Bedtime Resistance

Bedtime resistance is known in the sleep disorders world as Behavioral Insomnia of Childhood and has two different subtypes: Sleep Onset Association and Limit Setting. Sleep Onset Association means that a child needs something to go to sleep (a sleep association) that he cannot recreate on their own. For example, a child that needs to be rocked to sleep or needs a parent to lay next to him. Limit Setting is when parents do not set appropriate limits that allow the child to stay up later and therefore, not get enough sleep. For example, a child that asks for one more book, one more drink of water, or a child that continuously gets out of bed. Bedtime resistance is most common in children ages 2 through 5 and either means the child never developed healthy sleep habits or is testing limits with his parents.

The important thing is that either type is a learned behavior. When teaching a child to learn a new habit, it is the same as any other habit – if you give in once, the child will protest even longer the next time because he has learned there is some chance you will give in. You will therefore make it harder on your child if you give in. It is important to remind yourself you are allowing your child to cry, not making your child cry. It is the same as allowing your child to fall when learning to walk, as learning to sleep is just as big of a developmental milestone. If your child wanted to eat chocolate for every meal and threw a tantrum at every meal, would you give in? It is the same with sleep. Sleep is just as important and the effects of not sleeping enough are detrimental to a child’s development.

I spent a month with a 2.5 year old this summer and immediately realized he had never learned how to go to sleep on his own – he needed someone to lay with him (at naps, bedtime, and nightly awakenings). This meant sometimes I would lay with him and he would fall asleep in 5 minutes and other times closer to 1.5-2 hours. I decided this was not in his best interest nor mine, as he needed to develop the ability to fall asleep on his own. Not to mention, he was not sleeping enough due to this behavior (sometimes as little as 8 hours per night). Here are some tips when dealing with bedtime resistance:

  • Keep the bedtime routine consistent (and follow the recommended guidelines in the Bedtime Routine post).
  • Bedtime should be between 6 and 8PM. If it is currently later, I would slowly move it to the desired time. If your child is taking 1 hour to fall asleep, bedtime should be 1 hour before the desired bedtime until they can fall asleep quicker (i.e. if you want him to go to bed at 7, but he is currently taking an hour to fall asleep, put him in bed at 6).
  • Explain to your child what the routine will be and that it will end with you saying “Goodnight” and leaving the room. Tell him your expectation that he remain in bed and go to sleep. You can talk about ways to help him fall asleep, such as relaxation.
  • Go through the routine and do as you said you will – tell your child goodnight, turn off the lights, and leave the room. Do not delay nor allow your child to continue conversation with you to keep you in the room.
  • If your child comes out of the room or gets out of bed, walk him back to bed and return him to bed. Do not engage in conversation and do not hug or cuddle him. Say “Goodnight” or “Goodnight, I love you” and leave the room again. Do not engage in any further conversation or give your child any further attention. This is what he wants. The child I worked with this summer tried everything to get me to engage with him, saying things such as “I want to hit you,” “I need to go to the bathroom,” and “I’m hungry.”
  • Your child’s behavior may be worse at first. This is what we refer to as the “extinction burst.” He will try harder to get you to give in before giving up and realizing you will not give in. This burst will be even bigger if you do give in at all. Also, remember, the longer you put this off or the more you give in and delay the sleep training, the older your child will be and the longer/harder he will protest.
  • You may have to return your child to bed MANY times the first few nights until he learns. This can be exhausting and hard to see your child so distraught. It may help to remind yourself that you are teaching your child a crucial habit in his development and that a couple of rough nights will lead to peaceful nights from there on out. It may seem like he will never learn, but I promise he eventually will!
  • This is also true for the child that wakes up in the middle of night and joins you in bed or wants attention. Do the same as above… return him to bed with minimal attention and leave the room.
  • The most important thing is consistency! You are the parent and you are responsible for shaping your child’s healthy sleep habits.
  • Lastly, if the child is old enough to understand, Reward Charts are great. Come up with a reward that the child really wants and give a sticker for every night that he goes to bed on his own and sleeps through the night in his own bed.

After many nights of returning the child to bed this summer (over 30 times a couple of nights) and hours of crying, he began falling asleep on his own and sleeping 12 hours at night, with no awakenings. Needless to say, although the mother was resistant at first to allowing her child to cry, she stuck it out and all are enjoying more peaceful and restful nights.

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