Do you often dread what happens after dinner? Does your little one turn into a Jack (or Jill)-in-the-Box at night? Are high-decibel repeated requests for water just another part of the nightly routine at your house? And what about those marathon midnight chases up and down the stairs–are they so frequent you substitute them for an hour at the gym?
According to professional nanny Fran Denbow, a few decisive steps in the overall evening routine can help transform “that time” into bedtime sublime. Logging 18 years as an A-list nanny for top agencies including Portland (Maine) Nannies, and now working in Atlanta, Denbow’s nighttime strategies begin long before bed.
“It’s important to establish a routine, and the routine must be done in the same order every night,” she says, for example dinner and maybe a little TV. It’s also important at an appointed time to announce to the child that in another half hour it will be time to get ready for bed, followed by another warning 15 minutes later, she explains, which starts to prepare them. “You can’t just suddenly say OK, it’s bedtime,” as children do not respond well to something abrupt.
Here, again, routine is important such as taking a bath, letting them pick out their own pajamas, etc. “Participating in the bedtime ritual by choosing pajamas, even if top and bottom don’t match, and choosing books to read (as long as you limit what’s available), and switching on a fun nightlight can make bedtime something a child looks forward to,” Denbow explains. “Kids are creatures of habit so a pattern is good for them, and you can make it special.”
For a challenging child–one who is in the habit of getting up repeatedly–Denbow recommends exercising firmness. Putting him or her back to bed without engaging in lengthy conversation or explanations about what you are doing is the key to ending the behavior. “Don’t show a lot of emotion either way,” she says. Kids are looking for attention in any form they can from you, and words or displays of emotion will show them they’ve gotten it giving them no reason to stop their behavior.
“It may take half the night the first night,” Denbow admits, affirming that the act of putting a child back to bed with a straightforward, “You have to be in bed. Good night,” should be the extent of the interaction. “If you give in, they’ll push the issue indefinitely and you’ll have to start over every night.”
Taking a more positive tack, Denbow suggests putting up a chart with fun stickers for incentive. For every night the child goes to bed peacefully, s/he gets to pick out a sticker the next morning and put it up. After they’ve accumulated a certain amount, they receive a reward in the form of a treat or an outing–something they really want. “I would recommend trying this first,” she says, though admitting there may be some children in extreme instances for whom this won’t work.
“In that case, you may have to start taking things away,” she says, but not at night in the throes of another up and down issue. “It’s best to talk about a punishment the next morning (so as not to make the evening more difficult for everyone). If you are taking something away, tell him or her the next morning by way of a warning that if it happens again tonight, this is what will happen.” If nothing changes, review what you said on the morning after and follow through.
In effect, Denbow says prudent bedtime habits begin long before the toddler stage.
“If a baby is crying and parents have been up half the night, maybe after a long day of work, they start bringing the baby into bed with them,” she said. This is a mistake because when they eventually try to acclimate the baby back to the crib, they’ve already established another pattern.
“If you can start when the child is a baby by not bringing him into bed with you, and not constantly rocking him or her to sleep, you may never have these bedtime battles,” she maintains, adding the technique may sound harsh. “Start (leaving the baby in the crib at night) when s/he is about eight weeks old. The baby may cry and it could take a few nights or a week or two, but s/he’s going to accept the routine.”