Getting a child to bed every evening can be a real challenge. The trick is establishing a comforting nighttime routine that is both fun and soothing.

By the editors of Child magazine, Photo by Ericka McConnell
July 31, 2014
mother putting child to bed
Credit: Heather Weston

The best approach is to develop with your child an enjoyable bedtime routine—and then stick to it. Such rituals (which usually last about 30 minutes and involve cleaning up, brushing teeth, reading a story, and discussing the day) make going to bed more fun and less likely to cause protest. They also enable your child to shift gears from after-supper activities to quiet time in bed and to end the day in a familiar, predictable, and comforting way. Ultimately, nighttime rituals ease the separation anxiety many young children feel when lights are turned out and they're all alone in a great big bed.

There are no set rules for bedtime routines: Whatever enables your child to go to bed calmly and fall asleep on his own is best. But you can take a few additional steps to minimize the chances of your child's rebelling:

Create a cozy bedroom. Preschoolers have a strong sense of ownership and a budding desire for privacy. A special sleeping corner that reflects who they are and what they like can make a huge difference in how they view bedtime. Sometimes a pair of pajamas or bed sheets and pillowcases with your child's favorite character on them can also be a big help in getting him to sleep.

Give advance notice. At least 10 minutes before bedtime, say something like: "In a little while it will be time to go upstairs, brush your teeth, and put your pajamas on." That gives your child a chance to finish up whatever she's doing and mentally prepare for the evening ritual.

Follow the plan. Once you design a routine, do things in the same general order each night. Consistency is very comforting to kids at this age. So is knowledge: Teach the routine with a song like "This is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth..." or make a chart from drawings or cutouts.

Save the best part for last. Do the fun activity—reading a book together, chatting about the day, playing a quiet game, listening to music—when your child is safely tucked into bed. That way, it can motivate him to get the boring tasks done. But make sure he understands your special activity has a time limit—and warn him when it's almost up: "We have two more pages, and then it's lights out."

Allow time for last-minute requests, and then leave the room. If you make a habit of sitting in a chair or lying next to your child until she falls asleep, she'll become dependent upon your presence for sleeping—and you'll both be trapped. While it's your responsibility to put your child to bed, it is your child's responsibility to learn how to put herself to sleep. If she needs more time to relax, it's perfectly okay to turn on a soothing music or story tape, give her a flashlight or special stuffed animal, plug in a night-light, or provide whatever other reasonable props she thinks would help—but it's not okay to act as her wake/sleep transition object. The sooner you break such habits, the better for both of you.

Tell your child you'll return to check on him. For example, say, "I'll come back in a little while to make sure you're asleep." That way, he'll be less likely to stay awake worrying that he's all alone or that you've abandoned him.

When the bedtime routine is over, do not allow your child to get out of bed or leave the room unless she needs to use the toilet. And do not rush back in to rearrange the covers. You've already offered one last chance for verbal requests; now's the time to let your child find her own ways of relaxing—playing quietly in bed, listening to music, looking at a book, and so forth. If she starts crying or calling for you—and you know she's in no real danger—tell her you need to shut her door until the screaming stops. If it continues for more than 15 minutes, reopen the door to reassure her, but calmly repeat your intention to keep the door closed until she settles down.

If your child tries to leave his bedroom or crawl into your bed, take him back to his own bed immediately, with as little fanfare and fuss as possible. Unless he's extremely fearful or sick, remind him of the stay-in-bed rule and warn him that if he gets out of bed again, his door will be shut until he is back in bed and quiet. Never threaten or yell at your child, however—it will only ignite his ire. He needs to know that you understand how he's feeling and are trying to help. You might say, "I know it's hard to stop playing and go to bed, but we all need to rest. Mommy and Daddy are going to go to sleep soon, too."

The key is gentle firmness: You needn't raise your voice, but you must stick to your guns—even if, at first, that means carrying your child back to bed every 10 minutes like clockwork. Most kids will give up the fight within two weeks if you remain firm and don't bend in the face of their fears.