Ask the Expert: Taking the fight out of the night

Bedtime battles are one of the most stressful problems you can deal with as a parent. Photograph: Thinkstock

Bedtime battles are one of the most stressful problems you can deal with as a parent. Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, May 27, 2014, 01:00

Q I am writing about my girl who is just six years old. There is a real problem getting her to bed and it can take on average two hours, from 8pm to 10pm, for her to settle, by which time we are all exhausted and I’m usually in tears.

She continues to come downstairs, with excuses as long as your arm, threatens, hits, screams, throws things at me looking for a reaction and refuses to stay in her room.

On a good night, I ignore the behaviour; on a bad night I end up shouting and losing control. I realise that part is my issue but I feel pushed to the limit.

As I work full-time, I need my downtime in the evening when the kids are in bed. Now, neither I nor my husband have any kid-free time, and we are exhausted.

As a baby she had a comfort blanket that she chewed on from the age of four months. As she got older she would twist the blanket and stuff it into her mouth.

This was removed last August as it was a hazard and she was starting school, and so on. I would not have removed it if she had just cuddled it. That experience was like watching someone come off heroin.

It was a big setback in her getting to sleep at night. The problems really kicked off then and she struggles with settling herself.

She is a great girl most of the time and there are no major issues during the day with her. She is a great sister to her brother and sister.

A Bedtime battles and sleep problems are among the most stressful problems you can deal with as a parent. The more you battle to get your child to sleep, the more agitated they can become, which makes it harder for them to sleep and so the problem can escalate.

Further, as you have discovered, children staying up late is very disruptive to busy parents who need their downtime for their own sanity. And the more exhausted you become, the harder it is to respond patiently to your daughter and the more tense bedtime becomes.

However, there is a simple method to break this vicious cycle and to teach your daughter over time how to relax at bedtime. Taking the battle out of bedtime The first thing to do is to take the battle out of the bedtime. When children come out of their room at night to look for a drink or another story, what they are really looking for is their parents’ attention. A lot of young children feel a bit lonely going to sleep, or find it hard to get to sleep by themselves.

If you get angry or into conflict with them, this can make them anxious and agitated and this, in turn, makes them seek you out more. Taking children back to bed without saying anything, or being angry, even in a nonverbal way, may not give them the comfort they need so they remain agitated and are likely to come out again.

A more effective way to teach young children to stay in bed by themselves is to give them the comfort and support they seek but only when they co-operate and go to bed.

Practically, this means that when your daughter comes out, you say to her, “Go back up to your bed and when you are quiet for five minutes lying on your bed, then Mum will come back and tuck you in.” Then you wait for her to co-operate before tucking her in with a kiss and a cuddle.

The first few times you do this, you might have to sit in her room or close by, but make sure to wait patiently until she gets back in her bed and lies down before you give her the attention she needs for a few minutes.

Over time you gradually increase the time you expect her to wait, and eventually she learns to fall asleep by herself.

The key to making this work is always to respond gently when you ask her to go back and give her warm attention once she has co-operated. Teaching your daughter how to settle at night You describe in your question how your daughter started having problems once she lost her comfort blanket. This means that she has not yet learnt new rituals and strategies to help her sleep at night. It is worth taking time to teach her some of these and to integrate these into your night-time routine with her.

For example, you can show her how to lie down on the bed and to become gently aware of her breathing and to count her breaths, or you can help her develop a ritual of recalling happy events from the day and remembering what she is grateful for.

If she is finding it hard to sleep, suggest that she sits up and reads for a few minutes, instead of coming out for you, and then lies down again and goes through the sleep rituals again. Have lots of relaxing books nearby. Use a sleep chart To restart a new bedtime routine, a picture chart can be helpful. In these pictures you could show both the relaxing pre-bedtime steps – for example, playtime, having a bath, putting on pyjamas, reading a story and so on – and also the stay-in-bed steps that show her lying in bed relaxing, and then Mum coming back to check on her and tuck her in.

In the families I have worked with it has also been useful to include two final pictures: one showing the child fast asleep and getting a special kiss from Mum or Dad – it can be very reassuring for a child to know you will be there when they are asleep – and another showing her waking up in the morning and getting a special star on a chart for having such a relaxed bedtime.

For more help in dealing with sleep problems, please see my book, Positive Parenting.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus charity. See