When it comes to sleep, there's an undeniable fact–sleep is much needed by parents, and most resisted by kids.
The minute bedtime cues are mentioned, some little kids seem to have the knack of suddenly finding something else to do, or they need a drink of water, or a toilet trip, or 10 stories read, or one last look at the moon. They may even offer to do the dishes if it means staying up for another 10 minutes.
So what is it about going to bed that can be the cause of such frustration, arguments, and battles of will? Even kids who enjoy the bed time routine will have days when they simply refuse to be tucked up in bed for the night, let alone stay there. Regardless of how exhausted they are, many young kids will try as hard as possible to stay awake.
Probably the main reason why kids resist sleep is because they don't want to miss anything. If we look at it from a child's point of view, kids have little if any understanding of the concept of tiredness, let alone the body's need to recharge the batteries. What's wrong with playing 'til you drop?
Given that kids are quick learners, it's no surprise that they've figured out that while they're in bed sleeping, the significant adults in their world will be doing something else. What's more, this 'something else' has to be a lot more exciting and interesting and far more appealing than sleeping. For some children, particularly toddlers, there could also be feelings of separation anxiety at realising they will not be with a parent or caregiver, but left on their own.
Other reasons can include kids not being prepared and ready for sleep. Perhaps they've taken the edge of their tiredness by falling asleep for half an hour while watching television, or they've been playing rough and tumble and they're still on a high, or friends have dropped by, or a parent has come home late from work and little ones want some quality time. When kids are overtired they may also resist sleep. In this case they may need some additional time to prepare and settle.
Timing is crucial for bed time. When kids aren't tired, or they're overtired, getting them to sleep can be a problem. If you can see that your child is tired, but it's not yet bed time, suggest some quiet play time away from the stimulation of television or electronic games, or suggest they put the PJs on and get into bed anyway....with the promise of an additional bed time story or calming music.
Bed is for sleeping, so it's important that you put them into the bed where they'll be spending the night. Allowing a child to fall asleep on the couch or on cushions on the floor doesn't help them to make the connection between bed, bedroom and sleep.
Encourage independence. For those of us with partners, take turns with the bed time routine. This way a small child is not dependent on one person every night nor is there a likelihood of meltdown when that special person can't be there. For both two parent and single families, try not to overdo the bedtime cues or time spent with the child once they're in bed. Encourage their confidence and independence to know it's time for sleeping, and this is something they are very clever at doing on their own.
Sticking to a predictable, consistent bed time routine helps kids begin to wind down and relax. If they know that having a shower and brushing their teeth is followed by one-on-one time with a parent or carer–reading a story or quietly chatting about why dinosaurs are extinct–they can gradually begin the mental and physical slow down to the day's activities. Regardless of whether we're five or 50, the winding down to bed time is a great way to begin a night's inactivity.
Try not to rush the winding down routine. Most of us have a million things to do once our kids are in bed. But a little kid's radar is quick to pick up on the fact that we're trying to fob them off and their natural response can be to go slow. They figure this is their time–and they're right, it is–so unless we have a valid excuse for cutting short the bed time story or listening to music time, try to be as consistent as possible.
Setting limits with kids is a fact of life and setting limits for bedtime is important for a family's sanity. Everyone is over tears and tantrums by the time bedtime arrives. But trying it on is all part of childhood. If we think that just because we've said 'off to sleep now' our kids are just going to lie there and snooze the night away, we might need a reality check.
Once we've set a routine, our family knows what's supposed to happen in what order and at what time. Unfortunately though, for any number of reasons, kids are not always that accommodating or cooperative. If any parent has ever read a book called Bedtime for Frances, they'll be smiling right now. The little badger in this story has every excuse known to badgers for not staying in bed. It makes for hilarious reading...all the more so because it's so true.
Calling out, getting up, wanting a drink, needing to go to the toilet (for the seventh time) is all part of the attention game. Kids can come up with all sorts of reasons why we should come to them or they should wander out to find us.
Of course on the nights when our precious, cherubic little angels do sleep the night away, praise and encouragement never go astray.