A to Zzz Bedtime Help

This month’s blog was inspired by an (unsolicited) e-mail I received from one of our longtime leaders, Pat Lonergan, Teen Parenting Instructor at Nature Coast Technical High School in Florida. She wrote and I wrote back:

Hi Doctor Popkin,

I became an Active Parenting Trainer of Trainers back in the late 1990s/early 2000s.  I absolutely love your program and teach the strategies each year to my teen moms and dads.

I need a good “either/or” for a mom with a three-year-old boy who keeps getting out of bed: Either stay in bed or . . . ???

I haven’t been able to come up with a good one that meets the criteria.

Please help!

Thanks. I look forward to hearing from you.


Hi, Pat,

Thanks for your question, and more importantly, thanks for being an Active Parenting leader and trainer for so many years!

How I recommend handling problems like this one depends on the child’s goal. Many kids get out of bed at night just because they want extra attention or want to play more. With these kids, a logical consequence such as you are searching for can be effective. However, some young children have a legitimate fear of sleeping alone that needs to be addressed (and not made worse by having them jump in bed with the parent every night or shaming them). In any case a little encouragement is also important.

Here are a few tips for both situations:

  • Walk the child back to their room without getting angry or critical.
  • Use a choice: “I see youre having trouble staying in bed tonight. Do you want to go back to bed on your own or would you like me to take you?”
  • If the child is afraid, add: “Would you like me to lie down with you for a few minutes while you relax?” (If you have a good self-calming method like “The Butterfly’s Wings” from Active Parenting: First Five Years, you can offer to do that with them.)
  • Before you leave you can ask, “Would you like me to leave a light on or turn it out?” (not the overhead, but a bathroom light or nightlight is okay.
  • Gentle “goodnight music” is also helpful for some children.
  • If logical consequences are needed to help with basic bedtime procrastination, some possible choices you can give the child are:

“You can either stay in your bed until you get tired and fall asleep or you can start to bed 15 minutes earlier tomorrow so you can make up for lost sleep.”

“You may be getting overstimulated, so we’ll need to stop watching TV and other screens tomorrow after dinner.”

  • One way of handling the old saw, “But I’m not sleepy!” that I came up with as a young therapist years ago was to say: “I don’t know if you are sleepy or not, and neither do you. The only way to really tell is to lie quietly in the dark for a while and see what your body tells you. Let’s try this: You lie down for a little while and see how sleepy you feel, and I’ll come back in ten minutes and check on you. If you are still not tired, you can get up and play quietly for another ten minutes and we’ll try again.”   Most kids don’t make it past the first ten minutes. Darkness, at least in the absence of fear or other stimulation (such as a power struggle with a parent) releases a hormone called Melatonin that helps put us—children and adults alike—to sleep.
  • One more idea:   Instead of an “either-or” choice, you might try a “when-then” choice. For example: “When you have shown that you are able stay in your bed all night, then we’ll know you are ready to have a later bedtime.”
  • Okay, one last thing: Our son Ben was a very spirited young child, yet we never had trouble at bedtime. The reason was that we had a really good bedtime routine full of activities that we made fun and relaxing: bath time, teeth brushing, story time (in bed), lights out, prayers and a special goodnight ritual, and finally a goodnight hug and I love you.

We cover this and other bedtime strategies in most of our programs.

I hope this helps, and I wish you and your students/parents much success.

Dr. Michael Popkin

Founder and President
Active Parenting Publishers


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