(The pictures in this post have nothing to do with bedtime. I just like to throw random pictures out there to keep things interesting.)
Without a doubt, one of the most frequent questions I get is about the kids sleep routines. How do you get a toddler to sleep!?!? It is a question that plagues even the best parents. I think we all want to know about other people’s sleep routines because it makes us feel more normal, too. Because SURELY our homes are the only ones that are complete chaos at bedtime. SURELY someone out there struggles, too.
I am a firm believer that bedtime routines begin at birth. From the very beginning, we have had the exact same bedtime routine for our kids. Dinner, baths, books, bed. Bean knows the schedule so well that when it’s time to eat dinner, he’ll sometimes whine, “But I’m not ready for bed yet!” He knows that dinner kicks off our wind down routine. And that’s a good thing. Kids thrive on stability. So, even when THEY aren’t stable, it’s a parent’s responsibility to bring that stability to them, and a good, solid routine is the best way to do that.
Here is our bedtime routine:
5:30/6:00 – Kids dinner
7:00 – Baths (both kids together)
7:30 – Books (I read Gracie one or two and Chris reads two with Bean)
7:45 – Lights out
Even with a good schedule, there are other parts of bedtime that require a different kind of consistency. When the kids were about six months old, we used the cry it out method to get them to learn to put themselves to sleep. For Gracie, we used the hardcore, “Moms on Call” method, and it worked like a charm. We would put her down at 7:00 (earlier bedtime back then) and she would sleep through the night until 7:00 in the morning. She still does this today, and I am convinced the reason we don’t have any problems with either of our kids sleeping through the night is because we used this method. Though, I admit, it isn’t for everyone.
When Bean was put into the toddler bed, he was sleeping through the night, but getting him to stay in the bed was the new problem. For a long time, we tried sitting in a chair outside his bedroom door and not talking to him or looking at him. We would sit there while he cried and flopped around, and then the minute he got out of bed, we would silently go in and put him back in his bed and resume our position in our chair. (I usually read a book while I sat there.) This is straight out of Nanny 911, in case you’re wondering! Finally, he learned that he had to stay in the bed after a week or two of this.
Once he learned to stay in bed and we didn’t have to sit outside his door anymore, we started worrying about him getting up and wandering around the house. Really, I worried about the pool. God forbid he would find a way to get to the pool in the middle of the night… Ugh! I get chills just thinking about it. So, to calm my nerves and to keep Bean safely in one room, we put a baby gate on his bedroom door at night. We still use this every night. This way, he can’t wander the house should he wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning. When he gets up now, he stands at his gate and calls us, and we go get him.
Usually, when people ask about bedtime, what they want to know about is the crying and tantrums and drama at bedtime. To be honest, we never had that problem with Bean (we’ll see with Gracie, but nothing so far). But I don’t know that that is a stroke of luck, I think that’s just because Chris and I are pretty laid back about what we consider “going to sleep.” Our rule with Bean is that he can stay awake and play, but he has to be quiet and he has to stay in his bed. This means that we do let him bring toys to bed with him. And he brings a LOT of toys to bed with him. So many that sometimes when we go in to check on him after he’s fallen asleep, we have to dig him out from under all his toys to tuck him in. I know that a lot of parents are not okay with that rule, but it works for us. I’d rather Bean be quietly playing and resting his body in his bed with some toys than pitching a fit for an hour and working himself all up. Usually, it takes Bean about an hour to fall asleep, depending on what we’ve done that day and how tired he is. But no matter how long it takes him, he must stay quiet and in his bed.
The number one problem we have with Bean is him calling out to us. He calls out because he has to go to the bathroom, because he forgot one of his toys, because he dropped one of his toys, because he needs a drink of water, because he wants to know what we are watching on TV… and the list goes on. He will call out to us for HOURS if we let him. If we know that he hasn’t gone to the potty before bed (a parenting fail), then we always go up when he says he has to go potty. But if he’s gone potty already or for any other request, we simply call back up to him, “Go to bed, Michael.” We don’t go upstairs. We don’t get him what he asks for. We don’t even let him see us. We just call up to him. When he was old enough to understand consequences (around 2 years old, I think), we started having consequences for calling out too often. More than two call outs, and we would call back up to him, “If you call out again, Michael, we will take a toy away.” And that was the rule. Any more calls after that and one of his toys would be taken away. It took two or three nights of having ALL his toys taken away before he realized that we were serious. It also took only ONE night of us having to take Mr. Bear away because he simply would NOT lay down, but that never happened again.
And that’s really about it. He is allowed to go to bed at his own pace and own speed, but if he doesn’t follow the two rules, then there are consequences. That, along with a solid routine, keeps our bedtimes around here really peaceful. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had people over and I’ve excused myself to put the kids to bed, come back down 20 minutes later, and had people say, “That’s it? No crying? No tantrums?” That’s really it. Our kids know the routine. They know what the rules are, and what the consequences will be. It takes a few nights (sometimes weeks) of really harsh, “mean mommy” moments, but then you’re set for really easy bedtimes for a LONG time.
I get asked a lot about early mornings, too. Gracie sleeps from 7:30pm until 7:00am. And she’s in a crib, so as soon as she calls out, we go in and get her. She’s pretty easy. Bean Man went through this terrible period of time from about 18 months old until 2 years old when he was waking up at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning. It was BRUTAL! For everyone! He was exhausted, really. It was too early for his body to be awake. But since he was relatively new at potty training, his body just couldn’t hold it longer than that. So, he’d wake up to go potty (which was awesome considering the alternative was an accident every morning at 4:30), and his little body thought he was awake for the day. We couldn’t just tell him to go back to bed, either, because he technically WAS doing the right thing. He had to go potty, and he was telling us. Good boy! But we had to figure out how to get him to go back to bed.
We explained to Bean that we didn’t get up and play until the sun came up. So, if he got up to go potty and the sun wasn’t out yet, then he had to go back to bed, but he could play in his bed, just like at bedtime. He had to be quiet and he had to stay in his bed. Then, as soon as the sun came out, he could get up. Another thing we did in the mornings was to turn on his light and let him play quietly in his room until the rest of the family woke up. But, just like with bedtime, there were consequences. If he called out to us (for anything other than potty), I would turn his light off. He had to play quietly and on his own, otherwise he had to go back to bed. That took about a month to get that routine to stick, and then it lasted another two months, probably. Now, if he gets up early to go potty (sometimes he still gets up around 6:00), he goes right back to bed because his body is used to sleeping longer now. He gets up for good around 7:00.
Our kids are like any other kids, and there are little kinks in their system. Periods of time when we have to adjust to their phase or needs, but adjusting to them doesn’t mean changing our routine. We might have to add things or try new things, but the routine stays in place. And that makes it easy to alter their behaviors because they know what we expect. It is also helpful because we know what to expect from them, too, and it helps us keep tabs on them. For example, I always knew when Gracie had an ear infection because she would cry when she went to bed, sometime she never did on a normal routine. The great thing about a routine, too, is that it’s never too late to start one! Just set your routine, and then stick with it. No matter how many fits are thrown or tears are cried. That won’t last forever. You just have to stick it out long enough for them to understand that no matter what their actions are, the routine will still be the same. After they realize that, they give up the fight.