Take My Bedtime Routine—Please!

Posted June 9, 2008 by

Photo of elisabeth

Here’s a dirty little secret: I long for the type of family bedtime that you see in the movies. You know, the one where the parents read their children a book, kiss them on their freshly-scrubbed foreheads with an “I love you,” and softly shut their kids’ bedroom doors at 7 p.m.

Bedtime at our house looks more like, well, a Vaudeville show. On any given night, my five-year-old son can be found running around the house after his bath (naked except for a towel/cape) yelling, “I’m a flying squirrel! I’m a flying squirrel!” That seems to be the cue for the phone to ring, and for some reason, usually it’s the phone, my husband’s cell phone and then my cell phone, all at once. (My policy is to ignore the phones unless there’s some kind of emergency situation, but the effect of the three rings is something like an espresso shot for my son, who will often start flinging himself off the couch with reckless abandon as soon as he hears them.) When we finally get him settled down, Act I begins: I read him a book, then tell a story, then he gets a hug and kiss from my husband (and most times our boy can wheedle another story out of my husband Joe by saying, “Tell me about when you were little, Daddy.”) Then there’s the intermission: a glass of water followed by a potty break. Act II comes along, the one where we check for monsters in the closet, under the bed and in the next room. (By this time, I feel like the guy who spins the plates on the long sticks while dancing a jig and juggling–at least, I’m as tired as that guy always looks.) Finally, Act III: “The Great Mom-o” answers all the burning questions of the day. My son usually starts off with something related to monsters and being afraid of the dark, and then quickly moves on to other fascinating topics for a five-year-old boy. (Sometimes he gets me, though. Last night I was explaining something about astronauts’ underwear before I caught myself.) By 9 p.m., (OK, 9:30) I finally stumble out of his room, bleary-eyed and confused. That is, if I’m lucky. At least one night a week, I fall asleep while doing the massage/back rub/back scratch phase of the show. I usually then wake up at 3 a.m. in my son’s bed, scrunched up like a cocktail shrimp with my back to the wall. I actually have a kink in my back that I now refer to as “The Bunk Bed Knot.”

You see, try as I might to be consistent, I often fall way short of the mark. I know there’s a reason why they call it “the bedtime routine” but our family just can’t seem to get into the swing of it. And I feel like I should probably get on the ball now, because at this rate, our son will be staying up till 5 a.m. by the time he’s 10. (He already assures me that he wants to be “awake all night, like the skunks and owls” when he grows up. Oh boy.)

I’m wondering if anyone wants to commiserate or knows some good tips on how to stick to a smooth bedtime routine. What works in your house? Because, let’s face it, this act needs to get the hook!


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. babybumpbasics Report

    Starting a bedtime routine and sticking to it no matter what each night at the same time is the most important thing. Pick a routine that suits you and your child, like bath, teeth and bedtime story, something that you both like doing together but always end up in the bedroom, the earlier you start this with your child the better.

  2. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Sarah, We have an article on bedtime on Empowering Parents here, http://empoweringparents.com/Take-the-Power-Struggle-out-of-Bedtime-Permanently.php I like James Lehman’s suggestion of trying a chart system. It actually worked well with my son (I think we started it when he was 3-4.) You might give that a try.

    I’m also wondering if you’ve tried speaking with your child’s pediatrician about this issue recently? He or she might have some insights into how to help your child get to sleep at night.

    Good luck, Sarah. I hope this is helpful.

  3. Sarah Report

    I have a 3 (almost 4 yr old) son. He was born with some issues and has been delayed with speech, walking and toilet training (still not). In August we moved to a new house. Since the move he has not been sleeping well in his bed. I used to read and then lie with him for a few minutes but have noticed lately that to keep him happy I have to stay until he is asleep. If not asleep he cries and gets out of bed everytime I leave the room. I tried no eye contact and no talking, walking him back to bed and tucking him in again. After 60 times I gave up on that. Now I told him to stay in bed and I will be outside the door. Constantly out of bed. I have tried saying You have to stay in your big boy bed, your brother stays in his bed and mommy and daddy stay in their bed. I say “are you going to stay in your bed?” and he shakes his head yes but continues to get out of bed. Last night he had stories and was in bed, time to sleep, at 7pm. At 9:45pm we were still trying to get him to stay put. By the way he does not want a light on, no night light and no music. Next I am going to try the night light with pictures that move to distract him. Any other suggestions?

