The issue of handling bedtimes using Positive Discipline was recently raised in the (long) comment thread of the potty training post. Since bedtime can be a hotbed of conflict between kids and parents, I thought it was probably a topic worth a post of its own.
A quick reminder—positive discipline or positive parenting (as it is sometimes called) is NOT unparenting or undiscipline. A PD parent certainly makes good use of logical and natural consequences, but does not simply allow the child to do anything and everything in order to experience the natural consequences of his actions. Any responsible, rational parent must constantly reevaluate situations with their children, and set limits according to their own (and the child’s) knowledge, experience, and values. PD as a discipline method is distinguished from traditional authoritarian parenting methods for the focus on parent-as-guide who shows the child what he should do (a positive focus), giving the child a chance to give input into the situation and make choices, and enforcing limits in a gentle, empathetic way. (I plan to write more about this in a post sometime soon.)
Bedtime has evolved for us over the years, as you might expect. (Having more than one child definitely presents logistical challenges.) Our routine is pretty standard. For the babies: a final diaper change and jammies, snuggling with a story or a song, with a final nursing off to sleep. Once they get a little older and a lot more mobile, the routine takes a bit longer, but still remains essentially the same: brushing teeth and jammies, a story (or chapter out of a longer book) or a quick movie, snuggling, etc.
We generally begin our routine, or The Show, as it’s know around here, about the same time every night (+/- 15 minutes). Why? Lots of good reasons. First and foremost, the kids need sleep—and they need help getting ready for sleep. Most kids thrive on a routine because they like to know what to expect, which is why we have a bedtime (and a morning and a time-for-Dad-to-go-to-work and a time-to-leave-the-house) routine. Secondly, Brendan and I need time away from the kids at the end of the day. Thirdly, Brendan and I need time away from the kids at the end of the day. UPDATE (belatedly thought of this one): Fourthly, they tend to get tired at about the same time each day. Our bedtime is based on our observations of the needs of their bodies; it is not simply imposed upon them.
None of our children is old enough to manage their sleep responsibly on his/her own. They still need our help. When they are old enough, they will have complete freedom to put themselves to bed at whatever time they decide they need to. I don’t know how long it might take for my kids to reach this level of maturity, but it’ll be a while I think.
So what happens when we have bedtime battles? Here are some things we do to handle a child who is reluctant to go to sleep (and I’m always looking for ideas, so drop me some in the comments!).
You Can’t Make ‘Em Sleep!
This was a hard one for me to work my head around when Ryan was a toddler and first began fighting us at night. He was a delightful nighttime sleeper until he was getting on to about two years old. Outside of slipping the kid a dose of Benadryl with his dinner (which of course would be harmful over time physically, as well as rob him of the chance to develop this bedtime skill on his own), you can’t make them fall asleep.
All you can do is set up the routine and their nighttime environment to make sleep as easy to get to as possible. I think a consistent routine and timeframe helps with this “setting them up for success.” Also, making their room and bed a warm, snuggly place to be helps. My kids, like many, have Night Night Friends: blankies and stuffed animals and loveys. They have so many that it’s quite difficult to find room for the child on the bed sometimes.
Staying in the Designated Bedtime Area
I have accepted that I can’t make their little bodies fall asleep—but what I CAN do is make their little bodies stay in their rooms. :o)
So that is the limit we choose to enforce. So when they appear downstairs asking for a drink of water or telling us they can’t sleep, we remind them that they need to stay in their rooms unless they need to use the potty, and we will gently help them back there if they are unwilling to do it. They don’t even need to stay in their beds—but I’ve noticed that they do.
I recognize that sometimes you just aren’t sleepy, and I’m fine with that. If you need to stay in your room and play quietly until your body tells you it’s sleepy, then great. I think it’s helpful for them to learn and think about the signals of their bodies. This is going to be something they’ll do for the rest of their lives, so why not practice now?
Calling for Mom and Dad
Morgan has recently taken to calling for Brendan after he’s left her room at night. (Brendan is primarily responsible for Morgan and Ryan at night, since I’m usually with the baby.) For a while it got really out of hand—she’d hysterically call him back into her room half a dozen times. Then Brendan got really good at setting the limit: “Morgan, you have everything you need—your drink, your Night Night Friends, your movie. I have things that I need to do downstairs, so I will not be coming back up here again.” If she decided to try it one more time, I’d often go and tell her that Brendan is not coming back up, and then that’s been that. This phase seems to be over (for now—did I just jinx it?) and she is usually asleep pretty soon after The Show is over for the night.
