Bedtime Bargaining

Enforcing bedtime rules is difficult for many parents. But following these simple guidelines can help you stick to a routine that both you and your child will appreciate.

Back to School Advice: Nighttime Routine
Mark Lund

If enforcing rules about staying in bed and going to sleep is difficult for you, you're not alone. Many parents have trouble dealing and coping with the sleep issue.

Part of the problem is our ambivalence about the break we get when our children are asleep. While we usually need that time to rest and regenerate, we often feel guilty about not wanting to be with our kids. Or if we don't see them much during the day, then we miss having them around. Either way, it can be difficult not to jump up and fulfill each and every nighttime request, including staying up a little later and sharing our beds.

It's also difficult to resist a vulnerable voice in the middle of the night when we might be tired or feeling sad or lonely. Even if it's not the best thing for our child, a quick midnight hug can make us feel much needed and loved.

Then there is the problem of fatigue: By 8 p.m. or so, most parents are tired. We've had a long day, our energy is waning, and conflict of any kind is difficult to deal with. The path of least resistance -- even if it means sitting in a dark room singing someone to sleep for three hours -- is often the most tempting route. Despite these roadblocks, there are ways to get better at handling your child's bedtime:

  • Examine how you feel when your child goes to bed or makes unreasonable demands, like staying up until you go to sleep. If you're using him to meet your own emotional needs (to feel less lonely or afraid, for instance, or to avoid intimacy with your spouse), address those personal issues instead. If you're feeling guilty because of your work schedule, talk to other working parents, or find extra time to spend with your child.
  • Put bedtime rules in writing, and give yourself a set time (at least two weeks) to enforce them without backing down.
  • Chart your progress. Write down exactly what happens each night, noting how well you stick to your guns and how long your child protests. This will help you to recognize progress -- which, in turn, will strengthen your determination and resolve.
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