"Bedtime is especially hard for young children because it means being separated from parents. …Young children can't be sure when they'll be back again with the people they love."


Bedtime can be a difficult time. Most children don't like to stop doing something fun to get ready for bed, and they certainly don't like being told when to stop what they’re doing. It's only natural that they want to continue being a part of whatever is going on in the family, even at night.

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Coping with Separation

Bedtime is especially hard for young children because it means being separated from parents. A child doesn't understand much about time, so it's hard to know how long it takes for morning to come. Young children can't be sure when they'll be back again with the people they love. That's why a time of calmness, closeness, and reassurance before bedtime can be really important. Children need to know that their parents or someone else that they trust will be nearby when the day turns into night.

Routines Help Children Manage

One of the best ways to deal with bedtime struggles is to set up routines and rules. Children are much more comfortable when they know what to expect and when they know what is expected of them. Consistency and predictability go a long way toward helping children manage their behavior and their feelings at nighttime as well as during the daytime.

Be prepared, though, for children to test the rules that you make. It may take a while for them to see that you're firm about bedtime. In the meantime, you can let them know that even if they don't like the rules, it's important to follow them.

No matter what, there may be some nights when your child might have an especially hard time saying good night. Your child might be overly stimulated, sick, upset by significant changes in the family or having a difficult time for no reason that's apparent to you. On evenings like that, you might want to spend extra time with your child before bedtime, sitting beside the bed a bit longer than usual, talking, singing softly, giving a hug.

Little by little, children learn that nighttime will come, separation will take place, they will fall asleep, and then daytime will come again, and they will wake up safely in their own beds, and the people they love still there to care for them. That security is a wonderful gift for any human being!

Parents have needs, too

No healthy parent likes to end the day with arguments and anger. We want to help our children get to sleep in an atmosphere of warmth and caring -- for their sake and for our own.

There will probably be times, however, when your child pleads with you to stay up later. It may seem easier to give in, but it can help to remember that children really do want to know that their parents are in charge and that they will be firm about the rules. When we stick to rules and routines, we're helping our children feel more secure -- and therefore more loved.

It's only natural that parents want to settle their children in bed so they can have some time to themselves. Parents need some time without the demands of a child's attention -- for peace and quiet, for having adult conversation, for doing household chores, working or studying. When parents have some time for their own needs, they're often better able to nourish their family.

Before Bedtime:

Bedtime starts long before children are in bed. In fact, children are far more ready for bedtime if they have "winding down" time with some calm, relaxing activities. It's wise to avoid television programs that might make your children excited or feel they need rough and tumble play. If you offer an evening snack, keep away from foods with caffeine, like colas and chocolate which are stimulants and could keep your child awake. Better to give fruit, pretzels, or cookies and a little milk.

Try to make bedtime the same time each night. Children understand what's expected of them when they have a routine that's predictable.

About fifteen minutes before bedtime, and again five minutes before, remind your child that bedtime is coming soon. It's hard for children to stop doing something they enjoy, and a reminder gives them time to finish what they're doing and to get ready to "switch gears" for actual bedtime routines. Some people find it helpful to use neutral timekeepers like clocks or a timer to help children see when it’s time for bed.

Let your children know that you understand how disappointed they can get when they have to stop playing and get ready for bed. Just knowing that parents care about their feelings can help children manage better.

Set up a bedtime routine Give your child choices. Some families find their children are more willing to go through a bedtime routine if they have some control over what particular things they do. Of course there are some things, like bathing and teeth brushing, that need to be art of every healthy family’s “routine.” Below is a list of some other rituals you may want to consider:

  • read books or tell stories
  • give hugs
  • spend time cuddling with a parent
  • sing quiet songs
  • listen to quiet music
  • talk about what happened today and what's ahead for tomorrow
  • say prayers
  • say goodnight to things in the room:
  • "Good night pillow,
  • goodnight books…"

Helping Your Child Stay in Bed:

Find a balance between being comforting and being firm about the rules. If you've set a rule of "one small drink of water" or "two books," kindly remind your child of the rule and then stick to it.

Let your child know that it's okay if he or she doesn't fall asleep right away, but that it's important to stay in bed.

Encourage your children to find ways to comfort themselves-- maybe holding a stuffed animal, making up a story or imagining a pleasant "dream."

Your child might find it comforting to have something of yours to keep through the night, like a glove or a small scarf. Those personal things can help your child feel connected with you, even though you're not right there.

If you feel comfortable about it, you may want to leave on a night light or decorate your child's bedroom walls or ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stickers. Having a bit of light reminds children that there is still light somewhere, and that before long the daylight will come again.

Some families find it helpful to leave the bedroom door open a bit, so children can hear some familiar sounds of the household as they try to fall asleep.

If children do get out of bed, it's best to walk them back to their rooms. Children need to know their own beds and bedrooms are safe places.

If your child has had a nightmare, you can assure your child that a dream is only a dream, and a dream can’t hurt anybody.

Some families put a sticker on a calendar each morning after their child was able to stay in bed all night. There may not be many stickers to begin with, but seeing them increase over time can let children realize that they've been able to manage something that once had been hard for them.

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