Posted by: coachingparents | November 17, 2007

Parenting Preschoolers Bedtime Resistance

If you haven’t been frazzled by a preschooler who resists going to bed, you’re probably not a parent. My younger daughter, Laura, was the Queen of Stall. I defined bedtime as being in bed – with both legs – and lights out. Laura defined it as time to begin getting ready for going to bed. And while getting ready she’d suddenly get an attack of janitoritis and clean her room, neatly fold clothes that had lain under the bed for days, or organize her stuffed animals. Once in bed, she’d jump up with, “I want a drink,” or “I forgot to brush my teeth,” or the most famous, “I got a kingernail,” (fingernail) which one of us would have to clip before she could relax into slumber. My husband or I would holler, “Go to bed!” a dozen times every night.

Kids need their sleep!

With all my education in child development, the mother in me still fell prey to my daughter’s manipulation. I knew in my head that this age dawdles. And I knew preschoolers are great at charming their parents. And I knew they love being in the center of the action. If an older sibling is watching TV, Dad is working in the garage, or you have company, the three to five-year-old will find endless reasons to resist separating for bed. But preschoolers need 11-12 hours total sleep in a 24-hour cycle. That can include a nap. Half of all preschoolers still need a daily nap. When they are rested, they have more energy to grow and learn. So even if my heart said, “Let her stay up,” my head said, “Get her in bed and keep her there.” Parenting power is knowing something and putting it into practice.

  • Find a key motivator.

What did my husband and I do? Laura loved going to sleep with the hallway light shining in her room. So we bought a dimmer switch and installed it in her room. Then we explained that instead of the hallway light she could dim the bedroom light to go to sleep. We wanted Laura to sense her ability to sleep alone. So we told her that she could control the level of darkness in her room only if she went to bed on time and stayed there. Then we added, “If you get out of bed we turn off the light.”

Of course, the first night she had to challenge our word — and the light was turned off. The second night the dimmer switch was lowered once. The third night, Laura went to bed quickly and stayed there. For a long time all we had to remind was, “Stay in bed or I’m turning off the light.” We used something important to our daughter so she’d be more committed to changing her behavior.

Dr. Richard Ferber, author of Solve You Child’s Sleep Problems (Simon & Schuster), advises closing the bedroom door for a minute. He says that parents can talk through the door to reassure their child. This method works successfully for many families. Personally, I felt that would have isolated Laura, intensifying her separation conflict.

  • Sleep challenges with older kids.

Now you might think we ended that very common problem. We did, until a couple years later when Laura again jumped up several times at bedtime. It was as if she had springs in her legs. Returning to our same strategy, we determined what mattered to her. This time it was money. We explained when she stayed in bed; she could keep her allowance, which was her source of independence. If she got out of bed, she lost a quarter – big bucks in those days. It was tough to walk in her bedroom early one evening and restate, “Laura, I told you if you got out of bed you’d lose a quarter,” then go over to her panda bank and shake out the coin. My heart said I was a thief stealing a little girl’s money! My head said, “Stick to your word and you’ll prevent similar challenges to your authority.” My head was right.

  • You don’t have to get angry to be effective.

Preschool parents have shared with me similar stories to get their kids to bed. I’ve heard everything from using the security blanket to a flashlight, from installing a fish aquarium to lying about lobsters crawling around the floor. When tired parents feel at the end of their rope, they try almost anything. You don’t have to be angry to be effective.

Instead, remember this remedy for bedtime resistance:

*Determine what works with your child.
*Help your child gain independence and ability to sleep alone.
*Stick with your rule.

Today Laura is 17 years old and quite skilled at expressing herself. I asked if she remembered those nights and why she opposed bedtime so much. She replied, “I hated being alone in my room, especially when I could hear you guys out in the kitchen having fun without me.”

About The Author …
Brenda Nixon’s mission is to build stronger families through parent education and affirmation. She is a speaker, writer, and author of Parenting Power in the Early Years, available at amazon. 

From the book Parenting Power in The Early Years, by Brenda Nixon.  For program planners looking for a speaker, Brenda is available to speak at family retreats, banquets and parenting events. She can be reached via e-mail at

Remember:  Join Dr. Caron Goode for a free conference call about what the Wall Street Journal called “one of the fastest growing industries.” Parent Coaching. For those serious about this career, Dr. Goode will explain how training, certification and marketing work for certified coaches for parents.

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Scheduled Conference Date: Tuesday, November 20, 2007

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