Why kids struggle at bedtime

Let me count the reasons. Thankfully, there are solutions.

Dear Is My Kid The Asshole,

My daughter is often an angel during the day, but at bedtime she turns into the devil. She starts bouncing off the walls when she’s supposed to get tucked in, and she refuses to stay in her bed. Help!

Sincerely,

I Am Losing My Mind

Dear I Am Losing My Mind,

I have been there. I think we all have been there. I remember one week that was particularly harrowing: I was eight months pregnant and my husband was out of town for work. Out of the blue, my then three-year-old son, who was normally pretty easy at bedtime, totally lost his shit for a few nights. He refused to stay in his room at lights out; as soon as I closed the door, he opened it and came trotting out. This happened over and over and over again. I remember, at one point, standing outside his room holding the door shut with all my pregnant might while he was on the other side trying to pull it open. If you had seen me, I’m sure you would have laughed. I, on the other hand, was crying.

Why do kids sometimes give us hell at bedtime — and why do they go through those awful “hahaha nope never gonna sleep” periods? To find out, I called up an old friend, certified sleep consultant Arielle Greenleaf, the Chief Education Officer at Restfully Sleep. She has helped me get through some rather challenging times with my daughter. (Unfortunately, she wasn’t yet a consultant when my son went through his sleep crisis, or I’d have panic-texted her for sure.) What I love about Greenleaf’s approach to kids’ sleep is that it is grounded in science, so it works amazingly well.

OK, so back to the question. Why do kids turn into lunatics when they are supposed to go to sleep? In non-pandemic times, the answer is often that kids are overtired. When kids get sleepy but they don’t go to bed early enough, their bodies start to produce cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones that have the paradoxical effect of waking them up more — giving them that annoying second wind when it’s time to say night night.

Right now, during the pandemic, Greenleaf says she’s seeing the opposite happen, too: Kids go to bed undertired, in a way. They haven’t been exposed to all of the stimuli they are used to from daycare and school and just normal kid life, and they probably aren’t running around nearly as much. As a result, some kids now are going to bed with too much pent up energy, which makes it difficult for them to settle down.

There’s a third reason why kids often freak out at bedtime, and this, I think, was the driver of my son’s sleep woes: They are struggling emotionally. In my son’s case, Dad was away, and Mom looked like she could give birth to a new sibling at any moment, and what the hell was that going to be like??

Bedtime anxiety can sparked by any number of things happening in a kid’s world. Maybe they are mourning the loss of a pet, have just started at a new school, watched something scary on TV or are especially struggling with pandemic life. They’re feeling scared and unsettled, and bedtime is when those feelings bubble over, because the people they trust to keep them safe and secure are leaving them for the night. It’s no wonder, in these situations, that kids have trouble calming down, call for their parents 148 times, or suddenly feel scared of the dark.

So what can you do to address these problems and help your kids get some shut-eye? Here are five science-based strategies you might want to try.

  1. Put your kids to bed earlier.

If it’s possible your kid is overtired, it’s worth moving bedtime a half-hour earlier and seeing what happens, Greenleaf says. (Signs of overtiredness include late afternoon or early evening grumpiness and extra energy at bedtime.) I know, I know; this sounds crazy. If your kid is bouncing off the walls at 8pm, then surely he’ll be worse at 7:30?! But no — often, he falls asleep more quickly and sleeps later.

Case in point: When my daughter was three, I was putting her to bed at 7pm and all of a sudden she started waking up every morning at 5am. I thought I was going to die. I emailed Greenleaf in desperation and she said: Put her to bed at 6:30pm tonight. I thought she was out of her mind, but I tried it, and you know what? That night my daughter slept from 6:30pm to 6:30am, and it was bliss.

If 6:30pm seems early for bedtime, consider that some of Greenleaf’s clients put their kids to bed as early as 5pm and their kids sleep right on through until the morning. This may not be doable for your family — I totally get it — but if you’re putting your kids to bed late, you might want to see if you can inch bedtime earlier to see what happens. As a general rule, Greenleaf says, kids under the age of six fare best if their bedtime is before 9pm.

Still not convinced there are benefits to early bedtime? Here’s some science to back it up, from a 2016 Slate column I wrote:

Studies have shown that what time a child goes to bed is closely linked to how much he or she sleeps. But it’s more complicated than assuming that kids who go to bed 20 minutes earlier fall asleep 20 minutes earlier—and thus get 20 additional minutes of sleep. Paradoxically, multiple studies have found that kids who go to bed later take longer to fall asleep than kids who go to sleep earlier; they also wake up more frequently in the middle of the night, then don’t sleep late enough to make up for their deficit. One study reported that adolescents with a parent-set bedtime of 10 p.m. or earlier slept, on average, 40 minutes more each night than those told to be in bed by midnight; toddlers with a bedtime before 9 p.m. slept 78 minutes more than those with a later bedtime. And lest you think that kids who go to bed early are simply the ones who need more sleep, and that if you put your kid to bed an hour early he’ll just wake up an hour early, consider these experimental findings: When researchers asked parents to put their 7- to 11-year-olds to bed an hour earlier than usual for five straight nights, the kids slept an average of 27 minutes more each night.

