• Fri, Apr 6 2012

The Answer To Bedtime Tantrums? We Let Our Daughter Decide When To Go To Sleep

Every night, we had a routine. My daughter would take a bath and play in the bubbles for about 30 minutes. She would hop out and don a monster bath towel, running around the house and growling at everyone. We would comb her hair, brush her teeth and then sit down to read roughly three books. Sounds pretty standard, right?

Two kisses goodnight, night light on, make sure the closet is closed. Then my daughter would get out of bed for the first time, normally to use the rest room again. About fifteen minutes later she would need another drink. If we gave her water for her bedside table, she would decide she needed milk. Next would come the requests for a different stuffed animal, followed by fear of bad guys under the bed. After a couple hours of requests from her and a whole lot of frustration on my part, my daughter might finally pass out. By then I was ready to pull out my hair and possibly guilty about raising my voice.

This was our nightly routine.

Finally, my husband and I decided that we had enough. We didn’t know what we needed to do, but we were positive that something had to change. Mostly for my sanity’s sake.

One night, after bath time and books, I looked at my daughter and asked, “Are you sleepy, Bean? Are you ready to go to bed?” It was 8 o’clock, our standard bedtime.

“No,” my daughter admitted. “I really want to play, Mama.”

I looked down at my daughter and made a decision, mostly out of desperation and a serious need to relax. “Alright babe, you play and let me know when you’re ready for bed. I won’t make you lay down now. But once you decide you’re sleeping, you aren’t allowed to get up.”

My daughter was delighted by the idea of choosing her own bedtime. She felt like a big kid, playing in her room when it was dark outside. She giggled incessantly. I figured that if she was going to be up until 10pm every night, at least this way we wouldn’t be stressed and crazy. I was resigned to being a terrible parent who couldn’t enforce a bedtime.

Then, something kind of miraculous happened. About 30 minutes later, my daughter walked out of her room and told me she was ready for bed. It was 8:30pm and she actually wanted to lay down. I got her tucked in, still weary that she would be getting out of bed for the next hour. I gave her a kiss, turned out the light and waited in the living room for the inevitable requests and protests.

Nothing. Never have I appreciated the quietness of my house so much.

At first, I was hesitant to rejoice in our success. It seemed like a fluke. Surely it couldn’t be this easy. Soon she would be choosing to stay up until 11pm, I thought. And yet, every night between 8:30 and 9:00, my daughter would walk out of her room with her blanket and proclaim that she was ready to be tucked in. With very few exceptions, she would stay in bed all night long, without a single complaint of bad guys or full bladders.

Our night time madness was cured, all because my daughter got to choose exactly when to lay herself down.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this system will work for every family. I’m not naive enough to assume that every child will respond to the same tactics. It’s possible that I have the only child in the world who won’t abuse her new power and stay up til midnight. Doubtful, but possible. But I am saying that it worked for us.

For all you parents struggling out there with nightly bedtime drama and too many frustrated evenings, mix it up. Try a new approach. Maybe you’ll find your own sneaky system to get your little one in bed. I’m just happy we found a new routine that works for us.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

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  • quinn

    Wow!! I am going through the exact same thing. I am trying this tonight. Thank you for this article.

  • Laura D

    I have three kids, one in college, one a teenager, and one in preschool. I’ve always done this with all three kids. It has always worked. Never had bedtime issues and they have always survived and chosen a decent bedtime. The only time it had been an issue is the 14 and up years. They want to stay up and text. I gently go in their room and remind them they may be tired in school and that seems to work. But when they were younger, it always worked perfectly.

    • Lindsay Cross

      Laura, where were you a year ago when I was quietly crying on my couch after the 18th wake-up at 10pm?

  • Taz

    I have a 3 month old so it’s really different, but many people have asked if we are on a schedule…I just kind of let her do what she does….
    I think that a lot of parents seem resistant to taking the easiest path for some reason. I am not into letting a child make every decision about what we do, but a little independence is a good thing. Especially if the child is entertaining themselves during the evening.

  • Rebecca

    I’ve been trying something similar with my 3 and 4 yr olds. It’s tough though because they share a room. I would do all the work of getting them ready for bed and tucked in and then they’d stay up giggling, playing, and switching beds for the next 3 hours. Now I get them Jammied up, tuck them in bed with some small toys, and tell them they can play quietly for a little while. My son is definitely more likely to abuse the system then my daughter though. She’s usually out within a half hour, but he’ll get out of his bed and poke at her until she’s crying because,”jack won’t let me sleep!”. So we still have to keep some structure for him, and if it gets past ten or so and they haven’t fallen to sleep yet then I’ll go in and lay down the law;)

    • Lindsay Cross

      Oh my Heavens. I cannot even imagine how everything would change if you were talking about two children instead of one. I think that’s a post in and of itself.

