Emily Oster

3 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

Why Is Bedtime Suddenly Impossible?

Q&A on routines

Emily Oster

3 min Read

My just-turned-4-year-old has always been so easy to get down at bedtime. Simple routine of pj’s, brushed teeth, and kisses, and he was out. Suddenly and out of nowhere, bedtime has become the most dreaded part of our day. He is asking for multiple rounds of hugs and kisses, begging and crying for me or my husband to lie with him “for just one minute” (which clearly is never one minute), suddenly has an ache or pain to keep me around longer… What gives? As much as I hate having his day end on a bad note, I work full-time, and nighttime is my only chance to get stuff done. I cannot have 30- to 60-minute bedtimes every night. Is there some 4-year-old bedtime tantrum milestone I didn’t know about? Help! 

—About to go bats**t crazy

They really know how to lull you into a false sense of security, don’t they? 

Every situation is different, but what you describe often happens as a result of a small moment that becomes a habit. The habit builds on itself and then it is hard to break. In a similar vein, I talked to a mom a couple of weeks ago who told me that, once, her 5-year-old had a nightmare and she let him sleep on the floor of her room. Then, after that, he wanted to do that every night and was incredibly upset to be told he couldn’t. 

There are many great bedtime and sleep arrangements, and different things can work for different families. But: if this doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work, and it needs to change. Especially if you work full-time and bedtime is one of the times you have with your kid, it sucks for it to be dreaded.  

It is possible but very unlikely that there is some easy fix here — if there is something specific your child is concerned about, you might be able to address it. Certainly it is worth making sure that there isn’t anything deeper going on (worries about school, etc.). The most likely thing, though, is he has gotten used to this extended bedtime routine and he likes it. 

Unfortunately, in the space between the bedtime routine you have and the bedtime routine that you want, there is conflict. There is no way around that. So if you can do it, here’s an approach.

  1. Decide what routine you want. What is the bedtime routine actually going to look like when you’re done here? 
  2. Pick a time to implement it. 
  3. Explain the routine to your child and that this is the new plan. Do this in a quiet moment, not at bedtime.  
  4. Then, implement. You should expect this to take several days at least and that these will be very unpleasant. Consistently following through on the plan — which will likely include quietly returning your child to his room without discussion — is important but challenging. It is good to pick a time for this when you’ll be able to give it some focus.  

Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems is a helpful guide for some of these issues, if you want to go deeper. And I also wrote about it here. Good luck! 

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