Our children can be enigmatic, little beings full of fascination. Kids require plenty of sleep, yet they often act as if they have an aversion to rest. They procrastinate. They resist. They fight. It’s time to shed light on a common issue faced by most parents at some point: bedtime battles.
Why children resist sleep
Try not to take it personally. Despite how it may seem, children don’t resist sleep at bedtime because they want to make your life difficult. Instead, it’s usually due to valid developmental reasons associated with growing up, such as outgrowing routines, testing boundaries, experiencing concerns about night terrors or nightmares, and seeking independence. These are all natural developments as your child gets older.
Consequently, young children become experts at prolonging bedtime. Requests for “one more” book, drink, hug, and so on are extremely common and hard to refuse. While we don’t have official statistics, it’s safe to say that no one is thirstier than a child who has to go to bed.
Indications that your child is not getting sufficient sleep
Similar to adults, children have difficulty managing their moods when they lack sleep. Sleep, or the lack thereof, significantly impacts a child’s behavior and mental state. In some cases, the symptoms of inadequate sleep can even resemble those of ADHD.
If your child is not getting enough sleep, they may:
– Frequently appear cranky, irritable, or excessively emotional.
– Struggle to concentrate both at school and at home, with teachers possibly notifying you about this issue.
– Fall asleep while traveling in a car.
– Have difficulty following conversations or frequently appear to be daydreaming.
– Experience difficulty waking up in the morning or falling back asleep after being awakened.
– Often feel drowsy or become tired much earlier than their usual bedtime.
If your child frequently wakes up during the night or has difficulty settling down, it could be a sign that they are grappling with insomnia, which is one of the most prevalent sleep issues among children.
What to do when my child refuses to sleep
When your child refuses to sleep, it’s important to remember one thing: you can’t force them to sleep. You can create favorable conditions and provide them with the opportunity, but you can’t simply make them fall asleep with a wave of a magic wand.
Unfortunately, there’s no instant solution. Instead, the key to minimizing bedtime battles lies in prevention. However, you might be reading this article because your child is currently resisting sleep, and you want to know what to do when it’s already too late to prevent sleep resistance. In that case, take a break, reset, and try again.
By taking a break, we mean temporarily pausing your efforts to get your child to fall asleep. If the lights have been off for a considerable amount of time (45 – 60 minutes for children aged 6 months and older) and your little one is still awake, take them out of bed. Reset the situation by spending 15 – 20 minutes doing something other than attempting to fall asleep (e.g., quietly playing in dim light). Then, go through a shortened version of your pre-bedtime routine and try to sleep once more.
This intermission of sorts can help even the most persistent child finally settle down for sleep.
Sleep tips to help with bedtime challenges
Now that you have a strategy to tackle bedtime resistance (the intermission), let’s discuss prevention. It’s always better to avoid the problem altogether, isn’t it?
Sleep tip #1: Reassess the bedtime timing
Here’s one of those frustrating sleep contradictions: Kids can struggle to fall asleep when they’re under-tired or overtired. That’s why it’s important to find the SweetSpot® and ensure the wake window before bed is just right.
As your child grows, their optimal wake window will change. Take a look at our sample sleep schedules to get an idea of the average wake windows based on your child’s age.
Sleep tip #2: Limit screen time within an hour before bedtime
Light exposure has a significant impact on our circadian rhythms. Make sure to turn off screens within an hour before bedtime and keep the lights dim. Research shows that bright light before bed suppresses melatonin, the hormone that signals the body it’s time to sleep.
Sleep tip #3: Maintain a consistent routine
Establishing predictable pre-sleep routines can help even young babies understand when it’s time to transition from play to sleep, resulting in smoother bedtimes. Create a regular, but flexible, bedtime routine to signal that it’s time to sleep.
Sleep tip #4: Allow wind-down time
Most adults can’t go straight from being active to sleep, and the same goes for kids. Make sure to allocate enough downtime (either as part of the bedtime routine or just before) to allow your child to process their day.
If the only opportunity for quiet time comes at bedtime, it can lead to racing thoughts instead of transitioning into sleep mode. This is especially important for older toddlers and preschoolers.
Sleep tip #5: Use a timer for transitions
Transition periods can be challenging for both kids and adults, especially at bedtime when we often have to stop doing enjoyable activities. Many of us are guilty of saying “just one more chapter/episode/scroll on Insta” instead of preparing for sleep on time.
Visual timers can be a helpful tool to assist your child in getting ready for bed more easily. Read about how to use timers for bedtime here.
Sleep tip #6: Offer limited choices
Reduce stalling tactics by offering limited choices during the bedtime routine. This gives children a sense of control over their lives when they typically have little say, which can be frustrating for them.
For children who take a long time to put on pajamas, it can be helpful to give them a choice between two sets, such as “Do you want to wear the striped pajamas or the ones with the stars?” Similarly, let them choose their bedtime books and decide whether they want three hugs or four hugs before bed.
Incorporate common requests into the routine itself (“it’s time for your final bedtime story!”) and kindly but firmly decline additional requests. For example, you might say, “I know you love reading at bedtime, and I do too! It’s time for your books to go to sleep now. We can read more in the morning.
Frequently Asked Questions about Sleep Resistance
Q: How can I make my child fall asleep instantly?
A: We don’t recommend trying to make your child fall asleep instantly. While overtiredness may lead to quicker sleep onset, keeping your child awake for too long can result in other sleep issues such as increased night waking and early rising. According to the National Sleep Foundation, falling asleep within 30 minutes is associated with good-quality sleep for both children and adults.
Q: What should I do if my child refuses to sleep?
A: Consider implementing a bedtime “intermission.” If your child has been struggling with sleep for a while (around 45 – 60 minutes), taking a break can be an effective strategy. Take your child out of bed for 15 – 20 minutes and engage in calm activities with dim lighting. Then, proceed with a condensed version of the bedtime routine and attempt sleep again.
Q: Why does my child resist sleep?
A: Children often resist sleep when their bedtime is mistimed. This is especially true if bedtime is too early and they require more awake time before going to bed. Aim for an optimal wake window prior to bedtime to facilitate a smoother transition.
Q: Why is my 4-year-old fighting sleep?
A: Ensure that your child’s bedtime is appropriately scheduled to avoid overtiredness or undertiredness. Toddlers and preschoolers frequently use bedtime as an opportunity to explore their independence and test boundaries. This behavior is developmentally normal and commonly observed.
Q: Is there such thing as a sleep regression at age 5?
A: Sleep regressions can occur at any age due to various factors. Common reasons include the need for schedule adjustments, travel, illness, or changes in bedtime routines.
Q: How can I end bedtime battles?
A: Offer toddlers and preschoolers limited choices during their bedtime routine. This helps reduce stalling behaviors and gives them a sense of control. Ensure that bedtime is appropriately timed, as excessively short wake windows can make it difficult for children to fall asleep.
Q: How can I make my child’s bedtime easier?
A: Prevention is the best approach. Aim for an age-appropriate wake window before bedtime, establish a consistent pre-sleep routine, and allow enough time for your child to wind down. Remember to turn off screens and use dim lighting during the hour before bedtime.