Bedtime problems: Sleep resistance in kidsUpdated Feb 22, 2023
Our children can be mysterious, little creatures of wonder. Kids need lots of sleep, yet they often behave as if they’re allergic to rest. They stall. They resist. They fight. It’s time to shed some light on something most parents deal with at some point — bedtime battles.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
What to do when my child refuses to sleep
Sleep tips to help with bedtime problems
Why kids fight sleep
Try not to take it personally. Despite how it may feel, children don’t resist sleep at bedtime because they want to give you a hard time. Instead, it’s usually due to legitimate “your kid is growing up” type reasons, like outgrowing schedules, testing limits, being worried about night terrors or nightmares, and seeking independence. All appropriate developments as your child get older.
As a result, young children become masters in the art of stalling. Requests for “one more” book, drink, hug, etc. are incredibly common and hard to refuse. We haven’t seen the official stats, but we’re pretty sure no one is thirstier than a kid who has to go to bed.
What to do when my child refuses to sleep
When your child won’t sleep, it’s important to remember something: You can’t make them sleep. You can set them up for success, and provide them with the opportunity, but you can’t wave a magic wand and force them into a state of slumber.
Sadly, there’s just no POOF solution. Instead, prevention is key when it comes to limiting bedtime battles.
But maybe you’re reading this article because your child is refusing to fall asleep right now, and you want to know what to do when it’s already too late to prevent sleep resistance. In that case: take a break, reset, and try again.
By taking a break, we mean pausing the effort on getting your kid to fall asleep. If the lights have been off for a significant period (45 - 60 minutes for children 6 months and older) and your little one still isn’t asleep, bring them out of bed. Reset by spending 15 - 20 minutes doing something other than trying to fall asleep (e.g. quietly playing in dim light). Then redo a shortened version of your pre-bedtime routine and try to sleep once again.
This intermission of sorts can help even the most persistent child finally settle down for sleep.
Sleep tips to help with bedtime problems
Now that you have your emergency tool for bedtime resistance (the intermission), let’s talk about prevention. It’s always better to avoid the problem in the first place, isn’t it?
Sleep tip #1: Reevaluate the timing of bedtime
Here’s one of those annoying sleep contradictions: Kids can have a harder time falling asleep when they’re under-tired and when they’re overtired. That’s why you’ll want to aim for the SweetSpot® to make sure the wake window before bed is just right.
As your child grows, so will their optimal wake windows. Take a look at our sample sleep schedules to get an idea of the average wake windows according to your child’s age.
Sleep tip #2 Keep screens off within the hour before bedtime
Light exposure plays a big role in our circadian day-night rhythms. Make sure to turn screens off within the hour before bedtime, and keep lights dim. Research shows that bright light before bedtime suppresses melatonin, the hormone-like substance that tells the body it’s time to sleep.
Sleep tip #3: Maintain a consistent routine
Predictable pre-sleep routines can help even young babies understand when it is time to end play and transition to sleep. This typically results in easier bedtimes. Set up a regular, but not rigid, bedtime routine to cue that it’s time to sleep.
Sleep tip #4: Build in wind-down time
Most grown-ups can’t jump straight from adulting to sleep. Neither can kids. Allow for a sufficient amount of downtime (either as part of your bedtime routine or right beforehand) to allow your little one some time to process their day.
If the only opportunity for the quiet time comes at bedtime, that can mean that your little one’s mind races instead of transitioning into sleep mode. This is particularly important for older toddlers and preschoolers.
Sleep tip #5: Use a timer for transitions
Transition periods are notoriously tricky for kids and adults alike, especially at bedtime when we often have to stop doing something fun. Most of us are guilty of saying “one more chapter/episode/scroll on Insta” instead of getting ready for sleep on time.
Visual timers can be a great way to help your kiddo get ready for bed easier. Read how to use timers for bedtime here.
Sleep tip #6: Offer limited choices
Curb stalling tactics by offering limited choices during your bedtime routine. This gives kids a sense of control over their lives when they typically have such little say (which is understandably frustrating for children).
For kids who take a long time to get into pajamas, it can help to give them a choice between two sets: “Do you want to wear the striped pajamas or the ones with the stars?” Likewise, you can let them choose their bedtime books and whether they want to have three hugs or four hugs before bedtime.
Build common requests into the routine itself (“time for your last bedtime story!”) and turn down further requests by being empathetic, but firm. For example, you might say, “I know you love reading at bedtime. I do too! It’s time for your books to go to sleep though. We can read more in the morning.”
Sleep resistance FAQ
Q: How to make a kid sleep instantly?
We don’t recommend that. While overtiredness can lead to the quick onset of sleep, we don’t recommend keeping your child awake too long. Doing so can lead to other sleep issues, such as increased night waking and early rising. The National Sleep Foundation reports that falling asleep within 30 minutes is linked to good-quality sleep in both children and adults.
Q: What to do with a child that refuses to sleep?
Try a bedtime “intermission.” If your child has been working on sleep for a while (45 - 60 minutes), taking a break can be an effective way to help your child sleep. Take your child out of bed for 15 - 20 minutes and engage in calm activities with a dim light. Then redo a shortened version of your bedtime routine and try to sleep once again.
Q: Why does my child resist sleep?
Children often resist sleep when bedtime is mistimed. This is especially true when bedtime is too early and they need more awake time for bed. Aim for an optimal wake window before bed to make the transition easier.
Q: Why is my 4 year old fighting sleep?
Be sure bedtime is appropriately timed to ensure your child isn’t over or under-tired. Toddlers and preschoolers will often use bedtime as a way to explore their independence and testing limits. This is developmentally appropriate and quite common.
Q: Is there a 5 year old sleep regression?
Sleep regressions can happen at any age due to a variety of factors. Common reasons include the need for a schedule adjustment, travel, illness, and change in bedtime habits.
Q: How do you stop a bedtime battle?
Offer toddlers and preschoolers finite choices during their bedtime routine. This helps cut down on stalling and helps little ones feel more in control. Be sure that bedtime is timed appropriately, as wake windows that are too short can make it hard for children to fall asleep.
Q: How can I make my kid’s bedtime easier?
Prevention is the best tactic. Aim for an age-appropriate wake window before bedtime, establish a consistent pre-sleep routine, and allow for sufficient time for your child to wind down. Be sure to turn off screens and use a dim light the hour before bedtime.
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Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.