    • Skent

      I have twin 6 y-o-boys (fraternal) and had to be a bit of a bedtime Nazi early on to keep them from getting out of control and pestering each other as you describe. They get it now, though, and I’m happy to let them chat or play a bit with the nightlight on with the understanding that if things get rambunctious and dad has to come upstairs, it’s sleep time and that’s that.

      I salute the woman writing the article for trying a different approach. Kids really do seem to bloom when you give them some responsibility. When they feel like pampered, overly directed pets with nothing under their own control, they can get pretty defiant and start demanding a lot of attention.

      All kids are different, of course, and it’s always a matter of one degree or another!

  • Hong Mei

    We have two kids (2 and 9) and we let them go to bed when they want. They both are very consistent and go to bed on their own at 8:30-9 every night. The older one doesn’t even say anything to us anymore, she just gets in bed herself and goes to sleep and the younger one announces to everyone. “I’m getting tired. I have to go to sleep” and then goes to bed. I can’t imagine fighting as some of my friends about bed time.

  • Catie

    You know, it sounds like the “routine” you had in mind DID sort of stick… it was just that maybe she needed a little post-bath wind-down time on her own built in instead of going straight to her bed at the end of the original plan. I only point this out because when I read the title of the post, I guess I was under the impression you had been letting her choose her bedtime entirely on her own without any parental influence, but once I read the whole thing I realized that she was still loosely observing the general time frame you had been attempting to enforce more strictly. In other words, she still goes to bed around the time you trained/taught her to, only now she has a more collaborative role in the process. I suppose I would consider the THREE of you to be deciding her bedtime now (you guys initiate the routine that signals “almost time” and she completes the process by winding herself down independently), whereas before the TWO of you decided and she was expected to obey… does that make any sense?

  • Shasta

    this worked very well for my 3 kids ,no set times for stuff meant no meltdowns if i had to do things differently one day,every time i see a kids screaming having a fit and the parent says it is their nap time i just shake my head because this always happens when you have set times ,people know when they are tired ,know when they need a nap ,even kids ,so why force them to do something they dont need

    • shasta76

      i totally agree,i have said this very same thing myself and done this with my kids :)

  • A

    We kind of do the same thing with my daughter – after we tuck her in, she is allowed to stay in her bed and read quietly to herself or play quietly with a (safe, like a coloring boy) toy until she decides to go to sleep. She is usually asleep within 15 minutes of being tucked in. :)

  • The Mommy Psychologist

    You tricked her! And it worked! Score one for mom and dad. I’m all for getting creative and doing what works.

    “The child psychologist who thought she had all the answers to parenting until she became one herself.” http://www.themommypsychologist.com

  • istackrocks.com

    sounds like another case of mrs. pigglewiggle parenting proving itself. pretty awesome.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      +1 just for the literary reference!

  • SKent

    This is an excellent strategy here, but bear in mind that if it doesn’t work out for you, you must either learn to ‘lay down the law’ with your kids, or get comfortable with letting them run the roost with all that that entails.

    I know parents who let their kids run the roost for fear that laying down the law will emotionally scar them or something. They are some of the most unhappy parents I know and their child one of the loneliest.

    They are not made of glass, and thrive when given reasonable limits on their behaviour.

    Also, BOTH parents must be involved. You have to decide on your approach and then support each other.

  • Grammie

    Please write and say, “Lie down.”

  • whatisamom

    Wonderful article Lindsay, thank you so much for sharing.

    I have a 6 month old and I’m excited about working with my own daughter on this. It reminds me a lot of what Non Violent Communication teachers teach in communicating with children and the successes they’ve gotten with giving children choices…that if you try to force them to do something, they will either learn to submit or to rebel, and how that becomes a much larger and more problematic issue later on in life.

    Giving them choice and consequences, empowering them to make their own decisions and understand what happens as a result, is such a powerful position to take. You become more of their ally and guide. It also allows them to tune in and listen to their own bodies, rather than to learn from someone else what they should or shouldn’t be feeling.

    Thank you so much again!!

