Whether it’s another bedtime story, another kiss, a different pair of pajamas or a drink of water, kids are famous for their stalling tactics when it’s time to say goodnight.
If you’re dealing in your household with what sleep consultant Alanna McGinn of Good Night Sleep Site calls “the never-ending bedtime routine,” rest assured that you aren’t the only parent being snookered.
Deena Margolin, a licensed therapist who runs the Big Little Feelings Instagram account with fellow mom Kristin Gallant, wrote in an email that toddlers may pull out shenanigans like “Watch this! *performs a dance routine, does 57 jumping jacks, parkours off the wall and sings their heart out as if they’re performing a Super Bowl halftime show.*”
Or maybe it’s “I just need to ___ (do this puzzle, finish this drawing, play the toy piano),” said Margolin.
My own kids, who’d often spent the afternoon squabbling with each other, would suddenly become allied forces at bedtime, play-wrestling on the bed with their pajamas half on. They also had an eerie penchant for dropping big, philosophical questions — “Where do people go when they die?” — just as I was certain they were about to close their eyes.
Perhaps you get what McGinn calls the “silent return” of a small silhouette at your bedroom door after you thought you’d finally emerged victorious, and alone, from their room.
You won’t be able to duck every clever tactic your child employs, but here are a few strategies you can try to help make sure everyone gets to sleep at a reasonable hour.
Stick to a routine.
“No matter what age, it’s hard to go from a hundred to zero,” said McGinn. A simple step-by-step routine — jammies, teeth brushing, books — “allows them time to wind down and prepare for sleep,” she continued.
You can tailor your routine around your child’s favorite stalling tactics, incorporating one last trip to the potty and filling up their water bottle to place on their bedside table, for example, if those tend to be needs your child suddenly remembers when their head hits the pillow.
A routine can help make getting ready for bed “a really great attachment time for parents and their child,” McGinn added. That story and kiss goodnight can be a grounding moment for both of you.
Offer controlled choices.
If they’re suddenly starving and need a snack, rather than asking the open-ended question “What would you like to eat?” say, “Would you like apple slices or a banana?”
Rather than “Which pajamas do you want to wear?” ask, “Do you want the star pajamas or the car pajamas?”
When bedtime has gotten out of control, it’s “important that parents take back control, and that could be in a way where we allow the child to still feel like they’re in control,” McGinn said.
“It’s really just simply setting really firm boundaries, really firm limits,” McGinn continued. For example, “Here are three books. Pick two for me to read to you.”
Don’t phrase requests as questions.
You may rely on this strategy to be polite and show deference when you’re with other adults, but if you ask a child, “Are you ready to put your pajamas on?” you should be prepared for their honest answer.
Try “Time to put your pajamas on,” instead.
Use a chart with photos or pictures.
Better yet, ask your child to figure out what it’s time to do next by creating a bedtime routine chart.
Margolin describes the chart as “a visual aid that lists out what will happen before bed, step by step, with words and a picture.” You can use drawings or clip art to illustrate your chart or take pictures of your child engaging in each step. Kids like helping to make their own charts when possible.
A chart “will help them stay on track and give them the independence toddlers naturally crave. They can look at the chart and see what’s coming next — without you telling them,” explained Margolin.
Rather than you doling out stickers as rewards for completing the steps on the chart, you can have your child place their own sticker, or draw a check mark, for each step they complete. This “gives them that age-appropriate power that makes doing the next bedtime item feel like their choice,” said Margolin.
Teach them that sleep is important.
This sounds obvious, but kids should understand that you want them to sleep because it’s part of your job to take good care of them. You’re not just trying to get them out of the living room so you can watch Netflix. (Or maybe you are, but it’s not your only motivation!)
“Just like they understand the importance of healthy eating and treating people with kindness and all those things,” said McGinn, they should “understand the importance of sleep.”
Address the cause of their bedtime resistance.
There are a few possible reasons, but, luckily, there are things that you can do to address each of them.
First, “transitions — going from one thing, like playing, to a different thing, like going to bed — are hard for toddlers/preschoolers in general,” said Margolin. This is where having a consistent routine can be helpful. They may not like it, but at least they know exactly what to expect.
Second, kids may have real fears — of the dark, or of being alone in their room. You can address these directly with reassurance or a well-placed night light.
Finally, they may just want to hold on to your attention. Try “filling their tank” earlier in the day to ease their need for time with you at night.
Margolin and Gallant have popularized the “10 minute miracle” strategy, which involves giving your child 10 minutes of your undivided attention — no screens, no chores, no siblings — and letting them take the lead in an activity of their choosing once a day.
Margolin suggests giving it a cute name, such as “Special Mama-[kid’s name] time.”
“Let them choose the activity and soak up your attention — no teaching, no correcting, just pure play time together,” she said.
If you can squeeze in those 10 minutes of coloring or Magna-Tiles while their sibling is napping, or as soon as you get home from work, and reassure them that they’ll get another 10 minutes tomorrow, they might not feel the need to drag out those moments before bed.
Margolin explained, “this fills their attention tank proactively, so they don’t rely on unwanted behaviors —like bedtime stalling — to get your attention.”