As bedtime shows, routines shift with age; so should you
QUESTION: On paper, we’re doing everything right about bedtime: no screen time after school, very little sugar in the evenings, a set routine (change into pajamas, brush teeth, read stories, snuggle, sing a song, tuck in). It has been the same since our daughter was 2.
But with an 8 p.m. tuck-in, my 5-yearold usually isn’t asleep until after 10 p.m., and sometimes it’s as late as midnight. I’m so tired of arguing with her over this. My husband and I alternate between threatening to enforce consequences and take away privileges if she continues to get up, and pretending not to hear the feet running around upstairs, because we don’t want to deal with this again. We’ve tried wearing her out before bedtime, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.
Should I ask her pediatrician about melatonin? Should I just give up on ever having a quiet evening to myself again?
ANSWER: I hear you. Getting kids to go to sleep is one of the three horsemen of the parentingyoung-kids apocalypse (the others being toileting and eating), and I have yet to meet a parent who doesn’t struggle with bedtime in some capacity. And I have talked to a lot of parents!
Here’s the thing: I know you’re doing “everything right.” You are doing so many things — in fact, I feel a bit dizzy reading it all. From the ultimate routine to threats to consequences to punishments to ignoring her, it is no wonder you’re considering melatonin.
But before you go down the supplement route, look at what you can stop doing first.
I knowwe are an addit-in parenting culture (another strategy, another trick, anotherway), but there’s tremendous power in stopping these different techniques, because you’re sending toomany messages. Stay with us, go away. Ignore, then punish. I amguessing the 5-yearold is feeling as yanked around as you are, so let’s get down to the basics.
The first thing you can drop is having the same routine for a 5-year-old that you had for a 2-yearold. Trust me, you haven’t done anything wrong. Almost every parent finds something that works and sticks with it, and why wouldn’t we? Wethink that only a child grows and matures over the years, but so, too, must a parent.
In this case, a 2-yearold and 5-year-old are two very different creatures, so your child needs a new routine. An important aspect of many 5-year-olds is their need to have a bit of autonomy and control over their lives. There’s plenty of parenting of 5-year-olds, but typical 5-year-olds love to follow instructions when they’re part of the decision-making process.
I would set up a simple and clear bedtime chart with your daughter. Get some poster board and art supplies, then write three or four things that happen at bedtime, take pictures of her doing those activities (brushing teeth, wearing pajamas), and put them on the poster. Hang it up in her room or in the hallway — whatever works for your family.
And take a cue from preschool teachers: They visit and revisit and revisit routines. Don’t assume your daughter will remember the routine, so be ready to go through it a couple of times and find spaces where you can work it out. She can have some choice around the order of the activities, and I’m even OK with opting out of some of them. (No one will die if baths are skipped.)
You are learning, the hard way, that picking all of the fights is not a sustainable path forward. Your daughter is only headed toward more and more maturity and independence, so punishments and threats will only continue to lose their effect. You are not raising a young woman who is meant to be controlled; you are trying to raise a human to listen to her own voice and be guided by you.
This doesn’t mean that consequences won’t happen, but I amnot a fan of going too negative at night. Everyone is tired — parents included — which makes it more likely for threats, punishments and hurt to occur.
In fact, the later in the day, the quieter a parent should become. I don’t mean in a “steely ice-queen angry” way, but our primary work is to stay calm and peaceful, in and for ourselves. It is less about controlling your daughter and more about disciplining yourself. Energy is contagious, so make a practice of checking your own energy as you head into your routines.
And yes, call the pediatrician. I have no idea if there is something medical or social-emotional afoot, and good support is always a positive move. In the meantime, stop everything you listed in this letter, and reboot by creating a fun chart with your daughter. See where that takes you.