  4. Elisabeth Report

    Hey Linda, thanks for the encouragement. Actually, we’ve been sticking to a much better bedtime routine, and just starting the whole process earlier (as you do) has made a lot of difference. I also have stopped scrunching up in the bunk bed because my back just can’t take it anymore. As far as the bags and dark circles, well, I’m just learning to live with them! 🙂

  5. Linda Report

    Hi all!
    My son is 4 & has just began school – until last wk i was too scrunched up in bed talking / reading 12 stories, explaining there are no dragons outside – being kept awake til early hours of the morning every morning! then i realised it doesnt make me a bad mother to let me son slip into bed & get himself to sleep. Callum would too be bouncing around after bath time, so i began the routine. Firstly i started at 8pm then gradually brought back til 6 pm. Callum would have his dinner at 5pm then play time, quiet time sometimes watching cartoons, after this time i would run him a bath & focus more on giving him the independence of washing himself as opposed to the splashing bath toys – after his bath he would tell me he was hungry ( in their minds they are delaying the bedtime but really if your doing it earlier then your in control) so downstairs we go for a yoghurt & drink of milk, then back upstairs with a brush of the teeth a toilet trip & into bed we go! the first night was tough, i explained to callum its bedtime mummy is going downstairs – low & behold the tears started but hey it lasted 5 minutes & he was fast asleep, the yoghurt helped him stay settled as he would wake up hungry.
    The main thing i have learned ( the hard way ) is to not engage in conversation with them other than a goodnight & a i love you, when they break this its a vicious circle. if you can try to tell them everything that is coming next so it doesnt become a conversation point when it happens.

    as a single mum i have realised we all need a good nights sleep & hopefully the bags & dark circles will some day fade!

  6. Joan Report

    Ok, don’t hate me but we love the bedtime routine around here… Just like many of you that have kids that run around in circles all day long and you never get a chance to snuggle or have quiet talks until that last minute, and then you find that you can’t leave and go into “one more conversation” and of the day (when they want you) and the next thing you know they are wired for sound and awake till 9…
    Well, just stop it. It’s what we did, and it does work! We have a set pattern- bath, brush, bed, book and snuggle.
    Immediately after dinner is the bath (shower)
    Then brush (and last toilet break)
    Jammies on. Choose a stuffed animal to snuggle, journal and prayers if that’s what you do
    Into Bed
    We read. No talking allowed. Arms down, legs must be still. If they move just stop reading (no yelling- but it’s a killer not too) when they realize you stopped quietly tell them that they must stay still, otherwise your eyes are looking at them and not the paper.
    Read for 1/2 hour. By now it’s 7:15/7:30. Cover them tightly, making sure they have their stuffed animal to snuggle.
    Get the CD running, our personal favorite is “return to pooh corner” by kenny loggins. the 11 year old son has been listening to it for 7 years straight!
    Once the CD is on, no talking allowed. When there is more than 1 kid in the bedroom you must stay in the room until one falls asleep, otherwise they’ll just yak with each other. But with just one, leave.
    The key is the start time. When we allow the “just one tv program” it all falls apart. But be forewarned- they will be bright eyed and bushy tailed at 6 in the morning! If that is really too early for your family, then allow them to color, do play doh, or read to themselves after the bath/teeth part. Must be quiet activity!
    Hope this helps.

  7. Jenny Report

    I have a five year old, and as i can relate to the original post emmensly, I have a solution.

    At 8:00 i tell him to climb into bed and pick out 2 or 3 books and I’ll be in shortly. About 5 minutes later I lay down with him and read 1 or 2 of them (depending on the night) and then tell him to take some time and look through he other book he picked out and I’ll come and check on him shorty again. I go to the kitchen get him a glass of water (cause i know it’s coming!) dilly-dally for a minute and go back. Two things happen….he falls asleep now that he’s calm down, or we read the last book together, but he tells me what happening in the book by looking at the pictures. If he still seems like he’s got a ton of energy i give him all of the books and ask him to go through them and make up stories for tomorrow night. (9 times out of 10 he falls asleep looking at them, the other 1 time it takes me turning off the small light and rubbing his hair and he’s out in a instant. I feel like it’s developed a couple of things. The joy of reading books, a security of knowing i’ll come back when i say i will, and it stimulates his imagination in an interactive way. Usually just getting him to calm down for 15 minutes usually allows his “sleepiness” to creep up on him.(not that he owuld admit it!) A kiss on the head and it’s lights out. The great part is being consitent….this routine takes a whole 20 mintutes and it’s now become our time together. Conversation now happens more than multiple books about his day and the activities or stories that happened! It’s really great!

