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Getting your child to bed at a reasonable hour
What can I do to get my 5-year-old to go to bed at a reasonable hour? She has a hard time getting up in the morning, and we need to leave the house early. Does anyone have any good suggestions?
Melissa in KC
Set limits for her. Tell her she doesn't have to go to sleep (she will), but she does have to lay in her bed with the lights out. This worked for me as a child (thanks for the child psychology tactics, Mom!) and now I'm a mom myself!

Fonda in Kansas
Try putting her to bed 15 minutes early each night until you reach the desired bedtime. Getting her to bed earlier will not be a dramatic change this way, as you'll do it gradually. Warm baths and milk and bedtime songs will make this routine more fun.

Angalammai in Las Vegas
I had the same problem with my son. I suggest you make her tired in the evening time by doing things like taking her for a walk or jogging, etc. It really works. You need to do this for a week or so, and then I'm sure she will get back to her normal bedtime.

Katherine in Beacon
My son had the same problem. It's just a matter of starting a routine. What worked for him was a bath, then brushing his teeth and hear a good book, right before he went to bed. At first it was frustrating to get him to do it. But it takes time ... just stick to it.

TBM in Birmingham
I have been very pleased with the sleeping results that came after I changed our diet. I eliminated the hydrogenated oils, reduced the sugar and fat and increased our fiber and fresh produce. Now my daughter puts herself to bed at 9:30 and wakes us up in the morning.

Alison in New York
Begin a countdown to bedtime so she won't feel as if bedtime is like a sudden "punishment." When we started to teach our 3-year-old about telling time, we bought a clock with fruits on it and told her that whenever the clock hands pointed to a certain number, it was her bedtime.

Jill in Nashville
Your whole family could try winding down for bedtime earlier in the evening. That way, she'd know it's nighttime for everyone and that she's not missing out on something.

Bettye M. Caldwell, Ph.D.
Recently, a baffled mother e-mailed me a question about her daughter’s sleep schedule. It read as follows:

What can I do to get my 5-year-old to go to bed at a reasonable hour? She has a hard time getting up in the morning, and we need to leave the house early.

Because of the nature of her predicament, I knew it would take more than a brief answer to help her. Furthermore, the problem she describes affects so many families. Accordingly, I have expanded my response into this article.

The truth is, many children resist going to bed—even when they are obviously tired and sleepy. With the possible exception of the hour before dinner, when children are hungry and mothers are usually busy preparing the meal, bedtime is generally the most difficult time of day for parents and children alike.

A plan to remedy the problem cannot be expected to succeed overnight. But a positive approach to the situation can, over time, ameliorate an existing problem—and hopefully prevent the emergence of one in children who tend to go to bed without a struggle.

Biological Influences
There are at least two types of influences that, singly and in combination, predispose children to bedtime problems: biological and family schedule influences.

Biological influences are built-in factors that influence sleep patterns. These can’t really be changed; we just have to work around them as best we can. People differ widely in the amount of sleep they need, children as well as adults. Most parents seem to think that their children need more sleep than the children actually do. For a 5-year-old, many parents think that 11 hours (something like an 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. schedule) is the bare minimum. But many 5-year-olds seem to do fine on 10 or even nine hours of sleep. If we try to force them to sleep longer, there is sure to be a struggle.

Furthermore, there are definitely “morning” and “night” people—or “early” and “late,” if you prefer. I am a morning person, for example. When I am working on a manuscript, I get up one to two hours earlier than the rest of my family and work on my computer. After 9:30 or so in the evening, I’m not good for anything other than working a crossword puzzle—and I might fall asleep while doing that!

It sounds as though her daughter is definitely a “night” person. She probably gets a new surge of energy after dinner and is ready for anything but sleep. I’d be careful not to allow her to have any chemical stimulant at or after dinner; the amount of caffeine in many soft drinks is enough to produce quite a jolt in a young child.

Because she has trouble getting up in the morning, it doesn’t sound as though an attempt is being made to force too much sleep on the little girl. So it would seem that the most profitable approach is to find a way to adjust her sleep-wake cycle so it better fits the demands of daily living. That calls for a close examination of the family schedule.

Family Schedule
Dealing with a sleep problem requires some adjustment by all family members, not merely the sleep-resistant child. Let me address this to whichever parent handles the bedtime routine. In the evening you anticipate a struggle, and your behavior and body language begin to show your tension. The nightly bath becomes a rushed and utilitarian event instead of the first step in a relaxation ritual. By the end of the bath you have probably said half a dozen times, “We’ve got to hurry up now so you can get ready for bed.” The bath and teeth brushing took longer than you wanted it to, so you say, “We don’t have time for a story tonight; you’ve got to get to sleep.” The atmosphere is hardly conducive to relaxation and sleep.

When this source of tension seeps into the nightly routine, an obvious corrective is to begin the bedtime routine in plenty of time to avoid an atmosphere of rush, rush, rush. That’s not always easy to do. You may rush the pre-sleep routine because you want and deserve a little time to yourself after the kids have gone to bed. Or you might want to have lights out in time to watch a favorite TV program. TV can be a problem in another way. Though the sound comes from another room, the child being put into bed may still be able to hear it and want to watch the program. If older kids are allowed to stay up and watch, preschoolers in the family are likely to think they should have equal rights.

These suggested family schedule changes make it sound as though I am letting their daughter off the hook. I don’t mean to do that; she has to “give” something also. A good beginning is to discuss the situation with her not at bedtime, but at a time when you are both relaxed. Rather than focusing on the problem with her, emphasize the solution. Otherwise, the battle lines are clearly drawn, and she has the upper hand. To offer a corny maxim: You can put a child to bed, but you can’t make her sleep. (I might have added that, with a 5-year-old, you might not even be able to make her stay in bed.) So, in every way possible, bring the child into the solution; she probably doesn’t like these nightly battles any more than you do.

In the discussion, you might say that you hate arguing and you know she does, too. But explain that you can’t give in to her wishes to stay up because she has to get enough sleep to be alert and happy when she goes to school. Let her know that you sympathize with her but, at the same time, stress the fact that she has to have her rest. In this discussion, ask her if she has any ideas of how to avoid the nightly conflict; she might surprise you with her response.

Another helpful way to get the problem sleeper into the solution is to begin the bedtime routine with a discussion of what is to happen the following morning. “We all have to get up early in the morning so you can get to school on time and I can get to work. Let’s get your backpack ready. Are you going to take anything for show and tell?” After she bathes and brushes her teeth, let her lay out what she wants to wear to school the next day. This reminder about the morning helps keep the nighttime routine in perspective. She’s not just being told to shut down arbitrarily; she’s shutting down in order to be able to restart in the morning. If she wants to start vigorous play, stop that with a comment such as, “That’s too active for right now. We need you to begin to relax and get ready to go to sleep.”

Finally, let me urge that the bedtime ritual be consummated with one of the greatest pleasures in early life for either parent or child—reading a book while snuggled against one another. If possible, let her choose the book, and set reasonable limits about how long it can be. It’s sure to end the day on a happy note—and you and your child may get so relaxed that you both tend to fall asleep before you reach the end of the story!
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education