Q. How can I control the ever-escalating routine that my 2-year-old demands as part of being put down to sleep? She has to have every stuffed animal in just the right place in her crib, then the blankets have to be put on in a particular order, etc. If something isn't just so, we often have to start over again. This delaying tactic is driving me nuts!
A. I knew that my own child's bedtime routine had become unmanageable when one night, after an hour of kisses, stories, rocking, singing, and blanket placement, she asked for a final hug and I snapped at her, "Fine, but this is IT!" In that moment, I couldn't help but think: Whatever happened to bedtime being a warm, nurturing time? After an hour, all I felt was trapped and at the mercy of a very small and sleepy dictator.
When it comes to bedtime stalling, it's easy for parents to feel manipulated and therefore frustrated with their child. For many children, though, going to sleep alone in a darkened room is the most challenging separation they encounter each day. A long bedtime routine may be an important coping mechanism that helps them prepare for being separate from the people they love overnight. When parents show their (quite natural) frustration about a drawn-out bedtime, it may only increase their child's insecurity or fearfulness, and fuel their need for a longer routine.
However, stalling may not be the only cause at work. A child's temperament should also be considered. Some children have a strong need for routine and order. I know a toddler who will only play with her tea set when the colors of the cups and saucers match. When they are mixed (pink cup and blue saucer), she needs to "fix" them before she plays. For these children, a very predictable and elaborate bedtime ritual satisfies their need for order and makes them feel safe and secure.
Whatever the underlying cause, here are some steps you can take.
First, begin to set some limits with your child that respect her need for a consistent routine and closeness with you, but that are manageable as well. And make them incremental. For example, if you typically read five or six books before bed, have her pick three or four and eventually get down to the number of books that is acceptable to you. If you usually rub her back for 20 minutes, progressively reduce this to 10 and then 5 minutes. If bedtime involves strategic stuffed animal placement, let your child pick her three favorite animals, rather than the whole menagerie. She may initially protest, but if you are loving yet firm, while maintaining the spirit of her routine, she will adjust over time.
In addition, let your child know when bedtime is approaching. Advance notice helps your child feel more in control of the transition and consequently more secure. This may also help her separate from you when it's time to say goodnight. Before you know it, it'll be sweet dreams for everyone -- you included.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2005.