Parenting with a Ph.D: Bedtime

Parent Question: I’ve researched this online and haven’t found something that works. How do you get a child to stay in bed??? My three-year-old daughter has a bedtime routine and we’ve tried consistently putting her back for as long as 45 minutes, stroking her hair, reading to her, even taking toys away as punishment — strike outs. I bet other parents wonder about this, too. Thanks!

Parenting with a PhD Response:  A quick perusal of the offerings on Kids and Bedtime at any bookstore will assure you that you’re not alone. The usual scenario: You’re exhausted after a long day and find yourself envying your daughter’s early bedtime and soft, downy pillow. She seems completely unaware of how blissful 12 hours of sleep would be and has caught her second (or third or fourth) wind. If only you could borrow from the plot of “Freaky Friday” (the original version, obviously) and let her stay up to iron and pay bills so you could climb into that cozy little bed…

O.K. – back to reality. If a parent came to my practice with this question, the first thing we would do is more fully assess the evening routine and consider the following questions:

What’s going on two hours before bedtime? Cutting out caffeine (including that sneaky caffeine in foods like chocolate!) is a no-brainer. Some kids can’t even handle caffeine after lunchtime. Also important, make sure your child is “unplugged” (i.e., no TV, computer, etc.) for at least a full hour before bedtime because the type of light emitted by these devices is very alerting. In fact, you may want to dim the lights in the hour before bedtime. It’s also best to avoid stressful or academic tasks before bed, so make sure older kids finish their homework earlier.

Is your child getting special time with you? Spending 20 minutes at the end of the day engaged in a low-stress, fun activity of your child’s choosing may help establish a cooperative attitude for bedtime. Older kids will relish a little sibling-free time to spend with you.

What’s the bedtime routine? The entire process should last no more than 20 minutes and shouldn’t include too much relaxation intervention from you. Fit in the basics like teeth-brushing and story time but limit the number of books and songs so the process doesn’t go on too long.

Is bedtime too late? Children who are overly tired may seem to have boundless energy and might not have the resources to calm themselves for bed. If your child is hard to awaken and tired during the day, consider moving bedtime up by 15-30 minute increments at a time to see if it goes better.

Is bedtime too early? Check out this link on WebMD for how much sleep your child needs. Count back from her wake-up time to determine when she should go to bed. Children who are getting too much sleep aren’t likely to be tired at bedtime. If your child wakes up happy and well-rested even when she isn’t falling asleep until later, try pushing her bedtime back little by little to see if she falls asleep more quickly.

Is your child afraid? Address the fears you can with nightlights and white noise.  Provide your child with positive reminders he can say to himself when he’s alone, like: “I am brave” or “I can handle this.”  For some kids, being allowed to look at books in bed can distract them from fears. For more severe anxiety, therapy may be helpful.

Once the bedtime routine is done, the real work begins. The goal is to make staying in bed more rewarding than getting out so you want to avoid reinforcing her when she gets up. Putting your child back in bed consistently and repeatedly is important. Try to avoid being drawn in by excuses and, most importantly, keep the interaction to a minimum (hint: the extra attention may make her more likely to get out of bed again). Maintain a neutral demeanor and don’t scold. Make a clear distinction between your nurturing behavior at bedtime and your matter-of-fact attitude after you’ve put her to bed. Unless she is extremely upset, try not to provide much soothing during this period. You’ve given her the tools to do this on her own and now she needs to practice.

Consider setting up a reward system to further motivate your child to stay in bed. Initially, try something simple like rewarding him if he gets out of bed no more than twice. If that’s not successful, reward him for staying in bed for successively longer periods of time. For example, if he usually gets up every two minutes after bedtime, explain that he can earn a point (better yet, offer him 10 points – it sounds better) if he stays in bed for four minutes. He probably can’t keep track and the actual number of minutes doesn’t matter. If he stays in bed longer than the usual two minutes, go crazy giving out those points. Increase the amount of time he should go before getting out of bed in order to earn points the next night. Keep track of the points on a brightly colored chart somewhere he can see it during the day. Let him use his points to earn something the next morning (e.g., TV time, special breakfast, a board game with you).

There are other factors to consider like medical problems or medications that might be keeping her up so talk to your doctor if you suspect something like that.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way via email at: and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel  you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen S. Berthiaume, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

Kristen Berthiaume is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates.She obtained her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center.

She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues:
learning disorders
social skill deficits
organizational problems
behavioral difficulties

She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her four-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son.

2 thoughts on “Parenting with a Ph.D: Bedtime

  1. Great question and even greater response! My husband and I both needed to read this. Although we are exercising a few of PhD Mama’s tools, we still find ourselves wearing down from time to time. We’ll make sure to try out a few of these really useful new-to-use tips,too.
    Bedtime Drill Sergeant

  2. You are awesome! Thank you for the advice! We’re definitely breaking a few of those rules — letting her wind down with Little Einsteins! Yikes. We also coo at her when she gets up. I so appreciate your time and look forward to incorporating these 2NITE!

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