Whenever 4-year-old Gabrielle Ascenzo spent the weekend with her dad and stepmother in Califon, New Jersey, bedtime was an ordeal that lasted for hours. It was especially hard to get her to sleep when her older brothers were in the living room with the grown-ups. Gabrielle would cry, complain, and carry on -- and return to the living room each time her parents placed her in bed. Eventually, they'd get so frustrated by her antics that they'd give up and let her stay up until she conked out.
Of course, establishing a consistent nighttime routine for a child like Gabrielle, who has two different homes, is a particular challenge. But even parents of preschoolers with the most unvarying daily lives may suddenly find that their once compliant child can become a handful at bedtime -- and they can't figure out why.
"Three- and 4-year-olds want to assert their independence and have as much control as possible," explains Marc Weissbluth, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School, in Chicago, and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child (Ballantine, 1999). They don't want to be told to go to bed -- and they certainly don't want to be carried there.
Their endless stalling may also be a way to avoid being alone in the dark. Preschoolers have increasingly active imaginations and may become convinced that monsters are in the closet or under the bed. "Being afraid to go to sleep is part of normal development at this age," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University, in Philadelphia, and author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep (HarperCollins, 1997).
However, having a nonnegotiable bedtime is important because 3- and 4-year-olds need their sleep more than ever. Not only do most kids have to get up early for preschool, but they have a rigorous daily schedule and may no longer be taking regular naps. Here's how to take control of the situation and put an end to bedtime battles.