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How to have a bedtime routine that’s not a three-ring circus

Surprised Asian preschooler lying on a bed
How to rein in the shenanigans

Livewires march to a different drummer. The trick is to find out what parade they’re in and get in front of it. This is never more true than at bedtime when they can throw curveballs at you that you never anticipated. You know that if you say “no,” it’s going to be an hour of meltdowns and if you say “yes,” suddenly you’re reading seven books and singing three songs, plus a dream ballet. Bedtime easily becomes an hour-long extravaganza. For parents, it can be impossible to figure out how to get off this bedtime merry-go-round.

Bedtime difficulties are mostly due to livewires’ considerable strengths and challenges. First, active brains have a hard time stopping on a dime. If you’ve ever run down a hill, you know that feeling of being unable to stop your legs at the bottom. Livewires can’t just shut it all off. Second, livewires don't want to shut it all off. The shift from play- and interaction-time to boring old sleep is just not at the top of their “fun” list. Third, for older toddlers and preschoolers, their powerful mind can be busy figuring out what they can make happen with their brain. "What if I say I’m hungry?” “What if I say I’m scared?” “Mom read four books last night, why not four books tonight?” If they know there might be wiggle room in the plan, they will poke it as hard as they can. (Bless their hearts...but bedtime is not the time for these mental shenanigans.)

Here are some great workarounds that can help you get in front of their sleep parade:

Make a chart.

This isn’t a “reward” or “sticker” chart. This is a set-in-stone plan for how bedtime will go. If there is always “one more…. whatever," it’s time to lock down the routine.

This doesn't have to be a full art project. No glitter necessary. Make it a Word document with clip art and stick it on a clipboard. That way, you can easily make changes if needed.

If your child is old enough to help craft it, that’s even better. Put everything on the chart that happens leading up to lights out and frontload any requests: e.g., last drink of water, last trip to the bathroom, last choice of stuffed animal friend. List how many books, how many songs, etc. (For younger livewires, consider using pictures for these steps. Make sure to include images for which parent is going to do the routine.)

Here’s the important part: IF IT’S NOT ON THE CHART, IT DOESN’T HAPPEN. You can table discussion or consider revising the chart tomorrow, but there’s no on-the-fly decisions that you should be making in the moment. (You will lose.)

Be sure to include any behaviors you want to see (e.g., “I stay in my bed” versus "I don't get out of bed").

Here's another important point: Go over the chart in the daytime and again before the routine starts. They key is repetition and forewarning.

Rehearse any changes you're going to make to the bedtime routine way before bedtime.

How many times have you said something like, "Oh, Daddy's going to read books tonight instead of Mommy" and KABOOM...meltdown. It's critical to give lots and lots of warning about anything that's going to change. Don't wait until bedtime to spring it on them.

Here's an example: You are going to work on not lying with them in their bed at bedtime or you’ve changed the room around a bit. During the day, have your child pretend to get into bed and do a run-through of the change so they can be prepped for it ahead of time.

Here's how it could go:

"Okay, you get in bed and pretend it's nighttime. I'm going to be sitting in this chair while you go to sleep. I'm going to stay until your asleep, but here's where I'm sitting. Okay, pretend to go to sleep."

This gives them the opportunity to try on the new change and get their heads around it before bedtime. You really don’t want to spring anything on them without forewarning, trust me.

(For toddlers and preschoolers) Have a pre-routine routine.

Yes, you read that right. Preparation and ample transition are going to be your friend. Having a helpful step or two before the routine even starts is going to help, I promise.

“Special Time” – This is an easy and really effective strategy for every child and it’s especially good for new older siblings. Special Time is 15-20 minutes of 100% one-on-one child-led play. Your child gets to be THE BOSS. They tell you want to be/say/do. For two- and three-year-olds, this gives them a little dose of agency so they don’t have to act that out at bedtime. For children who have just become an older sibling, it gives them a little bit of “only child” time. It’s also a beautiful segue between dinner and starting to get ready for bed.

“Heavy Work” – Heavy work is really games meant to give little bodies some BIG input. For some active kiddos, they actually need this strong input to their joints and that can help them downshift. If you have a child who’s roughhousing, or crashing into things or jumping at bedtime, this is going to be like magic. Heavy work includes activities like racing a laundry basket full of books down the hallway, or tug-of-war with a towel, or crashing into pillows. I know it sounds like the exact opposite of a soothing activity, but it really does work.

Bedtime Yoga or Stretching – Really helping livewires calm their body down is a great way to help them calm that active brain down. These physical strategies for calming can really lay down a great lifelong foundation of understanding how to manage the higher levels of mental and physical energy these little ones have.

Don't feed the beast. (Or, have steps that actually work)

For many livewires, the usual activities that we associate with a bedtime routine don’t actually help and may, in fact, rev them up..and isn’t that the last thing we want at bedtime?

Are bedtime baths really helping? Baths and the feeling of water can make some children more awake. Ask yourself if the bath helps them calm down and focus or is it waterpark fun-time?

SOLUTION: Move the bath to the daytime.

Are the storybooks really helping? Engaged, imaginative, verbal livewires (even those who aren’t old enough to talk yet) can get revved up by picture books. Does the story help them focus? Or just cause a million questions and thoughts and ideas. I once had a client who would make up a story on the spot every night while their livewire was falling asleep. I asked if that helped the child fall asleep and the answer was an emphatic, “No way. She just wants to add on to the story and ask questions.” If the books aren’t helping you, time to think of something else to do.

SOLUTION: Recorded sleep visualization stories. These recorded stories require the child to listen to the story, rather than look at pictures. These stories have an additional secret bonus: they’re constructed to help your livewire use their imagination to relax. Yes. The story is specifically to teach an active little brain to quiet itself. (There are tons of different stories on the Moshi, Calm, and Headspace apps, Audible, YouTube, etc. Just Google “sleep visualization stories for children.”)

Reduce the interaction.

Is bedtime game-on for conversation and lots of thoughts and questions? Use "turning out the lights" as a cue that it's time to put conversation to bed.

SOLUTION 1: Have a “put away the thoughts” box. Have a moment in the routine where your child can have you write down questions, thoughts, things they meant to tell you on slips of paper that you put into a decorated box for tomorrow. This is a physical demonstration of “putting thoughts away for the day.” You can decide whether you want to tackle any of them during the next day or just tuck them away for your memory book.

SOLUTION 2: Once the lights are out, only use “non-words” to respond. You can just use “night-night” or “shh-shh” instead of actual words. They may try to keep engaging, but you can keep showing them that it's time for their brain to slow down by getting really calm yourself and refusing to keep conversation going.

With livewires at bedtime, it’s important to have ridiculously structured and consistent limits and routines. The more you can be almost rigid in how bedtime happens, the better. Livewires do love a predictable pattern…even when they fight it tooth and nail.

Macall Gordon has a B.S. from Stanford in Human Biology and an M.A. from Antioch University, Seattle in Applied Psychology, where she is currently a Sr. Lecturer in the mental health counseling and art therapy departments. She researches and writes about the relationship between temperament and sleep, and the gap between research and parenting advice. She is a certified pediatric sleep consultant working with parents of alert, non-sleeping children in private practice, as well as on the women’s telehealth platform, Maven Clinic. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, intense children and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.

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