But an early bedtime may have benefits beyond its direct impact on sleep duration. Indeed, “when a child sleeps is probably as important or maybe more important as how much,” explains pediatrician Marc Weissbluth, author of the best-selling book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. That’s because the sleep that happens earlier in the night tends to be more restorative than sleep that takes place later at night and in the early morning. So putting your kid to bed early may ensure that a higher proportion of her sleep is the extra-restful kind.

  1. Make sure your kids are tiring themselves out during the day.

OK, so the last thing I want to do right now is add more to your already overflowing pandemic plates. I know you don’t have time to play tag with your kids on top of working, homeschooling, doing eight loads of laundry, and making dinner. But if your kids have a lot of pent up energy during the day and in the evening, it could help to find ways to weave more physical activity into their schedule.

If you have a yard, kick your kids outside for an hour. Or let them try some physical activity apps, like GoNoodle and Cosmic Kids Yoga. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, Santa got my kids a Nintendo Switch this year, and Just Dance 2021 has become a fantastic way to get my nine-year-old moving when he otherwise just wants to sit on his bed and read (or play Mario Kart).

  1. Try strategies to support your kids if they are anxious or needy.

If your kids are having bedtime woes that could stem from a transition or something difficult they’re going through, try giving them extra support for a while.

One approach Greenleaf recommends is called the “Camping Out” method, and it’s described in detail in this video made by Dr. Craig Canapari, the director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center and the author of It's Never Too Late to Sleep Train. If the only way you can get your kid to fall asleep is to sit with them and rub their back or hold them, then this method might be for you. The night you start, you’ll begin by sitting with them on the bed but not touching them, providing only spoken reassurance. (Dr. Canapari recommends a script like “I love you, it’s time to go to sleep, you’re OK, goodnight” as they fall asleep.)

Then, a few days later, you sit in a chair a few feet away from the bed while they fall asleep. A few days after that, you move the chair closer to their bedroom door; then you move just outside their door. The idea is to wean them away from needing you there, so they learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own.

Another concept Greenleaf likes is the “Bedtime Pass.” (Here’s a link to one you can print out.) Basically, you make a ticket that you give to your kid at bedtime that is good for one visit or hug from you after lights-out. “It gives them the notion that they have some power in the situation, and giving them power makes them feel less insecure,” Greenleaf explains.

A third method is what Greenleaf calls the “Excuse Me” drill. This is when you say night night to your kid, then explain that you have to go to do something boring (like fold the laundry). But you promise you’ll come back and check on them later. “Nine times out of ten when you do that, by the time you come back, they’re asleep,” Greenleaf says.

  1. Limit screen use before bedtime.

If your kids spend time on screens in the evening, you might want to consider dialing it down. Research suggests that specific cells in the eye react to the blue light emitted by screens. These cells then communicate with the brain, suppressing its production of melatonin, a hormone that makes kids (and adults!) sleepy. So if screen time normally happens after dinner, it might help to shift it earlier in the day so your kids can fall asleep more easily.

  1. For younger kids (aged 3-4), consider dropping their nap.

Naps are essential re-fueling time for parents, especially during the pandemic when we get so few breaks. But sometimes, naps become more of a problem than a solution. When napping kids get older — around the age of three or four — they often start fighting them, which is no fun for them or for us. Naps can also make it harder for kids to fall asleep at night and lead them to wake up hellishly early in the morning. If some of these things are happening on a regular basis, you might want to consider giving up that nap — but of course, you can still implement essential afternoon “quiet time” so you don’t lose your essential quiet time.

Importantly, too, nighttime sleep is more restorative than daytime sleep, so dropping the nap could, paradoxically, help your kid feel more rested. Consider this study I described in a 2015 Slate column (which you might want to read in full if you’re considering dropping your kid’s nap):

In a recent pilot study, Mahone and his colleagues restricted naps for five days straight in a group of preschool-age kids who typically napped. They found that doing so made the kids sleep longer at night. The napless children also scored better on cognitive tests given during the late afternoon compared with a similar group of kids who were allowed to nap as usual each day. The study was small and short-lived, and Mahone acknowledges we can’t draw a lot of conclusions from it. But it supports the idea that “children who typically nap get to a point in their development in which daytime napping starts to interfere with good consolidated nighttime sleep,” he says, “and the more you nap, the more it interferes.” In other words, when kids who don’t need to nap continue to nap, they may be replacing some of the super good nighttime sleep with less good daytime sleep and end up worse off.

I’ll be honest though: transitioning away from naps can be tough. One of my Slate sources, Jennifer Waldburger, the co-author of The Sleepeasy Solution, called the nap-to-no-nap transition “the yuck zone,” which feels apt. It can take time for kids to start making up for their lost nap sleep by sleeping more at night. But once their bodies figure it out, they often sleep much better — and later. And then, everyone wins.

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