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Winks: When Your Kid Suddenly Hates Their Bedtime Routine

Sleep solutions for modern families

Malia Jacobson

Published on: September 01, 2017

Reading under the covers

In her recurring column, author and sleep research guru Malia Jacobson answers reader questions about that most important of parenting tools: a good night's sleep. In this edition, when your kid suddenly won't go to bed.

My 19-month-old seems to hate her bedtime routine: bath, pajamas and teeth brushing, stories, lullabies, and cuddling. Now she’ll cry or throw a tantrum as soon as we come into her bedroom. Can we get our peaceful bedtime back?

When a child experiences sleep or bedtime problems, she’s trying to tell you something. Your daughter’s telling you that she’s ready for a change. You’ve had a consistent routine since she was a newborn, which is wonderful. But think about how much your daughter has changed since her newborn days — she’s now a walking, talking, expressive toddler dynamo who’s eager for more control over her world. Here are some simple steps that will update your routine for your growing toddler: 

  • Consider moving bedtime 20-30 minutes earlier. If she’s like most toddlers her age, she recently dropped her morning nap (the average age to drop the morning nap is 15 months old). That means she’s now functioning with less daytime sleep and may need an earlier bedtime. 
  • Give her the control she wants. Let her choose whether to brush her teeth before or after her bath. Allow her to choose which pajamas to wear and which books to read. 
  • Streamline her environment. Toddlers become overwhelmed by too many choices, so consider limiting the number of books and toys in her bedroom. Select a few favorites, and store the rest elsewhere.
  • Keep it simple. The routine you describe may be too long for her attention span; she may be ready for sleep halfway through. If she starts melting down during the routine, cut it short, soothe her and say “good night.”

My 9-year-old has recently become a night owl. After bedtime, he’ll stay up reading for hours, even after I repeatedly say it’s time for lights out. He’s a zombie in the morning and tired at school. How can we break this habit?

First, congratulations on raising a reader. Your son’s enthusiasm for books will serve him well in life, even if it’s creating a hassle for you now. Now the bad news: You may need to adjust your expectations about his sleep, because his current “bedtime” may be too early.

The ideal bedtime for a child is the time at which he’s tired enough to fall asleep quickly, within 15 minutes or so. Repeatedly staying awake beyond bedtime likely means he’s just not tired enough to sleep when his head hits the pillow. This is common in the early elementary years; many parents cling to their child’s preschool bedtime of 7 or 7:30 p.m., while their “big kid” is ready for a later lights out.

Your son is also showing that he may need more time to wind down before bed; reading may help him relax after a busy day at school. To help ease the bedtime strain, talk with him about how much sleep he really needs to feel rested in the morning and at school. Set a reasonable “in bed” time, and another time for “lights out,” allowing enough time for reading between the two. Agree that if he’s too tired to be cheerful in the morning and function well at school, his lights out time will be revisited.

Here’s to many years of happy reading under the covers! 

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