I have long hesitated to write a follow-up post on our harrowing “bedtime battles” that I chronicled this past fall and winter. While it’s true that we’ve gradually achieved a saner, healthier nightly routine over the past six months, I was nervous that I would jinx our success by blogging about it.
However, I’m compelled to write about the sleep training methods that have worked for us, because:
(a) I want to share them with other parents who are struggling with their own “bedtime battles”;
(b) unbelievably, our legendary bedtime showdowns are beginning to dim in my memory, so I need to write about them before they have become yet another little-kid phase that I can’t recall; and
(c) I’m due with our second baby girl in a little over a week, at which time I am positive that everything will change and we’ll have brand new problems to figure out.
Here’s a recap of the story. Last fall, shortly after N turned three, we encountered our first signs of trouble at bedtime. It was a complete surprise — N had always been a good sleeper. We had a soothing bedtime routine and an appropriate bedtime hour (8:00pm). N had transitioned from her crib to a toddler bed months before without a problem.
Yet suddenly, she had no desire to go to sleep by herself. She would try to engage us and keep us in her room as long as possible. When we left, she refused to stay in her bed. She would get up for any reason (e.g., drink of water, scared of the dark, need to go to the potty, wanting a toy, wanting mommy and daddy, etc.), but every time it was an attempt to engage us and keep us with her a little longer. Then she would refuse to go back to bed, often throwing a terrible, emotional tantrum. The struggle would end when she finally exhausted herself, sometimes two or more hours after her bedtime.
We tried everything. We stayed with her, ignored her, got really angry with her, took away her toys — but nothing would keep her in her bed and help her fall asleep without a major struggle.
One night, I threatened to throw away one of her lollipops every time she got out of bed. I stomped downstairs and returned with 13 lollipops. Sure enough, five minutes later, all 13 lollipops were in the trash, and she wasn’t any closer to going to sleep.
Some nights I stripped her room — not only of any toys within reach, but also her books, radio, lamp, even her trash can — anything that wasn’t nailed down and seemed to distract her from going to sleep. Across the hall, our bedroom looked like a tornado had blown all the contents of her room into ours. Still, she was full of energy and seemed to be resisting sleep with every fiber of her being.
Other nights, we stood sentinel outside her door for over an hour, taking turns holding the doorknob so she couldn’t get out. That wasn’t very effective either — she would lay on the floor and scream and cry for us the whole time. We would eventually abandon our post in favor of sitting beside her bed until she fell asleep, praying that when we finally tiptoed out of the room she wouldn’t wake up again.
Distressed by our inability to effectively handle this problem, I searched for advice. I read “Positive Discipline for Preschoolers” by Dr. Jane Nelson, who recommends that parents kindly but firmly pick up the child and put her back into bed as many times as necessary — even 20-30 times if needed. She asserts that within three to five nights, the child will realize that the parents mean business and will stay in bed.
If you are curious as to how this method worked for us, you can read my blog post about it: Bedtime Battles II (or, 78’s the charm!). Dr. Nelson herself was kind enough to comment on our woes in a subsequent post, entitled No Rest for the Weary. Her advice: the problem should resolve itself by the time N goes to college. (!!!)
In desperation, I ordered a highly-recommended book on children’s bedtime meditations. The book instructs the parent to verbally guide the child in visualizing her own star with radiant light, shining from the sky into her body; a guardian angel who will watch over and protect her; and a lovely garden where nothing can harm her. I figured N might take to it, given her vivid imagination and love of pretend play.
So one night I gave it a try. N proceeded to jump out of her bed so she could look out her window and see her star. She then informed me matter-of-factly that angels aren’t real, they’re only pretend. Finally she insisted that she didn’t want to stay in her lovely garden — she wanted to come back inside the house with mama and dada.
Truly, I thought we had tried everything.
I lay awake at night mulling it over: why was N so resistant to sleep? There seemed to be some underlying anxiety or insecurity that prevented her from feeling comfortable falling asleep on her own. And I wasn’t convinced that it was solely due to a fear of the dark or unseen monsters. She wasn’t complaining consistently about the dark or monsters; it was us, mom and dad, that she always wanted. Why? What could we do to reassure her that we would continue to watch over and protect her even when we leave her room — without having to sit beside her bed for hours every night?
