The theme in all my posts is about sleep (of course!). When babies are born, they don’t know how to fall asleep on their own. As they grow, if they don’t learn this skill, they will absolutely struggle with sleep. However, many toddlers and older children actually possess the skill to sleep, but they don’t use it! Aside of my work as a sleep consultant, I am also a family counsellor specializing in parenting and I truly believe that many children’s bedtime problems are not sleep-related, but are about testing boundaries and other normal childhood behaviours.
If you have a child that was previously sleeping well, but is now playing bedtime games, getting out of bed during the night or even waking early and refusing to go back to sleep, you may need to implement some new rules (and potentially consequences) to eliminate these behaviours. Many behaviours that occur around bedtime, such as tantrums or not listening, are the same behaviours that happen throughout the day, however, we tend to view things differently at night. Due to this, many parents change strategies at bedtime, and especially during the night, because they aren’t sure how to follow through or make the necessary changes.
Children thrive on attention. It is a huge driving force behind their behaviours. They love positive attention and will beam with joy when you give them positive feedback. However, children don’t mind negative attention at all! If there is a choice between being ignored or not getting what they want and getting into trouble, they will almost always take getting into trouble. Dr. Carolyn Webster-Stratton, author of The Incredible Years, has conducted almost 30 years of research on this topic and has found that the behaviours we pay the most attention to are the ones that are increased. So if you have a child who is playing games at bedtime, it is important to check if you are inadvertently encouraging that behaviour with your attention.
Often when kids get out of bed, we talk/reason/yell about getting back to bed. What we don’t realize is that all that time spent talking was providing attention to your child and was distracting you from putting them back in bed. Isn’t it amazing how smart our children are?! There are two very effective things that you can do to start eliminating these behaviours.
The first sounds simple, but is hard. It’s ignoring the behaviour. This means that when your child gets out of bed, you will guide them back without words. When you do this, your child may fight, plead, negotiate or cry. It will be very hard not to engage, but the more you talk about it, the more you open the door for the behaviour to keep going. I think anyone who has ever tried to out-negotiate a child knows you can’t win! You can tell your child beforehand that once you say “goodnight” you won’t talk with them if they get out of bed. Then you will have to follow through with this new rule. The first night, you may escort your child back to bed endlessly, but if you can show your child that you won’t engage in the game, they will stop the behaviour as they won’t be receiving your attention for an unwanted behaviour.
The second strategy I would recommend is providing your child with a lot of positive attention before bed. If you can satisfy that need for positive attention prior to bedtime, your child won’t need to come looking for it later. This can look like giving your child one-on-one playtime (if possible, although it can effectively be done with more than one child) where they have your undivided attention. This is very important. During this time, you are not multi-tasking by doing chores, you are simply sitting with your child for 10-15 minutes and playing. During this time, comment on what your child is doing, remark on their thoughts/ideas/problem solving. Don’t try and guide the play by showing your child how to do things “right”, just follow their lead. You will be surprised by how powerful this type of play can be and you will find your child asking for daily. It is a great opportunity to spend fun and positive time with your child. Although, it likely won’t stop negative bedtime behaviour right away, you will find that, with time, simply providing this special playtime will help solve this problem.
Following through with our own household rules is so hard during the night. We are tired and want to sleep, so we tend to give in at this time. But nighttime behaviours are like any other and when we outline rules and then allow children to break them, we actually reinforce the behaviour and cause it continue. When changing nighttime behaviour, it is important to come up with your strategies in advance so that you aren’t feeling stuck with what to do when you are half-asleep. Make a decision with your partner on how to handle things so that you are on the same page. Understand that you may be walking your child back to bed several times and will probably feel tired the following day. But also keep in mind, that if you implement a new rule and then follow through with enforcing it, your child will understand that you mean what you say and will come to know what to expect from you. Consistency is always the key and you can help your child overcome these behaviours if you follow through with your plan.