>Excuses for Sleep

>Hello Dr. Hackney,

I have a 3 ½ year old and a 2 ½ year who share a room. We have a bedtime routine of bath time and reading two to three books. My husband and I then try to put our kids to bed by 8:15. The problem we are having is once we put our kids in their beds, they try to come up with every excuse not to go to sleep. They cry, they ask us for milk, they want to tell us something, and then they repeatedly get out of their beds for about an hour. My husband I try to be firm and put them back in bed. We also will try to comfort them when they are upset. Do you have any suggestions they could help with our getting them to go to bed?

Thanks for your help,
Tricia Eckert, mother of two

Hi Tricia,

Consistency may be the key. Right now, you “try” to put them back in bed, and other times, you comfort when they are upset. They are likely finding ways to either keep you in the room or at least keep your attention.

Proactively, you might lay some ground rules, such as they can have one cup of water by the bed but no getting up or having milk. You might also do a bed check by asking, “Before we tuck in for the night, is there anything else you need?”

If you decide to repeatedly put them back to bed, you must do this in a consistent and low-key way to curb behavior. Being a broken record in these moments requires you to develop a mantra and maintain your cool. The broken record repeats itself with no changes in delivery. This is seen as being one of the better ways to break your child’s habit of getting out of bed over and over again. When we switched my daughter Alicen from the crib to a toddler bed, she got out over forty times before she fell asleep the first night. Each time, I said in the same tone, “You must stay in bed,” and guided her back in the same way. The second night, in took about twenty times, and the third night, it then took eight, and it was over. Occasionally, that behavior came back, but with a consistent response, it never seemed out of hand again. Be warned, if you are going to lose your cool at time seventeen, don’t even start. What happens if you get to time seventeen and then yell at the child, take them roughly back to bed or stop to comfort them? You reinforce the behavior because they got your attention. Seventeen is the new goal if not longer because they found your breaking point.

You might also try to reinforce the behavior you are looking for. At the end of the bedtime routine, as you tuck them in bed and say, “If you are laying down and quiet, I will come in and pat your back.” Leave the room, but if they are laying down and quiet, go back in within a minute or two, and pat their back. Do this with little language, and stay less than 30 seconds, and then state, “If you are laying down and quiet, I’ll be back to pat again.” Each time, stay gone a bit longer. We did this years ago, and I still check on the girls every 15 minutes or so to pat. It doesn’t have to be patting, it can be to “sit with you, rub your back,” or whatever you think would work best.

Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.

Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

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