Mother of two young kids, Molly Skyar, interviews her mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, about best strategies for enforcing bedtime with young kids and how your parenting decisions today may affect your child as an adult.
Molly: I received this question from another mom who was wondering if I knew of any good strategies to help her enforce bedtimes. She feels that no matter what time she starts, something always comes up and her kids go to bed too late. They’re hungry, or they have to go the bathroom… She knows she has to be more structured or have a better routine, but she’s a self-described “softie” so it’s hard for her to do.
Dr. Rutherford: I think this mom’s idea about having a firmer, stricter routine is a really good starting point. Those children are obviously manipulating their mom and she, for whatever reason, is not able to set limits.
Suppose the children’s bedtime is 7:30pm. And they bathe before they go to sleep. They are going to have dinner first, so shortly after dinner I would start bath time (if this is part of the routine – or whatever else is part of the routine) and then read a story.
Molly: Or maybe she could do the bath before dinner if it’s making the process stretch out too long.
Dr. Rutherford: That’s right. That’s a good idea. And then she’s going to read her children a story and make sure they go to the bathroom, et cetera. She’s right that she needs to have a routine.
Children actually love routines. They brush their teeth, go to the potty, read a book, maybe talk about their day a little bit with mommy… and then it’s night-night time. Having a routine helps them transition over to this stage of the day.
Children who leave their bedrooms at night saying they’re “hungry”… Well, most of the time it’s a manipulation tactic. Most of the time when kids get up at night, I think that the kid is having trouble with that transition from wakefulness to sleep and is wanting attention from the parent. If a child emerges after being put to bed, you can escort him or her back to bed saying, “You know that we don’t get out of bed after we’ve read stories.” You shouldn’t do this with anger, but we should be firm in our resolve.
A parent can reinforce this resolve by assuring the child that the next time they will talk together will be in the morning when everyone wakes up and we have breakfast. Remind the child that if we don’t go to bed now, everyone is going to be cranky and tired tomorrow, and we don’t want that.
If the child is one of the kids that is always coming out asking for water, think about that ahead of time and prepare to leave a cup of water or a water bottle next to the bed.
As a parent, your life will run more smoothly if you can think ahead and anticipate what the child might need or want at bedtime. It’s reasonable for a child to want their transitional object like a blanket or stuffed animal, for example, so make sure that is in the room before you say goodnight.
Molly: One thing that we do at my house is that, as we leave the kitchen to go upstairs to bed, we say, “That’s it, the kitchen is closed. If there’s anything else you want, now is the time because we’re not getting up after you brush your teeth and go to bed. There’s no more eating tonight.”
Dr. Rutherford: Perfect. That’s a perfect way to do it.
Molly: But we’ve had to be really strict about it. The first three nights, my five-year-old daughter really tested us; she even went so far as to claim she was “starving” after she had eaten a large dinner. And then we had to say, “We already put you to bed tonight. If you get up again, you’re going to lose your privilege for watching your television show tomorrow.”
Dr. Rutherford: You really had to do some behavioral modification intervention.
Molly: We also did a chart. Every night that she didn’t get up, she got to put a sticker on the chart in the morning. I think this is the thing that actually worked the best.
Dr. Rutherford: You offered a reward for staying in bed. That’s employing positive reinforcement as a motivation for behavioral change. Positive reinforcement is a good way to set patterns for a child. Behavior is all about patterns. If a child gets up once, saying he’s not feeling well, that’s not a big deal. When he or she starts doing it regularly, as a pattern, that’s when you absolutely must intervene. The sooner, the better.
Molly: Are there any possible long-term effects of not dealing with this?
Dr. Rutherford: There can be short-term effects and long-term effects. The short-term effects become long-term effects. For instance, if this isn’t dealt with when it first starts, it can go on for years and the child may have real difficulty in moving from the awake state to a sleep state. An example of this might be when the kid is old enough and goes on an overnight to a friend’s house, she might have a lot of trouble falling asleep and will keep her friend up because she hasn’t really learned how to transition from wakefulness to sleep.
As the child becomes an adult, these kinds of issues can easily continue. They often take the form of having trouble falling asleep and may manifest in eating at bedtime, needing the television to fall asleep, or maybe even alcohol or pills — all because that adult never learned how to move from wakefulness to sleep in a timely manner as a child.