Inside: Is your child having a hard time falling asleep? Or is your child resisting bedtime by acting up? Does it seem like your bedtime routine only makes everyone more stressed out? Try one of these 5 ways to RESET bedtime from a child psychologist for better and healthier sleep.
When your child is showing signs of stress or acting out one of the first questions a counselor or pediatrician will ask is, how are they sleeping? This is because sleep is a major foundation of well-being.
Healthy sleep in kids is tied to better behavior, higher cognitive functioning, and it’s also protective of future mental health. If we can improve our children’s sleep, there will be a domino effect on other aspects of their life. It’s worth investing a little time and effort to make sure our kids get good sleep.
Yet, at the same time, when things are stressful or hard, sleep and being able to settle down at bedtime is one of the first things to go. Just like us, children’s fears and worries are bigger at bedtime. Unresolved stress and feelings from the day can pile up and feel overwhelming.
Why Children Resist Bedtime Routines and Sleep
There are many reasons why a child may start resisting bedtime and even sleep itself.
- Growth Spurts
- A illness that woke them at night
- Changes in their life
- Cognitive Leap (brain growth spurt)
- Daily Stressors — which may or may not be obvious to adults
- Too much time inside/too much screens
- And more!
Like us, unresolved stress may start to come to the forefront when winding down from the day. If they were sick at night, their brain may see bedtime or sleep as a threat and that brings anxiety to the surface. So — how do you reset? Literally think about resetting your child’s nervous system. What can you do in the evening that will literally soothe their nerves? We often try to approach things logically — by talking, setting up multi-step routines, and so on. Routines help because they are predictable, therefore safe and soothing.
The good news is that there are ways to reset your child’s bedtime routine and if you can do that, it can have a domino effect on other areas of their life and boost well-being.
Kids don’t tell us they are stressed. They don’t tell us they are overwhelmed or worried. Instead, they show us their stress with their behavior. They may act out, be clingy, be unable to settle down, or be super silly. All of these are ways of expressing unresolved feelings or stress from the day.
Bedtime Routines Work By Calming The Nervous System
Here is the good news. While we can’t make our kids sleep, we can make sure they have a great bedtime routine. Why do routines work so well? Because they create a sense of safety and comfort by being predictable. Research shows that having a consistent bedtime routine is the most effective thing you can do to help your child:
- Fall asleep faster and earlier
- Have fewer night wakings
- Sleep longer
Sometimes, however, our kids resist bedtime routines. This is when they need a reset. Think about it this way — in order to prepare your child for a night of sleep, for a night of your child’s brain’s working through the day’s problems, they need a big deposit of love and connection from you — so that their nervous system can feel calm and relaxed.
Here’s how to do it…
To see my formula for your base bedtime routine, read this: The Best Bedtime Routine For Your Child According to Science
Five Ways to Reset Bedtime by Looking to Your Child’s Behavior for Clues: Be a Stress Detective!
1. For the child who is being silly at bedtime…Be Silly!
If your child is goofing off when they are brushing their teeth or being silly by putting on their PJs the wrong way, they are looking for stress relief. A way to blow off some steam before bed. When kids are silly, a slow storytime and an attempt for a calm bedtime might just make them wind up even more. I know some of you know exactly what I mean — every attempt by you to bring calm only seems to make your child even more agitated.
So, what do you do?
Be silly right back. Make silly faces. Pull out a joke book and read silly jokes.
Play a silly version of hide and seek — like ‘family hide and seek’ where once one member finds the person hiding, they join them until there is one remaining seeker. Try not to laugh as you are all stuffed in one closet.
Rough-house and run around. Here is my favorite book on roughhousing, written by psychologist Lawerence J. Cohen: The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It
It seems like the opposite of what you want to do at bedtime, but at the same time, blowing off steam is exactly what some kids need before hitting the sack.
Once you have your game and silly time — say to your child, “That was so much fun! Maybe we can have a silly time after breakfast tomorrow. And before bed tomorrow night as well. Let’s have special silly-time every day!” This reassures them that it will be a consistent point of connection and stress relief that they can count on.
Then do your normal cuddle and song or cuddle and story and say goodnight. If that isn’t enough, try a guided meditation (see an example below) before you say goodnight.
2. For the child who is clingy at bedtime…Have Special Time
If your child doesn’t want you to leave at bedtime or comes out of their room over and over — they are seeking reassurance and connection.