TV? In Her Room?
Before I had kids, and maybe when Ryan was pretty little, I used to wonder about “those” parents who let their kids have televisions in their rooms and allowed them to watch movies at bedtime.
Hi. I’m Jenn. And I’m now one of THOSE parents. :o) Let the scoffing begin—it’s okay—I could dish it; I can take it!
Why oh why? It really helps her relax. For me, television and any noise is extremely distracting and undesirable when I’m trying to fall asleep. For Brendan, he really prefers some background noise—it helps to relax him. I’d much rather read something, or lie there and think my thoughts—music or television gets in my way. But not so for Brendan.
Or Morgan either, as it turns out. Zoning out to a little Kipper or Mary Poppins is just the thing to make her body stop wiggling. Despite what I would have imagined before experiencing this for myself, she doesn’t stay up all night watching movies and she actually goes to sleep much more quickly. And she doesn’t choose to watch a movie every night either, not any more, now that the novelty has worn off a bit (we’ve been doing this for about 8 months).
My point here is that you sometimes might need to rethink some of your premises. I had assumed that TV in the child’s room would mean she’d stay up all night watching it and it would hinder her ability to get her sleep. Instead, now I recognize that some people—kids and adults—like a little background noise when they are falling asleep. Weird as that may be. :o)
Staying up Crazy Late
Those of you who have been reading my parenting posts lately know that Ryan hates to stop anything interesting in order to tend to his bodily needs. This includes sleep, of course. On a couple of occasions, he’s stayed up in his room playing until very late. When that has happened, Brendan or I have paid him a visit, explain about the need for sleep, maybe remind him about the next day’s schedule (for which rest is always needed), and have even offered tips on how to fall asleep.
We’ve played the Lie Still as a Statue game with both kids—because sometimes all they need to do is stop wiggling long enough for sleep to overtake them. We’ve done deep breathing exercises and the game where you imagine someone is placing stones on your feet, and then on your knees, etc. As someone who suffers occasional bouts of insomnia, I know how frustrating it is not to be able to fall asleep, so I think sharing some of my tricks with the kids will help them on those occasions when they can’t sleep.
However—and I would not have imagined this before I had kids--even Ryan does not stay up Crazy Late all the time. Generally, he goes to sleep right away. If he does stay up too late, it really catches up with him—especially because he has some inner clock that makes him pop awake between 7 and 7:30 every morning, no matter how much sleep he has had the night before. And if he’s really crabby the next day or balks about going to bed the next night, then we point out to him “You didn’t get enough sleep last night and that’s part of the reason you’re feeling and behaving the way you are. It’s not a nice feeling, is it?” And then we’ll usually begin The Show a bit earlier for him (and for our own sanity!).
So there you have it—how we handle bedtime around here. Over time, as the kids mature, we’ll slowly shift the responsibility for their sleep over to them (which is our general plan for all of the things they’ll need to be responsible for). Sleep is so important for a child’s proper growth (and a parent’s need for quiet time). Every once in a while, I’ll double check the sleep charts in one of my parenting books, just to make sure that the kids are getting enough sleep. Morgan is on track for a 4 year old—about 12 hours a night. Ryan is doing fine, too—about 10.5 hours a night. Even though they go to bed at the same time each night, Morgan falls asleep quicker, and generally sleeps in about an hour or so past when Ryan wakes.
Oh, a word about our bedtime. Many parenting and sleep experts recommend getting the kids to bed early, but our kids are on a slightly later routine. Instead of the 7:30 recommendation I just saw during a quick Google search, my kids go to bed at about 8:30 (with Ryan waking around 7am and Morgan waking around 8:30am). This is fine for our family lifestyle, since Brendan works for himself and his office is 5 miles away—no commute! The kids are not in school, and even though we have morning activities, they don’t start until 10:30 or so. If Brendan had a longer commute or the kids had to get up early for school, I imagine we’d certainly be on an earlier schedule.
I’d love to hear some other ideas for handling bedtime battles. And what is your routine like? Ours is pretty stable as I mentioned, but it is an ever-changing thing. Especially as the baby gets older, it will be a logistical challenge, getting three kids to bed. Maybe, just maybe, Ryan will be that much more self-sufficient by the time Sean is off of the Baby Routine.