Ending the Neverending Bedtime Battles
“Hi, Aubrey! We are struggling at bedtime. My son’s bedtime routine is dinner, playtime, bath, and books. We read 5 books after bath and usually one story after. I’m happy to stay with him after that until he falls asleep; he can be in my bed if he wants, but as soon as the story is over, he demands more, and if I say no he starts to be very loud waking his baby brother, he suddenly needs to get a drink, go to the toilet, or anything to make it longer.
Sometimes he runs back downstairs. I do not know how to reinforce the routine in gentle and respectful way. We tried letting him stay up in his room but he will stay up for hours, frequently coming back downstairs until I go back and read again. Then he is tired and miserable the next day. Any advice please? Thank you.”
- Teri, mother to 4 year old Teddy
If only we could just create a consistent bedtime routine and be done with the battles! The age-old wisdom is correct: routines are important. You are already one step ahead by thinking through and implementing calming, consistent just-before-bed habits to help him wind-down.
Physically, you know that his body is prepped for sleep.
A full belly, an engaged mind, some warm, muscle-relaxing water therapy, and a good cuddle should do it. You’ve got the physical needs covered.
If anything, I’m wondering how long this routine takes. If you’re completely exhausted by the time “sleep” is supposed to be happening, consider shortening it or starting the whole thing a little bit earlier to allow for more flexibility (and emotional capacity) on your end.
Empathy and Exhaustion
I can tell by your descriptive words to me -- “I’m happy to stay with him” and “if he wants” that these are also empathetic words you use with him. Gentle, respectful parenting is important to you, and you work hard at it. I can also tell that you are feeling exasperated by the time bedtime rolls around.
The words “demands” and “miserable” speak volumes, even though you are talking about your child and not yourself. These are not easy times!
Empathetic as you are, emotionally, your child is obviously still struggling internally, and it likely has nothing to do with what you are or are not doing. This one is not on you.
Four-year-olds are going through a pretty big developmental transformation that can greatly interfere with sleep. While they can, if they choose, be quite amicable, they are also prone to engaging in power struggles, even when you are giving them no real “reason” for one.
New fears often emerge at this age - of scary noises in the dark, worrying about being lost or alone, thinking about what would happen to him if you died, the uncomfortableness of the transition from awake to asleep.
What if a terrible event occurred while he was helplessly asleep, or even worse...what if something amazingly exciting happened and he wasn’t awake to witness it?
Friendships are especially exciting and anxiety-inducing at this age as well. If he couldn’t figure out how to properly join a game of tag at the park the other day or had a disagreement with a good friend, it may take a little while for him to sort out his feelings.
These thoughts are often swimming around inside the typical four year old’s head, and it’s new and different for him. None of this entered his consciousness last year at all!
Because four-year-olds are good at communicating the lack of desire to go to bed but not actually so good at communicating those deeper worries, you will need to be a detective. How are you to know what’s actually bugging him just before bedtime? You can’t see into his mind, and you may never know exactly what the issue is. Chances are good that it will resolve itself as he processes and adjusts.
Don’t go changing up his routine again too much. You’ve got the basis already, and consistency is still important at this age. I wonder if you might be able to have some heart-to-heart discussions with him about why bedtime is so hard right now. I’d recommend that you do it during the day and not in the middle of a bedtime battle.
See if the two of you can find some time to talk about the problem. If you do, you should make sure you are not in a chastising type of mood. This is not a lecture. For some children, it works best if you are deep in a snuggle after reading a story - whether on your couch under a blanket or in your bed. For other children, it could work best while their hands are engaged in an activity they love and find comforting, such as playing with legos.
You really want him to open up and talk to you and help you find a solution. “I am concerned about how bedtime is going recently. I’ve noticed that sometimes you have a hard time getting to sleep, even when I lay with you. We read our stories, and then it seems like you’re getting up a lot. Will you talk to me about that? You used to go right to sleep. What’s going on at night?”
He doesn’t have to answer you verbally. He may be answering inside his head, and if there is silence after a bit of wait-time, you should move on to possible solutions.
First, remind him of the rules (four-year-olds are absolutely still comforted by family policies and consistent boundaries). “Our family rule is that after 5 stories, we go to sleep. What can we do to help you do that?”
You can also offer some child-friendly suggestions, such as…
You could choose a stuffed animal to cuddle with us.
We can stop after 3 stories and go to the toilet one more time and then read the other 2.
We can put a water bottle next to the bed so we can drink some water.
You can find more effective strategies to tame tantrums, overcome challenges, and help your child grow in my book, Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage.