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My Toddler is Jerking Us Around At Bedtime

My Toddler is Jerking Us Around At Bedtime

By Amalah

Hi Amy –

Here’s my deal – mother of 2 – daughter – 5 1/2, son 2 1/2. Kids have separate rooms and shocking (I know) they are different. I not going to say my daughter is perfect, but when it comes to behavior, rules, and sleep habits, she’s a breeze. She’s terrified to be in trouble and claims that lounging is one her favorite things to do. Since birth, bedtime has never really been an issue and even we switched her to a bed, we gave her the clock that changes color and I doubt it crossed her mind to challenge it.

The boy on the other hand, not so much. He’s always been more difficult to get to sleep, but we pretty much had our routine down (in crib by 7:30 pm-ish) most nights. Then we moved and got rid of the crib. Granted it was a little early to get rid of the crib, but hey we’re super parents, we’ll figure it out. We’re in charge, right!?

Cut to 4 months later…he’s still a major jerk at bedtime. I love him, but still a jerk. No matter what technique we use – (Supernanny stay in bed technique, threats/actually taking his lovey/blankie, and lying down with him), he seems to have endless amount of energy/fight and is usually not asleep until 9pm- which sucks. Short of actually locking him in his room which we’ve basically done a few times (sometimes he falls asleep on the floor and sometimes he just starts playing with his toys), I’m running out of ideas.

He’s in full-time daycare that observes an 1.5-2 hour nap. I know not having the nap would help, but honestly he still needs it and I really don’t have a choice during the work week.

I’m so anti-starting bad habits, and really don’t want to spend forever lying down with him at bedtime or spending an hour every night putting him back in bed. Seriously my husband and I have tv shows to watch and wine to drink! Any chance he’ll just “grow” out of this? Like he’ll wake up at 3 and decide – “Hey, I’m going to stop being a jerk today”? Or do we pick a technique, go hard-core, stay consistent…and hope it works? I’m open to any and all suggestions.

Fellow Amalah

Well, there are probably a few schedule-y things you could re-jigger here, but it depends on your own reading of your kid. To me, it sounds like he’s just a bit of a night owl — he sounds more genuinely NOT TIRED as opposed to OVERTIRED ZOMBIE ON INEXPLICABLE THIRD WIND, so 7:30pm might just be too early of a bedtime for him. If you agree that his energy isn’t some kind of adrenaline-fueled second (or third) wind, what about moving bedtime to 8 or even 8:30? If 9 p.m. seems to be the only consistent bedtime variable, I’d probably roll with that and see if I could at least knock off some of the fightin’ time.

If you disagree with that assessment and suspect he IS actually very, very tired and just trying very, very hard to mask that fact, then move his bedtime earlier. (Then read on for some ideas to minimize the hours o’ battling. )

No matter what, though: You DON’T want to mess with the nap — I don’t think that would help at all. You’d DEFINITELY have the aforementioned overtired zombie on speedballs rather than just a energetic kid who isn’t tired yet. The afternoon nap probably isn’t the root of this particular problem.

I’d suggest you start changing both your expectations and your level of involvement in his bedtime. You’re micromanaging his falling-asleep process and becoming accidental Dictators of Sleep by insisting he get in bed, stay in bed, go completely silent, and be reliably sound asleep by a certain time. And he’s responding to these methods by throwing a nightly coup of the regime. Ergo, it’s become a power struggle.

In my experience, the best way to win a power struggle is to temporarily disengage. This may sound nuts, but once my kids are in their rooms with the lights off, I don’t really care what they do. Some nights everything goes silent and calm five minutes later, other nights I have one kid drawing comic books with a flashlight at 9 p.m. while another is still quietly bashing Ninja Turtle figures together. Sometimes the two roommates chatter and talk for awhile, sometimes one conks out first while the other hangs off the bed upside-down singing TV theme songs until he’s ready for sleep. None of this interferes with our TV and wine time — we might hit the pause button and go upstairs to take the flashlight or Ninja Turtles away once it’s officially “too late, go to sleep,” but I haven’t actually been in the room for the full falling-asleep process in years.

Basically since we did sleep training, a division of responsibility appeared, similar to our approach to mealtimes: I provide everything they need for a good night’s sleep. An age-appropriate bedtime, a regular routine, a quiet room with minimal distractions and a lighting level that they’re comfortable with. After that, though, I can’t MAKE them go to sleep. Neither can you. “You can’t make a kid eat, sleep or poop.” Truer words were never spoken, and this mantra remains true well after the “baby” stage is behind you.

So repeat after me: You can’t MAKE him sleep. Not at 7 p.m., not at 9 p.m., not even if he’s still wide awake and wired during the final commercial break of The Walking Dead.

You can give him what he needs to sleep. Play around with bedtime and see if he needs something earlier (or later) to even out his energy levels. Keep his routine consistent, INCLUDING your exiting the room and the sleep process once stories are read/songs are sung/whatever. Just like when you’re trying to teach a baby to self-soothe — your constant presence and over-involvement becomes more of a problem than a help, even if you’re just showing up to yell at him, because he’s seeking that negative attention. Make sure the room is lit for sleep and not play (but not so dark it’s scary), and do what you can to minimize his distractions. Move toys to a playroom if possible, leave only/mostly books within his reach, and have the lights arranged in a way that he can’t turn on anything you’ve turned off/unplugged.

The only rule I enforce after I exit my children’s room is that I expect them to stay in their rooms, unless they need to use the bathroom. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you FOR SURE what they do after that. I have absolutely found my toddler asleep on the floor or in his toy box full of stuffed animals and moved him back to bed. I have absolutely found my oldest still wide awake hours later because he just can’t settle down for some reason — I typically offer him a head rub or a suggestion that he read a non-comic, non-illustrated chapter book for awhile, but I recognize that I cannot “make” him fall asleep simply by ordering him to, or by threatening to take away toys/privileges.

(Even though I might be rightly irritated with him, because he’s figured out all my lighting tricks and will turn lights back on and sneak out of bed to play/draw, only to realize hours later that he’s still awake and can’t turn his overstimulated brain off.)

But for the most part, this hands-off approach has served us well. Most nights, everybody is asleep within 15-30 minutes of lights off. My kids are not exhausted sleep-deprived crankpants and bedtime is only slightly chaotic because of the sheer number of children we have, but not because it’s this long, drawn-out battle of wills.

Surprise your son tonight by NOT playing his bedtime game. Pajamas, brush teeth, story, kiss goodnight. Then leave. Let him know that your only expectation is that he will stay in his room. No coming out except for potty (unless he’s still in diapers). If you hear him come out, take a deep, calming breath and then SILENTLY lead him back into his room. Not even all the way back into bed, if you want to shock the heck out of him. Just back in, door closed, done. No lying down with him, no threats/conversations/bargaining. I’m not a fan of locking children in rooms — too many worst-case scenarios that make the practice seem dangerous to me, plus it’s completely impractical for potty-training — but there certainly are ways to childproof doorknobs and such and everybody has to do what they have to do, if only until you’ve solidly broken the habit of the coming-out game.

Worst case, he still stays awake until 9 p.m. But if you remove yourself from the hour and a half time period between bedtime and sleep, it won’t suck so hard. He  enjoys jerking you around, because toddlers LOVE attention and have yet to really distinguish between positive and negative attention. Heap tons of love and praise on him during the initial bedtime routine, then VANISH. Once you remove the attention altogether, you all but neutralize the jerk.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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