Further, I hated the negative way that our family was relating to each other during these difficult bedtime struggles, which had become a nightly occurrence. N was regularly throwing frustrated, emotional temper tantrums; G and I were getting angry and yelling at her. That was not how we wanted our family to end the day.
Months earlier, I had read an online tip about creating a bedtime routine chart depicting each step of getting ready for bed. I hadn’t tried this because we already had a well-established routine that we had been following since N was a baby, and a chart seemed redundant. But in the interests of trying everything, I decided to give it a go. N and I went to the store, got our supplies and began drawing the chart together.
At the bottom, I added five basic bedtime rules (written in positive “do” terms rather than negative “don’t”s). I worked with N and she quickly memorized them in order:
(1) Stay in bed;
(2) Ask for help (toys, books, water, potty);
(3) Stay calm — solve problems together by thinking;
(4) Playing quietly in bed is okay (shhh!); and
(5) Close your eyes and go to sleep.
I then created a second chart — a sticker chart with 10 rows of 3 boxes, each large enough for a sticker. We hung the charts on her wall side by side. I explained that every night she followed the rules, she would get a sticker the next morning. If she filled one row (3 stickers), she would get to pull a surprise from the “goody bag.” I filled the goody bag with a bunch of cheap toys from the 99-cent store — it cost about $10 to fill it up.
That $10 turned out to be a very worthwhile investment.
We’ve now had the routine chart/sticker chart/goody bag system in place for months, and our bedtime struggles are practically nonexistent. Sure, we have an “off” night every now and then when she is overtired or out of sorts. But overall, I feel that we have “coached” N through a sleep training program that has lessened her anxiety about bedtime and effectively taught her how to fall asleep on her own.
Granted, this method didn’t succeed overnight. It took a couple of weeks of consistent implementation and tweaking to yield results. Also, we had to be committed to following the rules ourselves; when we told her she could ask us for help (i.e., to get a drink of water), it meant that we had to be available to her when she called us. And we had to work at following #3 (stay calm).
But after only a few days we noticed significant improvement. The first time she earned a treat out of the “goody bag” she was so excited and proud of herself, and she started trying to get a sticker every night.
Some nights she doesn’t get a sticker, but it’s rare. Most nights, if we can tell she is trying to follow the rules, we give her a sticker in the interests of positive reinforcement and encouragement.
I believe that the routine/sticker chart method has given N the tools she needed to feel more confident and in control of her own bedtime. We have clearly communicated what we expect from her and we’ve set up a system that rewards instead of punishes, demonstrating our belief in her ability to follow the rules.
Of course, during these six months she has grown up a little too. She’s certainly more emotionally mature now; she climbs into bed on her own and enjoys showing us that she knows how to follow the rules. It still takes her about an hour to fall asleep, but during that time she is following #4 (playing quietly in her bed) and she can transition into #5 (close your eyes and go to sleep) all by herself.
I’m proud of N– and I’m proud of us for figuring out a solution that works and sticking to it.
I’m also a bit humbled. Our struggle with bedtime battles reminded me of the kind of parent I want to be. As much as I would love to control everything N does, I can’t. I can’t control her because I have rejected harsh fear tactics such as spanking. First, such negative tactics don’t feel right for our family — and second, I don’t believe they work (based on our experience, anyway). I guess they worked for our parents’ generation, but we’re parenting in a different time. We have a different world view than our parents, and we have different expectations of how our families should relate to one another.
My goal is to treat N (and soon her younger sibling) with respect, but also to instill self-discipline — not through fear tactics and harsh punishment but through encouragement, coaching and guidance. I want our girls to develop not only a sense of what is right, but also a belief in their own abilities to do what is right (e.g., go to sleep on their own) — rather than a fear of harsh punishment if they don’t comply with their parents’ wishes.
For me, that’s what the bedtime showdown was all about, and it seems that our parenting method worked.
So for now, we will enjoy what I am considering a respite from our bedtime battles, at least until the next parenting challenge emerges. (Sibling rivalry, anyone??) 😉