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If You're Struggling With Your Child At Bedtime, the Bedtime Pass Can Help

You may have heard of the "bedtime pass," an innovative idea that is helping many children ages 3 to 10 years old (and their parents) who struggle with bedtime. The idea is simple: at bedtime, you give your child a notecard (i.e., bedtime pass), and he or she can come out of their bedroom to see mom or dad one time after they are tucked into bed for the night.
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You may have heard of the "bedtime pass," an innovative idea that is helping many children ages 3 to 10 years old (and their parents) who struggle with bedtime. The idea is simple: at bedtime, you give your child a notecard (i.e., bedtime pass), and he or she can come out of their bedroom to see mom or dad one time after they are tucked into bed for the night. They can use the pass for things like telling mommy and daddy something, using the bathroom, getting an extra hug -- you decide on the options. The interaction should be brief -- two to three minutes, tops. Then, your child should walk back to their room. For younger children and children who have a harder time going it alone, you can guide them back to their room and remind them of their job to stay there. *For best results, do not respond to additional call outs (researchers call this "extinction").

Research Around the Bedtime Pass

There have been numerous studies around the bedtime pass, with positive outcomes.

Connie Schnoes is director of National Behavioral Health Dissemination at the Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health in Boys Town, Nebraska. Colleague Patrick Friman, director of the Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health of Philadelphia, used the idea of a sleep pass to help families with young children who exhibited behavioral and sleep issues. When Schnoes heard of the sleep pass from Friman, she conducted a pilot study of two boys, ages 3 and 10. In her research she also asked 20 parents and 23 pediatricians to rate the acceptability of the bedtime pass intervention.

Schnoes' results: "Crying and coming out of the bedroom reduced to zero rates in both children" and "Pediatricians rated the pass as significantly more acceptable than letting children sleep with parents and equivalent to ignoring. Parents rated the pass as more acceptable than either alternative."- October 1999 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Kurt A Freeman, who has expertise in pediatric psychology, also conducted a study, of four unrelated 3-year-old children. The results: bedtime resistance was eliminated for all participants.

Another trial was conducted of nineteen 3- to 6-year-old children who demonstrated bedtime resistance. The children were randomly assigned to a bedtime pass or monitoring control group. The results: children in the bedtime pass condition left their rooms and called and cried out significantly less frequently than controls.

How to Get Started Using the Bedtime Pass

  • Present the plan to your child during the day when your child is well rested.

  • Use language that is simple and appropriate for your child's age. For example, explain that you know that sometimes your child feels like they need something after bedtime. Tell your little one that you'll give out one pass each night that they can use for things that you're okay with (like getting a glass of water). Make sure your child understands the pass only buys a few minutes -- for younger children, liken the amount of time to something they can relate to, such as brushing their teeth. Tell your child that after they use the pass, they must go right back to bed for the rest of the night.
  • Before putting your child to bed, give them the bedtime pass and remind them of the rules.
  • If your child calls out after using the pass, ignore their requests, even if they escalate.
  • If your child exits their room after using the pass, guide them back to their bed, silently returning them with little or no interaction.
  • Be sure to remind your child of the pass and it's rules for the first several nights of implementing the plan.
  • Reinforce your child's ability to follow the plan with verbal praise each day. Note, that, while this is enough for many children, some require a bit more reinforcement. In that case, the day after your child follows the rules of the plan, you can offer rewards such as a sticker or choosing a family meal.
  • As an elementary school psychologist for more than a decade, I've successfully used a similar concept in the elementary school setting with children who needed to have an increased sense of control over their environment. Some needed a brief respite from their classroom to regroup and some needed an occasional break from a school situation that they found most challenging. Allowing children the freedom to participate in an appropriate way helped to avoid the struggle that, at times, ensued between teachers and children who had the need to feel in control in what sometimes felt like an out-of-control situation for them.

    If you're struggling with getting your young child to stay in bed, the bedtime pass can be an empowering tool (for you both). By letting your child have a little more control over their bedtime, you may find you also have increased control of your nighttime hours.