  8. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Mary » It sounds like you are transitioning your son back to his own bedroom in a really thoughtful way. Good luck to you, and let us know how it works out when school starts in the fall. And Michele, I hear you–we have the same type of space issues at our house, and noise is a problem for us too. What I often do is work on my computer at the dining room table, and leave my son’s door open a crack so he can see me. He usually falls asleep pretty quickly when I do that–if I manage to get out of his bedroom and actually get to the computer! So if the door is open and he can see one of us, he will usually fall asleep quickly.

  9. Mary Report

    Bedtime has always been a struggle. My oldest son, who is now 22, had a problem with going to sleep when he was little. Then one night, when he was three or four, I was just tired of it. We had done the water, the book, the song… and he kept getting up and coming into my room whining that he just wasn’t tired. I finally calmly walked him back to his bed, tucked him in one last time, and told him in a very calm monotone “no more stories, songs or talking… It’s time for sleep… I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to hear you anymore tonight… Go to sleep.” It worked!!! I was shocked. I had to tell him this same thing everynight for a month… Finally, he would go to sleep on his own.

    On the other hand… I have an eight year old boy now.
    He has severe ADHD caused by a traumatic brain injury. He refuses to sleep in his own room. He slept in our bed unitl he was six. I finally put him into his own room (bed), but he kept waking up around three in the morning and climbing into my bed. I finally gave up. In order to get the rest I need, and keep him out of my bed.. I invested in an air mattress that he sleeps on next to my bed. I am hoping that he learns how to sleep by himself. And them maybe he can evenutally move this air mattress into his own room. He’s going into third grade this year. We’ve set the strat of school as our goal for getting him into his own room.

    I can definately commiserate with your situation. I wish you all the luck.

  10. Deneice Rogers Report

    Hi everyone!

    I have found that after I set up an acceptable routine…which for us is a story or reading the Bible (if its early enough), prayers and then starting the Pooh Bear story CD….that when my kid starts to push the 8:30 bedtime it is quite effective to start taking away the bedtime from the next day.

    For example, if she isn’t in the bed until 8:45 then bedtime is 8:15 the following day. Of course, if the bedtime is pushed out because of me or activities beyond her control, that does not affect her bedtime for he next day.

    For most children it is a matter of the parent sticking to the routine. Most kids are very good at theatrically manipulating bedtimes and constantly taking a mile. It is difficult for parents to say no to their kid, especially when the kid is emotionally blackmailing the parent with “wanting to spend time with me.”

    Remember if you have ignored your kid most of the day because you were too busy, then they have missed you all day and you will feel guilty for not spending some special time with your child. Make a point to spend a set amount of time with your kid doing a craft, reading a story, playing a game; whatever. I always make sure I thank God during our prayers for the time we shared together specifically. For exmaple: Thank you God for the fun time we spent today baking chocolate chip cookies. We had so much fun! Our cookies are the best cookies because we made them together. Amen

    Anyway, it is hard when we’ve given our kids the chance to train us and control the bedtime “routine.” Parents with babies: Remember it is easier to train THEM before they learn words!

  11. Melanie Report

    To Carol: Wait, let me get this straight–your doctor prescribed stimulants for your 13 year old daughter so she would get up in teh morning? Why not just have her drink tea or coffee? Not that young kids should be drinking lots of coffee, but there’s less of a chance of her becoming addicted to anything. Just my two cents.

  12. NOra Report

    They way to make anything happen is to create it in your own home first. As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.

  13. Carol Report

    Very tired mom
    I’m just like concerned aunt A. I have a though time getting my 13 year old daughter to bed at night. It’s even harder to wake her up in the mornings, she’s always asking for 5 more mins to get up, and 5 more mins to go to bed . Recently we started taking zumba classes in the evenings she’s pretty exhausted on these days and I have no trouble during bedtime. Her doctor suggested giving her a stimulant med to get her up and going, 5 mins before wake up time with some OJ to get her blood sugar up to give her energy. I’ve gotten positive results occasionally. I play upbeat music that she likes and that helps as well. It’s trial and error, you have to keep on trying different things to see what works for your situation.

