarten age (5-6 years of age), but if they still need one after school, then they need an earlier bedtime. 

Children (adults too) don’t behave the same when their sleep has been short-changed. Adults might slow down on limited sleep but children often bounce off the walls. 

A lot of the time these little ones are mis-diagnosed with learning disabilities and challenges, when in reality all they need is more sleep. Is it ADD, ADHD, ‘developmentally delayed’ or a myriad of other challenges? First eliminate the possibility of lack of sleep. If you’re certain they’re getting enough sleep, then check for sleep obstruction like sleep apnea, restless legs or other sleep disorders. Sleep apnea shows itself with long pauses in breathing, snoring and trouble breathing. These need to be diagnosed and treated. If your child is accurately diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, regular sleep schedules will help to manage this energy challenge. 

Although most children outgrow these challenges, sleepwalking, nightmares, bedwetting and night-terrors might be sleep disorders you need to talk about with your pediatrician.

How to Win the Bedtime Battle

Establish a regular bedtime: Kids need their sleep, but equally parents need a few hours of quiet, kid-free time. In our house we used to call the hours before bedtime the ‘Bewitching hour’. To avoid the struggles, we established a regular bedtime routine. 

Pick up. 

After dinner, we put on a lively children’s song and went through the living room picking up toys and placing them in a large basket. The game was to have it all done before the song was over. We made a game out of it and started the evening with laughter. 

Take a walk.

We set a regular 30 minute walk through the neighborhood stopping at a local playground to play. No cell phones. We walked and talked about everything we saw. This is a great time to share your values subtly, as well as build their thinking skills and vocabulary. When they were little we asked, “What color is that house?” When they got older we asked, “Which one of the houses do you like best and why?” And older still we played a creative story game, “Tell me that story,” and they would tell what happened during the day to the people inside the house.  

Bath time. 

PJ’s had to be laid out, and their blanket pulled down ready to get in bed. Brush their teeth before they get in the tub. The warm water helps to settle little bodies down. We helped them scrub, wash their hair, etc. then gave them 15 minutes to play. Then I gave them a 5 minute warning that bath time was almost over. We kept toys in the bathtub that they only played with in the tub, so they looked forward to this time. They also knew that they couldn’t have the toys until they were scrubbed and their hair washed. So they learned to cooperate quickly in order to get to the toys. At the 5 minute warning, toys were thrown in a netting that hung in the bathtub so they could drain and the tub plug was pulled. We took turns as to who was dried off first so the other one was left to play in the tub with suds. They need to potty before they go get their pj’s on. Putting on their pajamas should be the last hygiene thing they do. Let the pajamas signal that sleep is next.  

Once in their pajamas, we took turns as to who got to pick the one book. We also sat on the bed of the person who picked the book out. I loved seeing the ‘chosen one’ spend time going through all the books to decide and lay it on the end of their bed early in the day. Once out of the bath and into pj’s, we turned down the lights and read the story, prayed, and tucked them in bed. 

The rule was once we said good-night they were not allowed to get out of bed. If they did, there were consequences (which changed depending on their age). 

The trick to making all of this work is keeping the routine exactly the same. The minute you begin negotiations, or alter the plan, you’ve lost the night-time battles and set yourself up for a long, challenging war. 

Bedtime should be 7:30-8:00 every night to allow for a 7 or 8 am wake up time. Their bodies will begin to synchronize with sunset and sunrise — a natural body clock. Also, this set time allows mom and/or dad some down time together or to get some things done before going to bed at a decent hour for them.

More tips:

Turn off any extra room lights. Dimming the lights begins to quiet the mood and the body. According to studies, the backlighting from computers, televisions, iPhones, and electronic games emit a blue-light that imitates sunlight which stimulates the brain. 

Keep the rooms cool. Add blankets but keep the room cool to stimulate falling asleep. Keeping temperatures near 66 degrees signals to the brain that it’s time to shut down. In fact, people who experience insomnia are often treated with a cooling cap to stimulate sleep.

Diet for better sleep: 

  • Avoid caffeine products completely
  • Limit sugar to only natural sugars in fruits –not juice, but whole fruits.
  • Bedtime snacks should be protein, not sweets. 
  • Limit liquids after dinner.

Go to bed and wake up at the same time—even on the weekends. 

Ending the bedtime battles doesn’t have to be a battle. Most of the time the battles stem from a lack of routine by the parent(s). Giving in to extra bath time, or one more story, simply makes children better hostage negotiators! Sticking to the plan at first will create more fights if you don’t have a bedtime routine, but stick with it and they’ll learn to embrace it. Taking the struggle out of the evening will bring joy to the process and fun to the end of the evening.

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