The key thing here is to show them that you are proactively and intentionally connecting with them.
Say to your child “I am looking forward to some Special Time with you tonight (name it mama-your child’s name time or daddy- your child’s name time e.g., “Mama-Evelyn Time”). We can play with something quietly in your room, color, or talk. It’s your choice for 20 minutes.” You could make this 15 minutes or 30 minutes — it’s up to you.
Tell your child you can do this every night so they know is a point of connection they can count on. Make sure you have siblings with another parent or have them listen to an audiobook at this time so you can have one-on-one time with your child.
After your Special Time, read and cuddle or sing a song and cuddle and say goodnight. If that isn’t enough, try a guided meditation (see an example below) before you say goodnight. Tell your child you look forward to Special Time tomorrow night as well.
3. For the child who is acting out at bedtime… Try a Multi-Sensory Reset Bath
Kids who are really overwhelmed will express it through behavior. They will resist everything you try to do or be upset. Try to keep your routine consistent. Start a little earlier if you need to and make sure you are including bathtime as part of your routine.
Two things that seem to break kids out of bad moods are going outside and being in water. Baths are multi-sensory and affect core body temperature, both of which can be a signal to the body to wind down.
Here are some ideas for a Multi-Sensory Reset Bath:
- Turn down the lights in the bathroom and put glow-sticks in the water.
- Blow Bubbles and have a bubble bath, this one does both and is non-toxic.
- Do a music bath by turning on relaxing music during bathtime (here are some great bedtime songs to get kids ready for rest).
- Make some playdough soap for sensory fun in the bath.
- Make your own bathtime paint for a multi-sensory experience.
- Put plastic eggs in the bath and give them a mask and snorkel to look for eggs from underwater.
After bathtime, do the rest of your normal routine. If that isn’t enough, try a guided meditation (see an example below) before you say goodnight.
4. For the child who is overthinking or worried at bedtime… Try a Journal and a Dream Starter
As much as I like to say consistency is the most important thing, sometimes kids get caught up in their own imaginations and your normal bedtime routine isn’t enough or can even become stressful for kids. That means you need to bring in something new to engage their imagination and break them out of an anxious cycle.
For some kids, first, they need to express their worries. They can do this by writing down their thoughts in a journal. Say to your child, “If you have something you are worried about, you can write it here and then you don’t have to remember it or think about it again until tomorrow.”
It is important not to get into a big discussion about their worries right before bed. If your child writes something that you want to talk about with them, reassure them and tell them you will talk about it tomorrow, in the light of day. Most often, simply expressing their worries is enough.
An alternative to a journal is a Worry Moster that eats up worries. Your child writes their worries on a piece of paper and puts it in the stuffy’s zippered mouth.
The next step is to fill your child’s mind with other things to think about as they drift off to sleep. Talking about what your child can dream about once you turn off the light can help channel their overactive imaginations into a land of dreams.
Try telling a story together and talk about how it can become a dream. We use these beautiful story starters as prompts we talk through one and then read another before we turn off the light.
After reading your dream starter, say goodnight. If that isn’t enough, try a guided meditation (see an example below) before you say goodnight.
5. For any child who is feeling extra stress… Try a Guided Meditation
Guided meditations can help children tap into self-love and fill up their emotional buckets before going to sleep.
Research has shown that meditation can help reduce ADHD symptoms and PTSD symptoms in children. It is a proactive way to help reset the body’s stress response. And has been shown to improve sleep as well.
Guided meditation works by engaging the body’s senses and inducing a relaxing response. Research shows that guided imagery produces measurable biochemical changes in stress and immune enzymes and hormones.
When you are first starting out, you could try listening to guided meditations together. Or, you can try reading from the script of our favorite guided meditation below.
Here are some resources for Guided Meditations:
- The Magic Door Under Your Bed – A Guided Meditation for Kids at Bedtime
- Green Child Magazine’s Guided Relaxation Scripts
- The Headspace Meditation App has a special section for Kids and Sleep
- Here are some prompts to help you create your own guided meditations
- Moshi Twilight Sleep Stories: Calm Bedtime App has meditations, songs, and sleep stories.
- Try our favorite Golden Light of Sleep Meditation co-written by my son.
More Resources: How and Why to Start a Daily Routine for Your Family