  14. Michele Report

    Elisabeth, my kids will often read in bed for 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. I must admit that I’m thrilled they’re reading, but wish they would do it earlier. A pipedream, I know. My mother has the same opinion, as long as they’re quiet and in bed, it’s okay. I guess our problem is that our house is tiny (918 sq. ft.), so we can all hear each other breathe. Our bedroom is right next to theirs, and they want us to keep our door open so they don’t get scared. We just want to unwind and watch a bit of TV, have a grown-up conversation before bed…without input from the kids in the room next door. Very frustrating with so little privacy. In my next life, I’m going to have a huge house!

  15. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Thanks Everyone–these are all GREAT tips. Good common sense stuff that I can use to stop our bedtime show. I’m sure we can do it–as Candee said, we need to stick to our guns! I’ll let you all know how it goes.
    I have a question for Michele: About how long do your kids stay up reading comic books at night? One of my friends has the policy that as long as her kids are in bed, they don’t have to necessarily be asleep. I believe she takes away books, etc. at some point in the night, though. (I have to admit I was guilty of reading at night myself when I was a kid–with a flashlight under the covers!)

  16. Aunt A Report

    My sister struggles getting her 14 year old daughter to bed. It’s constant reminders to get of the computer, brush your teeth, take out your lenses…. The response is often “hold on” “I will, just hold on”. This goes on and on.

    Finally, she’ll get into her room after slowly following each of her rituals, at which point my sister is absolutely exhausted. My niece suffers from sleep issues which make it difficult to sleep at night and even harder to wake in the morning. With such inflexibiity, she’s not willing or able to undergo a sleep study (lots of wires and cameras).

    The morning is so stressful with my sister trying to wake her. She wants her to do it on her own, but I think my niece is now convinced she can’t wake up. Of course, school attendance is severly disrupted and she feels like a failure every day she wakes late.

    I know there are physical, mental, and emotional issues involved. But if anyone has suggestions from getting a child to stop the defiance to therapuetic schools, please share.

    Thank you,
    Concerned Aunt

  17. Penny Report

    As others have stated, these articles are WONDERFUL! My son who will be 9 next week has ADHD. My daughters are 22 and 19 and did not have this, so learning all about this while in my 40s has been quite a challenge. Since I am a single parent, my son started coming and getting in my bed around 2 or 3 o’clock every morning. Even though I have a queen-size bed, he would sleep right up in my back, causing stiff backs and very little sleep for me. One night when I was putting him to bed, I told him that when he wakes up during the night, he needs to gather his “buddies” (about 15 stuffed animals in the bed with him) and go back to sleep, but to not get up and come into my room. He said that my bed was so much more comfortable than his. It was then that I realized that I had an egg-crate mattress and better-grade sheets on my bed than he did. I bought a mattress cover that had somewhat of a pillow top and new, higher thread-count sheets for his bed. He has slept in his bed ever since! Also, I used to refuse his requests for me to come lay with him every night because I was so exhausted that I would fall asleep there and wake up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, which made my days even more tiresome. Now I tell him that I will lay for 10 minutes, then I am getting up. He knows how to tell time and he has a clock in his room, so when the limit is met, he doesn’t complain (that is if he is awake at all!) because he knows what to expect. We now are both better-rested, and I love our 10-minute bedtime togetherness.

  18. Candee Williamson Report

    I also have to say this site has been a huge blessing to me as a parent of two boys 17 and 5.
    Elisabeth, you need to stick to your guns! You can do it. The bedtime countdown Patty mentioned is GREAT! I’ve used countdowns during playtime and it allows the child to prepare. It is only fair and does seem to work well. If you need to, set a written schedule up, and maybe a reward board for bedtime tasks done on-time. Like bath and teeth brushing to be done by 7pm, then dressed and story over by 7:30 etc. I find that when rewards are involved, kids will bug you to get them done on time. This may help with that. I also agree with the other mom on soft music, that helps kids forget about the scary stuff they often dwell on at night and provides a pleasant atmosphere. (admit it, it even works for us adults!) I have found that the Sesame Street website has an option to click on a music box that plays Sesame Street songs if you have computer nearby and can put the speaker in the room.
    The idea of a small (safe) lamp by their bed they can turn off and on during insecure times is also a good help. Name it a funny name or make it into some sort of shield to ward of the darkness – small kids usually fall for that. Or, even a night light that may reflect images on the walls or cielings to give them something to focus on.

