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Bedtime Routines

Going to Bed -- and Staying There!

by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.
Unfortunately, bedtime can be a very difficult end to a lot of parents' evenings. Moms and dads chase the kids around-arguing, pleading and threatening -- for hours after the fictional bedtime has passed. In the process everyone gets so upset that no one feels like sleeping.

You really would like a break at the end of the day between the time the kids go to bed and the time you do. This time is very pleasant and it is also good for your mental health. But this end-of-the-day therapy will never occur for you if the youngsters are getting out of bed every three minutes needing a drink, having to go to the bathroom, or complaining there are monsters in the closet.

Here's a procedure for handling bedtime. Modify the suggestions to suit your own situation.


First of all, three concepts are important when constructing a bedtime procedure: 1) the need to invest some time and effort in establishing the routine, 2) an understanding of a process called "reciprocal inhibition," and 3) an appreciation of the two biggest reasons why kids keep getting out of bed. It's important to understand the bedtime problem before you try to deal with it.

Time and effort

You'll need to think through exactly how you want to get the kids to bed each and every night. Having a routine that remains pretty much the same (maybe a little different on the weekend or other non-school nights) is extremely helpful, but you have to allow some time for it -- about one half-hour or so. Especially with the little ones, you can't just say "Time to get ready for bed!" and expect everyone to cooperate. But think about it: Your investment of 30 minutes per night sure beats 90 minutes per night of chasing the kids back into their rooms.

Reciprocal inhibition

Don't stop reading! This is kind of a big, scary phrase, but it has big-time implications for bedtime. Here's what it means: Certain types of feelings and behaviors are incompatible with others -- they mutually inhibit one another. It's hard, for example, to be happy and angry at the same time. It's also difficult to be hungry and really scared at the same time. What's the issue at bedtime? At bedtime you want your children tired, content, and relaxed. These are all feelings which promote sleep.

So what's the problem? Anger and anxiety are not feelings which promote sleep. Anger and anxiety are compatible with being wide awake. Someone who is really mad or worried isn't going to go to sleep for a good long while. At bedtime, therefore, if you get into a big argument with your child during the going-to-bed process, your youngster is not going to go to sleep soon. The bigger the argument and the bigger the commotion, the less your kid feels like sleeping. Anger inhibits or prevents sleep -- period.

Why kids keep getting up

There are two main reasons why children keep getting out of bed after you try to put them down. Some kids are bored. Life is exciting and fun, and going to bed isn't. So the kids come up with a million excuses about why they can't stay in bed. The other reason children get up repeatedly is that they are scared. Little kids are famous for being worriers, and bedtime and the dark are great stimuli for triggering all kinds of childhood fears that often seem ridiculous to adults.


So that's the groundwork as far as thinking clearly is concerned. You'll need to invest some planning time in your going-to-bed procedures, and you'll need procedures that do not get the children super-aggravated. You want to keep the kids calm, stay calm yourself, and appreciate the fact that many youngsters are bored, fearful, or both at the moment they crawl under the covers.

Is there a method to accomplish all these objectives? Yes. First, pick a bedtime and stick to it. Don't just say "Time for bed!" whenever you happen to remember it. A half-hour before bedtime, tell the kids it's time to get ready. By prior agreement, your signal to the kids means that children about five and over have to get ready for bed on their own (you'll help the littler ones). "Getting ready" means whatever it is that you require: teeth brushed, bath or shower, pajamas on, etc. You can shorten the half-hour if you want, but try to keep the time the same each night.

When the kids say they're ready, they should check in with you. If they are, in fact, ready for bed, praise their accomplishment and tell them it's either story time or time to just sit on the bed and talk. However much time is left in the half-hour is exactly how much time they will have for their story or for talking. When bedtime rolls around, kiss them good night and leave the room. (Don't forget to put on a floor fan for white noise.)

Now comes the fun. What about the bored and scared youngsters who won't stay put? First of all, it's attitude adjustment time for mom or dad or both. Don't even dream that these children will stay in bed after you've left the room. Instead, get a chair and put it in the doorway of the child's bedroom. Get yourself a good book and sit facing out of the room. If the child gets up, escort them back to bed. Inform them that you cannot (and will not) talk after bedtime! If your son or daughter keeps getting up, stop the escorting and let them sleep on the floor if they want. But they cannot leave the room and you cannot make a peep.

What does this procedure do for our bored or scared little ones? The bored kids soon learn that they can't leave the room, that there's no point in feigning hunger or thirst (that was all taken care of in the half-hour prep), that you're not going to talk to them, and finally, that they might as well just go to sleep. And they will!

The scared kids, on the other hand, are reassured by your presence. If you don't play games getting in and out of the chair to get a drink or make a call or whatever, as the nights go by the children will go to sleep more quickly than you ever imagined. In a few weeks you might not have to sit in the chair at all.

At bedtime, a relatively small investment can pay big rewards. After the kids are asleep, it's mental health time for you!  
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Meet Our Expert
Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
A registered clinical psychologist, Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. has worked with children, adults, and families for over 30 years. He is a member of the American Psychological Association and the Illinois Psychological Association.

Dr. Phelan is the author of numerous books, DVDs, and audios including, 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 and More 1-2-3 Magic: Encouraging Good Behavior, Independence and Self-Esteem.

He maintains an active schedule of international lectures, and is a frequent guest on radio and television shows. His articles appear in numerous regional and national publications.

Dr. Phelan received his Doctorate from Loyola University, Chicago, in 1970 after completing his internship at the Loyola Child Guidance Center. He worked at the DuPage County Mental Health Center in Illinois until 1972, and then entered private practice. Dr. Phelan has also served on the boards of directors for both ADDA and CHADD, two national organizations for the parents of children with ADD. He was inducted into the CHADD Hall of Fame in 1997.

Thomas and his wife of 35 years raised two children and experienced firsthand many of the problems he now helps parents tackle. He says, "My goal is to help parents avoid some of the turmoil we experienced, and which I hear about from other parents every day. With some basic understanding of what makes children and teenagers tick-and a ton of patience-parenthood can provide some of life's greatest satisfactions."
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Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.