Ask An Expert / Sleep

Our son never wants to go to bed and it’s making us all miserable. We need HELP!

Break the cycle with a consistent sleep routine

Kenneth Schuster, PsyD
Ken Schuster, PsyD

Clinical Neuropsychologist, Learning and Development Center; Director of Clinical Training

Child Mind Institute

Our lives have become miserable because we all dread sleep time. Our son doesn't want to go to the bath, then he doesn't want to get out of it, then he wants a snack, then he doesn't want to brush his teeth, then he wants to play, then he wants more stories, then he doesn't calm down and is all hyper. At the end if he sleeps before 10 pm it is a success. But normally bedtime is somewhere between 10:45-11:30 pm. We are all tired and we get really mad at him, then feel guilty and sad for having gotten mad at him. This cycle is driving me crazy. I hate myself, I hate being a parent, I am upset with him for giving me all these bad feelings. And these bad feelings have started creeping into our days as well. He misbehaves and doesn't follow any instructions and we yell, etc. We need HELP please!

First of all, take a deep breath — you are not alone. Many parents and kids struggle with bedtime and while bedtime does not have to be a miserable experience, there are few other words that can accurately describe it when the evening goes awry. Your son sounds overtired and overtired kids have a lot of trouble going to sleep. If he is not getting enough sleep, he is also more likely to be tired during the day and tired kids also have trouble with following directions, paying attention, and misbehaving. From there, the cycle continues.

To start, you need to break the cycle and establish good sleep hygiene. That said, if your son has been going to bed between 10:00 and 11:00PM for a while, he is not likely going to start going to bed at 7:00PM tomorrow, no matter what you do. Setting up a new bedtime routine will need to be done gradually.

Having a predictable and consistent routine is a powerful tool for countering the bedtime battle. Routines do not actually start at bedtime—they can begin as early as when your son gets home from school with a certain amount of play and a set time for doing some homework. For afterschool play, plan to go to a park or playground because exercise helps kids get sleepy in the evenings.

Another good place to start is with a consistent dinnertime. After dinner, allocate time for calm play (avoid electronics), brushing teeth, bathing, putting on pajamas, a calm story, and lights out. Build in some opportunities for your son to make choices at each one of these points in the routine—kids can be more cooperative with the bedtime routine when they get to choose some options. Here are some examples:

  • Getting into the bath or skipping it and putting on pajamas for bed;
  • Getting in while the bath is filling (to play with the faucet water) or waiting until the bath is full;
  • Getting out of the bath right away or staying in while it drains;
  • Brushing teeth before or after the bath;
  • Giving two choices of pajamas.

It will be very important for you to expect resistance, have a plan for it, and remain as calm as possible because raised voices are very stimulating. Here are a few other pointers: Remove stimulating games and electronics from his room; stay consistent and keep the routine the same on the weekends and during vacations; use softer lighting near bedtime; all family members can serve as good models when it is time for the lights to go out.

You may also want to consult your pediatrician on this issue in order to rule out any medical reasons for your son’s sleep troubles. If the struggle persists, you should consult a cognitive-behavioral therapist for help with setting the routine, talking effectively, and determining if there are other reasons for your son’s bedtime troubles.