    For Todd and Traci: our son slept in our bed for a long time. We found that we had to spend more time during the day in his room with him. Make it a fun place to be, not just a toy storage area. I would also suggest a list of rules / a schedule and a reward board for adhearing to it! You may want to start with him in his bed for nap/rest time when possible. Then, we talked about getting older and how big kids have their own rooms when they are growing up. We knew it would take time to convince him (and us). There is a technique I saw being used on a Nanny show that allowed the parent to tuck in the child and sit in the room without engaging with the child until he was asleep. Then, you move closer to the door each night until you are sitting in the hallway. I have also used the technique (when my oldest was young) to put him in bed, (after ample discussion and time to prapare him) psychologically, to tuck him in and let him cry. Ignoring their pleas is the hardest part, but it is effective because our children train us how to react, and by five, they are very up-to-date on what makes mommy tic! Good Luck to all! I know you can do it!

  19. Todd & Tracie Report

    hi all, I love this site, all articles have been useful and if not insightful for our blended family of 14, 11, 5 year old girls and 2 year old boy……

    MY QUESTION is, how do we get our son OFF the couch all night, and into his bed???

    he’s 2 1/2 and because of our initial tiredness we have allowed him to sleep on the couch for well over a year…. for the first 1 1/2 years he was up every couple hours in his crib, EVERY NIGHT…. so, one night he fell asleep watching some cartoons, with mom, and mom got up in the middle of the night, and he slept ALL night right where he was…. so, maybe selfishly, we’ve allowed it to continue, only to our detremint that he wouldn’t go back in his crib….

    we tried getting him into the “big boy bed” to NO avail… when we have tried putting him in, he freaks out, says “no, hold me”…. we try again and again, never works…. even when we think he is out like a light, it seems to wake him right up…… he continues to fall asleep on the couch where he sleeps most of the night….

    ANY suggestions would be greatly appreciated…..

  20. Michele Report

    Our kids are 10 and 7 (boy and girl). We, too, go through our whole rigamarole, and finally get at least one of them into bed by 9:15pm, and hopefully the other by 9:30pm. Still, the requests and getting out of bed for questions, statements and general comments, continue. Then we convince them to return to bed where they proceed to read for another hour, even though we ask them several times to turn out the lights and go to sleep. Sometimes we turn out the lights, leave the room, and as we look back we see that they have turned the lights back on. Eventually, we’re sure they’re asleep…then we hear a comic book page turning! Help!!!

  21. Patty W. Report

    My child is older (11) but the racing around routine you describe was very familiar to me. It seems the minute I mentioned bed time he got a huge burst of frantic energy. It has worked for me to start a bedtime “count down”. About a 30-minutes before his actual getting-ready-for-bed time I mention how much time is left, talk about finishing up whatever he is doing, ask about what he wants for his bedtime snack, ask if he prefers a bath or a shower, etc. With these matters settled, I let him continue whatever he is doing for a half hour. This seems to work great. When the actual getting-ready-for-bed time arrives, he’s prepared. And sometimes he even starts getting ready early!

  22. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Dear Cheri, Thanks for the tip! I’m going to get a small CD player and try music tonight. I know that ignoring the requests is the biggest piece of the puzzle–wish me luck!

  23. Cheri W Report

    Your article was funny, but I can relate to the endurance trial you describe. It helps to have a sense of humor. Our bedtime routine is a Bible story in a kid’s devotional followed by a prayer. I keep discussion to a minimum. I turn on the music CD in a small player in her room, something like classical music for babies or soft music with ocean waves, and turn up the volume. A light back rub with no talking, then I say Good night, sweet dreams, and leave the room. I rarely come back. I used to do all the rest of the things you describe, but ignoring requests taught my child to get that drink, or snack, before bedtime. I think the music is the best cue that it’s time to go to bed and stay there.



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