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Bedtime Whack-a-Mole: Tips for Getting Kids to Stay in Bed

Simple and achievable ideas to motivate your kid to stay in bed

Published on: October 12, 2021

Mom-encouraging-her kid-to-go-to-bed

Every parent dreads the nights when bedtime seems to last forever. We go through our bedtime routine, read books, snuggle and say goodnight, and within minutes the kids are out of bed again. The list of bedtime requests can be seemingly endless, from a drink of water to an extra snuggle to help with a suddenly discovered splinter. One time our daughter asked if we could make the birds stop chirping. Sometimes, you can even watch them ponder what they should ask for next.

There is a bit of a mismatch between parent and child needs at this time of the day. Parents are ready to say goodnight, get their own chores done and possibly have a little time to relax. Kids are finally winding down, have enjoyed the connection with us during bedtime and want more of that special time together.

While periods of bedtime whack-a-mole are absolutely normal, they can make for frustrated parents and exhausted kids. Often, it’s a matter of providing some gentle reminders to our children on what bedtime and nighttime are for and some boundaries to help them stick to their part of the solution. Here are some tips to help you through this common parenting challenge.

Start with a conversation

Before kids (and adults) are willing to try something different, they need to feel heard. Therefore, starting off with a conversation where you listen, empathize and validate what your child might be feeling, is critical to gaining their cooperation.

Ask questions that help you understand your child’s perspective. You can show empathy by sharing a time when you had a hard time sleeping or when you felt lonely, or when you were a child and didn't want to go to bed. Stick to how he might be feeling/how you felt at first. Our tendency is to quickly move on to how their actions impact us. By taking the time to listen first, we are much more likely to invite cooperation instead of rebellion.

Find a solution together

Now that your child has had some time to feel heard at a calm time, you can move on to solving the problem together. Remind your child about the problem with a quick validation of feelings:

“Remember when we talked about what might be hard for you about going to bed and staying in bed? We totally get it, and we can't make you sleep. That is totally up to you. We do need to figure out how we can solve this problem though. Parents have their chores to do after bedtime so our family can be ready for the next day, and during the night we need our sleep so we are rested and ready for a good day.”

Then you might ask, “You are really good at solving problems. I wondered if you had any ideas of how we can solve this problem of needing lots of things at bedtime and wanting us to come in during the night?"

Depending on the age of your child, they may come up with some great ideas by themselves, or you can offer a few possible solutions. Here are some favorites that have worked for many families I have worked with, including my own.

  1. Create a bedtime box. While kids may not be able to go right to sleep, a box of special items to play with while they get ready to sleep could help them stay in bed. Find a shoebox and decorate the outside together. Have your child pick out some special items to have in their box so they have everything they need to feel safe and cozy at bedtime, perhaps a few books, a flashlight, a favorite toy and a lovey. At bedtime, ask them what they can do if they are having a hard time sleeping. Likely, they will be excited to have their new special bedtime box and that will keep them occupied for a few nights and break the whack-a-mole cycle.
  2. Bedtime request tickets. This is one of my favorites, and a good parenting tool to keep in mind. Sometimes, just saying yes to the behavior is the surest way to see it disappear. Bedtime tickets operate on this principle. Your child gets a certain number of "tickets" to use at bedtime for extra requests that pop up after we have said goodnight. To make a request, a child has to trade in a ticket. We follow through with the request with kindness, no lecture about getting up, how many tickets are left, etc. They get all their tickets back the next night at bedtime to use again. Right there, you are yielding and they are getting an opportunity to feel some personal control, leading to greater cooperation. Next, use index cards or paper to decorate your bedtime tickets together. It is helpful to get clear in our mind ahead of time on how many bedtime tickets you feel comfortable with. It is also helpful to discuss with your child any boundaries you may have on what tickets can be used for. For example, if snacks are not an acceptable request at bedtime, that should be made clear when discussing how to use them.
  3. Extra love under the pillow. I think this one works because it is about validating their feelings that it can be hard to say goodnight and sometimes they miss us. At bedtime, tuck a whole bunch of extra hugs and kisses under the pillow and remind your child that when they need an extra one, they can grab one out from under their pillow. Silliness is key to this one. On a similar note, “The Kissing Hand” is a wonderful book that operates on this same concept of giving your child a ritual for feeling connected to you even when you are not present.
  4. Brainstorm what your child can do when they can’t sleep. So often, we spend time telling our kids what they can’t do and forget that they might need help recognizing what they can do. Make a list together of what your child can do if they can’t fall asleep or wake up and feel lonely or scared. Possibilities include looking at a book, counting sheep or hugging their favorite stuffy. Other ideas include going on an imaginary trip in their mind, reaching under his pillow for an extra hug or kiss, and using their bedtime box or tickets.

Keys to success

The actual solution you and your child select is less important than the way you use it. Here are some tips for using solutions effectively:

  • Let the child choose the solution. When kids are involved in the process, they are so much more likely to cooperate and follow through on their part. Put your own solution on hold so that your child really has a chance to participate.
  • Get clear on the logistics. Talk about how you will use whatever solution is chosen. Discuss any boundaries you have on how they may be used, what things you will help with regardless (if your child is sick), what they can take care of for themselves (going potty, getting a tissue), and any other potential situations that may come up.
  • Practice, practice, practice. You don’t need to wait until bedtime to try our your new solution. Children love to role-play, and this gives both you and your child some practice with how things will be before the situation occurs.
  • Review the plan at bedtime. As you are getting ready for bed, take a moment and review your plan together. Instead of telling your child what your agreed plan is before bed, try asking. “I am really excited to our new bedtime box (or tickets or whatever plan you have agreed upon). I can't remember though; what's our plan for how to use them?” Then, wait for your child to answer. You might add, “Oh, that's right...and what will you do if you need to go potty? And if you can't sleep and want a hug?” Having your child do the reminding helps them take ownership of their part of the solution.
  • Follow through! It is so important that we keep our word. It’s even more important that we keep our word using kindness and firmness. That might look like a quick reminder “What was our plan for what would happen at bedtime? Time to go back to bed now.” Then calmly walk them back to their room. If they keep coming out, walking them back without saying anything or simply pointing towards their room are both options. Avoid lecturing as this just gets both parent and child riled up and the child gets a whole lot of attention anyway. I know this part can be hard. It might involve tag-teaming with your partner so one person can go for a walk when they feel they are no longer able to do this calmly.

What if the solution didn’t work? If things don't go well on any given night, a very short, calm discussion the next day can be helpful. For example, “I notice that after you used your tickets last night, you called for us a few more times.” Then just pause and see if your child says anything. You can add, “I know this is new so it may take us a bit to get the hang of it. Looking forward to trying again tonight.” or “I bet you felt sad when we didn't come in again.” That's it. We often add lecture and rehashing at this point and that just puts kids on the defensive. So, keep it short and kind.

It’s okay for your child to be sad or mad. Remember that believing in your child's ability to handle being sad or mad, is what builds resilience. When you start off with validation and empathy, involve your child in problem-solving, and then follow through with kindness and firmness, letting him be sad or mad is not the same as ignoring or punishing. Instead, it sends the message that each member of the family is important and we each have a role to play. You believe in your child and know they can play their part.

It really is amazing what our kids will do when we give them the chance to rise to the occasion. Remember that change takes time, and mistakes along the way are opportunities to learn and grow. Whack-a-mole nights will happen, but hopefully, these tips can limit your game playing to the arcade instead of the home.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2013, and updated in October 2021.

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