Problems at Bedtime

What are common problems?

Children commonly delay, or refuse to go to bed. They may cry after being put to bed, get out of bed or refuse to sleep in their own bed. They may also wake up in the middle of the night and come to the parents’ bed.

Why do problems like this happen?

Parents usually feed and rock their young babies to sleep. If this becomes routine or a habit, children learn that they need these conditions to go to sleep at bedtime or when they wake in the middle of the night. Children need to learn to fall asleep without rocking, feeding or parents attention. They need to learn to fall asleep on their own, independently.

Sometimes parents encourage poor sleep habits by accident. You put your child to bed, read a story and say goodnight When you try to leave, the child cries, and you come back to their room and lay down with them or take them to your bed. The child learns that their crying brings you back and they have no need to sleep by themselves. If their crying gets them what they want, it will continue and they will not learn to sleep on their own. Sometimes this happens if there is a disruption to the normal routine, for example if your child becomes sick and you let them sleep in your bed for a few nights. These problems usually correct when the normal routine returns.

How to Prevent Problems at Bedtime

Make sure your child’s room is a comfortable temperature, well ventilated and use a night-light. Have a regular bedtime that is reasonable.

Establish a routine, for example:

  • Go to the bathroom, wash face & hands, brush teeth
  • Read a book with your child
  • Make sure they have had a drink, a nightlight or anything else they may need.
  • Remind them to stay quiet and in their own bed
  • Say goodnight

Prepare ahead of time. Let them know about 30 minutes ahead of time they will be going to bed soon. Have quiet activities during this last half hour, no active play.

When your child goes to bed, make sure everything has been done

  • Did you brush your teeth!
  • Did you say good night to everyone?
  • Did you have a drink?
  • Did you use the toilet?
  • Now you are ready for sleep

Say goodnight and leave.

In the morning, praise your child for staying in bed

Teaching Your Child to Stay in Bed

Explain what will happen. You will go to bed, and if you stay there and are quiet, I will come back to check on you in a couple of minutes. Ignore any complaints and leave.

After 2 minutes, if your child is quiet, return and praise them. You are doing a good job staying in bed and you are quiet. I will come back again. Then come back in 3-4 minutes. Repeat again with a 5-minute interval. Continue on a 5-minute interval until the child is asleep. What the child is learning here is how to go to sleep on its own without you in the room.

What if they won’t stay in their bed!

Use a gradual approach. The gradual approach is probably easier with younger toddlers.

Tell your child that you will check on them a couple of times. Explain what will happen. If you stay in your bed all night, there will earn a reward in the morning ,tell them what the reward will be. If your child cries, do not respond right away, wait at least three minutes, go in, remind them it is time to go to sleep. Your goal here is to reassure the child and you, not to stay until they fall asleep. After one minute leave them, even if they are still crying. Gradually extend the time from 3 minutes to 5, 7 and up to 11 minutes. Keep to the time schedule, use a digital clock. Only stay one minute each time you go in to the child’s room.

Use a sleep diary or chart to keep track.

If your child gets out of bed

Return them immediately to their bed. Stay calm. If they come out again, return them and dose their bedroom door. Open the door when they have been quiet for two minutes. Repeat this every time your child comes out of their room. Return them, close the door, and open it when they have been quiet for two minutes. Calmly closing the door works much better than threats or spanking.

If you child comes to your bed

Return them to their bed, stay no more than a minute. If it happens again, return them and then dose your bedroom door, lock if you have to and ignore them.

Most problems can be avoided by having clear routine and very predictable responses when they leave their room.


  • Consistency of Bedtime routine
  • Praise and Reward for Staying in Bed
  • No TV at bedtime, it delays start of sleep
  • Awaken the child it time each morning — lights on or shades open to help

Article by W. Douglas Tynan, PhD
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