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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceSmoother Bedtime Routine: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Smoother Bedtime Routine: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m generally exhausted by the end of the day. Single mom, full-time job (thankfully work from home most days), the ex-husband has little involvement with the kids. My boys, 9 and 7, do their darnedest to stall, whine, and pester me until I end up losing what little patience I have in getting them to bed at night. Then there’s yelling (me) and crying (usually the seven-year-old). They used to annoy each other from across the hall, but since we moved they share a room and have so many ways of keeping each other from falling asleep.  Half the time I let one or both sleep with me, although I don’t sleep well on those nights.

Sleep Hardly Happens

Dear SHH,

Parenting can be exhausting. Bedtime is an important part of the day, so let’s analyze what might be going on and create an approach that meets everyone’s needs.

Bedtime Anxiety

It sounds like the children have had some significant changes in their lives – a divorce, a move, and a new school year just started. Going on two and a half years you’ve all lived through a global health crisis, too. It’s harder to let go of the day when your day has been hard. Several hard days, weeks, months, and years, and an exhausted mom, can set up negative patterns at bedtime that are hard to break.

Unsettled days make it hard for children to settle down at night.

Consider that your children are trying to hold on to time with you just when you’re so ready to have some quiet time to yourself. Hence the need for them to do whatever it takes to hold your attention. Even to the point of your agreeing to co-sleeping at the expense of your own restful sleep.

Predictable (and Positive) Routines

Structure is very important for children’s sense of security. Home and family are the foundation for this. School is second to home as the place a child spends most of his time, so this time of year is likely to feel a bit unsettled as the children adjust to new teachers, classmates, and all the other pieces of a day at school. 

There are necessary steps to getting ready for bed – washing up, changing to pajamas, brushing teeth – the order doesn’t really matter so long as it’s the same order every evening. You might also include laying out tomorrow’s clothes, a sip of water, reading books to the boys, a “favorite things about today” review and what to look forward to tomorrow, prayers, lullabies, backrubs, etc. Since you are one parent with two children, it would make sense to alternate some one-on-one time. You might get the younger child started in the bathroom first, then read to this one while the other child takes his turn brushing teeth, etc. The point is to create a block of time that fits all this in, unrushed, and reaffirming your deep love for each child.

A pleasant bedtime routine for school-age children might take an hour or so. Choose a starting time that allows for them to get nine to ten hours of sleep before they need to rise in the morning.

I’m Still Here

Even with some nice one-on-one time worked into the family bedtime routine, you can take this a step further. Clear your evenings (by doing things while the boys are busy at school or otherwise occupied) so that ALL you have on your plate after reading stories and giving back rubs is making sure they are cozily drifting off to dreamland. It’s easier to deal with any stalling tactics if a delay isn’t keeping you from something.

Here is a technique I adopted when I was in charge of ten or more Girl Scouts on troop overnights. The trick is to stay upright – standing, or at least sitting – until all the children have been quiet at least five minutes. Your behavior says that you have nothing else to do at this time. You might whisper, “We can talk about that tomorrow.” Or, “It’s time to sleep now,” as many times as needed until quiet breathing takes over. The key is to remain steadfast in your task of watching them fall asleep rather than returning time and again to get them back on their beds or to stop them from talking. You might give one last, “That’s all for today” or start a song with the understanding that once the song starts there’s no more talking (nor drinks of water, nor looking for a teddy bear).

An alternate tactic, especially if your day has truly exhausted your resources, is to brush your teeth and get into pajamas when the children do. After stories you’ll lie down in the children’s room – preferably on the floor rather than one of their beds so you don’t disturb anyone when you tiptoe out. Children are easily influenced by a parent’s modeling. In this case, you’re modeling that the day is done and all there is to do now is to go to sleep.

Big Picture

Childhood is fleeting. A solid, reliable family structure is reinforced when you dedicate time to your children in the evenings. As the years fly by, your attitude toward them shapes their attitudes toward themselves. They are in good hands, well-loved, well taken care of.

You can eliminate nightly chaos by addressing the boys’ need to know they are precious to you – by your devoted attention at bedtime.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  She will be presenting a series of Zoom workshops for parents, starting Monday, October 3.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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