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  • Marina

    My parents let me do this, starting at about 8 years old, and it worked really well. They told me that at 8pm they were “off duty”–no more stories, no more fetching things. At that age I could get myself a glass of water and a piece of toast. I loved the feeling of responsibility and taking care of myself.

    Then they tried the same thing with my younger brother and it didn’t work at ALL. He wasn’t able to tell when he was tired enough to go to bed and would stay up until he had a complete meltdown. He really needed a supportive bedtime routine, and didn’t need the solo time.

  • Kate

    We’ve always done this with our son (who just turned three). When he was littler we’d just watch him carefully for signs of tiredness and do it that way. Once he was old enough to understand (definitely by 18 months old, maybe sooner) when he seemed tired we’d ask him if it was “time for sleepy” and if he was ready he’d take himself up to bed. For naptime when he’s tired he just comes and gets me so I can tuck him in. Even with all this choice his schedule is still pretty regular; down for a nap between noon and 1 and bedtime between 7:30 and 8:30.

  • shasta76

    i agree,shasta,that is my nickname too , i have done the very same thing with my kids and thought the same thing about meltdowns of other kids at the store ,set times are bad if you have to deviate from them at all ,and dont let your kids run all over you and you wont have problems

  • GaleJ

    We used child guided parenting when my son was little and not just for bedtime. The results were almost always positive and pleasant, trust your children and follow their lead!

  • Angela

    That’s great it worked for you! Now, my son wouldn’t go to bed until well after midnight if I tried that. I just have to make sure he isn’t hungry, because he’s on a patch for ADHD which decreases his appetite, and turn on a movie for him in his room and he will fall asleep watching that movie with a nightlight and a fan on (for the noise). I always sleep with a fan on so he thinks he has to too.

  • Older Mom

    Our pediatrician had us try something similar that was amazing. He suggested a small lamp by our daughter’s bed, letting her pick out as many books as she wanted, and telling her she could “read” until she was sleepy, then turn her own lamp off and go to sleep. Our power-hungry firstborn child loved this and the book time went down every night until the light started going out regularly in 10-15 minutes. For what it’s worth -”laying down the law” does occasionally have to be done, but most of the time it is good to foster that fierce spirit that some kids have, just within limits, letting them feel independent, strong, smart and capable. BTW-that daughter is now a level I trauma nurse – fighting to save lives and loving every minute of it! She is STILL the same little girl who challenged us on everything!

  • laffingdukk

    I believe the best method in any situation is to really, really know your child. Every child is different, and responds differently. I raised kids in my 20′s, and then again in my early 40′s. When I was in my 30′s, and the kids had grown some, my younger brother was a new parent, and I remember snickering to myself as he looked at his watch and said his child had to be put down for a nap in exactly 3 minutes :-) I thought this was humorous because when I was younger, I just took the kids with me everywhere i went, and they slept whenever and wherever they got tired and it never was an issue. So later, in my 40′s when I was raising a child of a friend, I remember watching the clock and realizing that she got tired, or hungry, just like clockwork. So for the 4am feeding, I’d set my alarm for 3:45. For her lunch, I knew to start fixing it at 11 or she would be fussy by 11:30. Same with sleep schedules. So to an outside observer, it would appear as if I was following a schedule, but in reality she was setting it, and I was just paying really close attention and being proactive.
    good article, glad your solution worked.

  • seahorsebaby11

    Seems logical. Except for working parents, I really wonder where the notion of ‘putting her down at 8:00′ ever came from anyway. I don’t go to bed if i am not tired. Problem is that my girl is NOT tired a LOT later than I am! She doesn’t take enough naps and even my usual high energy self is not always up to her steadfast stay awakeness.

  • Cori

    I did the same thing. They had to go in their rooms at 8 p.m, choose a couple of books and read themselves to sleep. It was called “unplug time.” I turned down the lights and tv and had my own unplug time too

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    This didn’t work so well with me. I’d start out reading to wind down, then I’d finish the book and look up and OOPS! It’s 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning! On the other paw, I did develop a life-long love of books, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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  • Kate

    Some kids need to learn by experience. There’s really nothing wrong with letting children choose a bedtime when the bedtime is reasonable. But if it’s not, then I think a more strict approach is needed for the child’s benefit. Everyone suffers from a child’s lack of sleep, and there are many ways to end bedtime tantrums.

  • Allison Chandler

    weve done this for years we have a 15 yr 14 yr & 12 yr old our relationship is worth too much to fight over a time. I believe children need to know what it is like to make good decisions & feel when they are tired.