Not This Again! When Your Daily Routines Are a Struggle

Tips and tricks on how to develop and modify your child's bedtime and other routines to fit your child's unique needs and reduce struggle

girl brushing teeth bedtime routineEveryone has daily routines — like your routines for getting up, dressing, eating meals, transitioning to and from the car, and going to bed. When I say “routine,” it doesn’t mean that you have a fixed way of doing things, but rather that you have a “typical for your family” way of doing things. It may be, for example, that you struggle every day to get your children to bed and that bedtime is a chaotic time for your family. Like it or leave it, that’s your routine. You may be the lucky family who gently guides your child through the toileting and toothbrushing, tucks them in bed after a book or two, and listens as they sing themselves to sleep. Or not.

If you are challenged by helping your child to get to sleep you are not alone. One indication is the host of books on the subject: just try googling “children and sleep.” And then there’s Amazon’s “top selling book which promises to put your child to sleep.” What desperate, sleep-deprived parent wouldn’t run out and get that?!! Yes, my daughter ordered it. I am curious, too, and intend to find out what the magic is within those covers. It could be a great addition to the bedtime routine, but I doubt that it can “stand alone.”

What this plethora of books tells me is that there is no single, definitive answer — not for sleep routines or any other routines. And when your child has sensory differences, you may have to make even more intentional efforts to calmly get through these transitions and routines.

So what goes into creating a successful bedtime routine? This routine needs to have some components of flexibility, but overall, the goal is to give your child clear expectations and a consistent order to the process. It needs to be individualized, and, in order for you to be consistent, it may help to write out your bedtime routine. This written plan, or story, will also help if different people put your child to bed.  It may reduce anxiety and gaming behaviors.

So what goes into creating a successful bedtime routine? This routine needs to have some components of flexibility, but overall, the goal is to give your child clear expectations and a consistent order to the process.

Here is a case study: I recently started working on a bedtime routine for a delightful, bright little three- year-old girl (my granddaughter). She went through a pleasant phase as a two-year-old where the routine developed and was fairly smooth for bedtime. Then she reverted to challenging early behaviors stretching out the bedtime process sometimes to two hours.  When I assessed her sensory needs, I realized she seems to crave a good amount of jumping, running, swinging and climbing. These are things she needs in order to be calm. She also seems to do best at the end of the day if she has had a good nap and timely dinner. When devising a plan or “bedtime story” for her, I took into account her great verbal skills, her need to move, her skill at manipulating (!), and which sensory strategies she generally responded to positively.

I drafted a bedtime story called Every Night I Go to Bed. I drew simple pictures to illustrate eating, jumping, bathtime, towel snuggles, donning undies and nighties, talking about the day, reading two books, singing two songs, back rubs and listening to music as the lights are turned off. We read the book during the day. We read it several times at night. How did it go?  Pretty well at first, but then not so successful. I mean, some nights were dreadful. Did we tear up the book? No! This was a good starting point and now it was time to look at what was working and what we needed to change.

This leads to an important part of creating a routine: modification. I talked with her parents and we decided she needed more movement during the day, a written-out daily schedule to bank on her verbal skills and help with any anxieties about what was happening the next day. Further, we needed to reassure her and be consistent with the plan where it worked. We continued to repeat the story during the day and it is gradually working into more consistently pleasant bedtimes!

In summary, here are some tips for developing and writing out a routine:

  • Keep what works, modify what doesn’t, and get rid of the ideas that you dread — then write those changes into the story.
  • Use visual supports integrating pictures and words.
  • Keep it simple for each item whether you use a list style or book form (in book form write no more than one or two activities per page, such as “Then I go potty and brush my teeth”).
  • Incorporate sensory components: touch, movement, music, pre-bed snack, calming lights.
  • You may find it helpful to add a time to the activity: “Mommy rubs my back for 5 minutes” or “I play in the bath for 10 minutes.” Also, you may find that use of a timer reduces resistance.

No matter what daily routine you are hoping to improve, consider your child’s unique needs and strengths along with their developmental level. Consider your own strengths and needs, too!  If you continue to struggle, seek input from your friends, family members or even a professional for some fresh perspective, ideas and compassion!

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