I’m finding it harder to keep to my 5 -year-old daughter's bedtime nowadays. She'll often bargain for 30 minutes more, whether it is to watch TV, or to just play with her toys. How do I reinforce the bedtime routine?
Thank you for raising a very common problem faced by many families. It is a frustrating problem as resources (e.g., time, energy, patience) are lower at night for both parents and their preschool children. Parents are concerned about inadequate sleep in their kids and its links to increased behavioural issues, learning and mood regulation.
Children at the preschool age are a developing greater self-concept, the attribute, abilities, attitudes and values that they believe define them. The temperament of a child plays a role in their willingness to abide by routines and how they handle frustrations. For example, a child who is strong-willed may prefer to have greater control and jointly make decisions (within limits) with parents. Children who are more anxious is likely to benefit from adhering to a consistent and predictable routine.
The following strategies can help with bedtime routines for most children:
Abide to Bedtime Rules
Parents can jointly discuss and agree to bedtime rules. This gives the child a sense of control and the ability to work on values such as responsibility and trust.
A visual chart can be drawn up to remind children of the expected activities surrounding bed time. For example, preparing the room together before it’s time to sleep. (For instance, setting up the night light, turning on the fan to cool the room, putting the security blanket or toy in the room, turning on soothing music, having supper together before going into the room, reading bed time stories for xx minutes, washing up together, and so on.)
Consistency (when possible) in enforcing bedtime routines
Children thrive on predictability, patterns and schedules. They are quick in identifying “loopholes” that can be worked to their advantage (e.g., more TV time or play time). It is challenging to juggle work and other siblings especially at the end of the day. When possible, to ensure that the routines are followed closely, pre-empt the child before bedtime (e.g., 10 more minutes and we will prepare for bedtime together). Make it a team effort and activity.
Reinforcing Positive Behaviours
Parents can show appreciation and affirm the child’s efforts in following the bedtime routine. Children usually thrive on parent’s positive attention and approval. Parents can briefly talk about the steps taken the night before, highlighting the child’s initiation and obedience (yet another value), and repeat the same. Make an effort to spotlight the child’s decision, initiation, abiding rules, etc.
Providing Environment to Facilitate Sleep
Parents may want to reduce screen time one to two hours before bedtime. Young children may be easily affected by the (negative) news on the TV, scenes of disagreements, etc. Children lack the brain maturation and cognitive skills to cope well with distressing emotions.
Instead, provide and engage in family bonding time that works on feeling secure, happy, connected and loved. This could include activities such as playing a board game (nothing too exciting!), drawing and processing the day’s events, going for an evening stroll, etc. Make bedtime routines associated with good feelings, being close to parents, and security.
Parents can also consider the following questions when working on bedtime routines:
Is the bedtime routine part of a bigger problem such as anxiety, bullying incidents, transition (e.g., from sleeping together with parents to sleeping alone in a room), etc.
Is the bedtime set at the same time daily (e.g., 9 pm), or at different times though the bedtime routines apply?
Is the bedtime routine struggles an avenue (though maladaptive) for the child to gain our attention?
Is the child over-tired (i.e. too stimulated or nervous to sleep), or “too early” for bed as the child may have slept in the afternoon.
What strategies have been tried and to review the reasons for the on-going challenges. For example, whether the reasons are behavioural, physiological, emotional, etc. This allows the root problem to be more adequately addressed.
Samantha Tang, Consultant Psychologist