The root issue behind bedtime stalling

It starts out innocently enough: you’ve already kissed your child goodnight when she asks for one more story. You pause, but figure why not… and indulge her request. The next night it’s a plea for another song, plus an extra drink of water. Then it’s an impassioned request for the pink blanket to snuggle with instead of the white one, or for the stuffie that has been sitting in the car for a week that she suddenly needs in order to fall asleep. Somehow or another, bedtime has gone from a quick kiss goodnight to a long litany of requests. How do you make it stop?

To make bedtime stalling end, it’s important to know why it’s happening. Think about what keeps adults trying to win at the slot machines: it’s not that you win every time you put the money in. It’s that the payout happens just often enough to make you want to try even harder for that big win.

Confidence in meeting your child’s needs

Many parents realize that they need to stop letting the child drag out bedtime, but they don’t see that the occasional giving in is what’s causing the problem. It’s so easy to rationalize in our heads why we’re granting a request. We initially think, she doesn’t need another cup of water. But as the water request grows in intensity, we think, well, dinner was kind of salty; I bet she’s thirsty. Your child doesn’t hear your internal monologue though: she just knows that once in awhile you give in, particularly if she makes the request seem critically important! Your child is smart. She knows that a half-hearted performance won’t keep you around–she’s going for the Emmys!

The thing is, her requests aren’t about the request itself. Your presence is the reward that fuels the continued requests. Time with you is a precious thing. But so is sleep–and your child needs both. Healthy growth and development simply cannot happen without a full night’s rest. Your child needs you to teach her that both of these things are important.

The bedtime slot machine doesn’t have to pay out every time, just often enough that your child knows that if she keeps trying, she’s bound to win again. This is known as intermittent reinforcement, a term that comes from B.F. Skinner’s research on operant conditioning. Skinner’s experiments showed that behavior is predictable based on our desire to achieve reward or avoid punishment. When behavior is constantly rewarded–if you were responding to every request your child made–the end would be simple.  Stop providing the reward, and the behavior will stop. But since the requests are being rewarded inconsistently, the behavior is actually much stronger than if it had been answered every time.

No audience, no show

How do you make the requests stop? The slot machine needs to stop paying out.  Easier said than done, right?  If this has been going on for a while on a nightly basis, your child isn’t likely to give up easily. If she’s had to ask multiple times and resort to tears to get her way before, bringing an end to this battle means that if she asks 50 times for one more story and wails as though her heart is breaking, you need to calmly and firmly say no 51 times. The number of nightly requests will decrease quickly, once your child realizes that they’re no longer working. You’re being both firm and loving in doing this: it lets your child know that you can be trusted. You mean what you say.

Strategies to Help the Process:

  • Have a Bedtime Routine. Children with consistent bedtime routines fall asleep faster, wake less, and sleep longer.[1]Mindell, J. A., Li, A. M., Sadeh, A., Kwon, R., & Goh, D. Y. T. (2015). Bedtime routines for young children: a dose-dependent association with sleep outcomes. Sleep, 38(5), 717–22. When you think about it, a bedtime routine that consists of A,B,C,D happening in that exact order every night is going to naturally lead to less protesting and an easier time falling asleep. Sleep is simply the next part of the process.  Use the routine to anticipate later requests, so you can confidently tell your child, “You just went to the potty.  We’ve already had a snack. It’s time to sleep.”
  • Move Bedtime Later–Temporarily. Sometimes the root of the problem is that we’re trying to put our kids to bed at a decent hour–but their bodies just aren’t ready for sleep yet. Late or prolonged naps can cause this, particularly if your child is over the age of 3. What you can do is if your child has been stalling for an hour each night before actually falling asleep, move your bedtime routine so that you’re putting your child in bed AT that time. Once she’s falling asleep within 15 minutes of being put to bed for two nights in a row, move bedtime earlier by 15 minutes. Repeat the process again until you’re back to your original bedtime, which needs to be parked somewhere between 7-8pm. This strategy is known as bedtime fading.[2]Piazza, C.C.; Fisher, W. (1991). A faded bedtime with response cost protocol for treatment of multiple sleep problems in children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24(1), 129–140.
  • Offer ONE Bedtime Pass. Create a special card that she can use to request for you to come back, or to get out of bed. You can even have your child help decorate it and put her name on it–make it fun! Once she’s used her pass, mom or dad holds onto it until tomorrow. This strategy has been clinically trialed in kids ages 3-6 years old: the families who used the bedtime pass found that not only did it work to end bedtime stalling, but three months later it continued to work. What usually happens is that kids initially test to see whether mom and dad are going to be firm on it only being used once. Then the tantrums and the protesting stop.[3]Freeman, K. A. (2006). Treating Bedtime Resistance with the Bedtime Pass: A Systematic Replication and Component Analysis with 3-Year-Olds. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39(4), 423.[4]Moore, B. A., Friman, P. C., Fruzzetti, A. E., & MacAleese, K. (2007). Brief report: Evaluating the bedtime pass program for child resistance to bedtime – A randomized, controlled trial. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 32(3), 283–287. Want to start tonight? Click here for a Printable Bedtime Pass!
  • Stay as Boring as Possible. Once you say goodnight, you go from amazing, fun, irresistible parent (of course your child doesn’t want you to leave!) to being Night Mom. Night Mom says as little as possible: if you’re walking your child back to bed, even if it’s for the 15th time that night, just have one short mantra. Use something like, “I love you sweetie.  It’s time for bed.” Avoid eye contact; let your expression stay as neutral as possible. Your attention, whether positive or negative, can act as a reward for your child’s behavior. This won’t last forever: your child will catch on and everyone will be sleeping better soon.

I'm ready for a good night's sleep

Welcome to Once Upon A Bedtime

A good night’s sleep isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales. It’s the spine that holds the book of life together.

My passion is to give you and your family the tools you need to rest well so you can live life to the fullest.