Q: How can I control the ever-escalating routine that my 2-year-old demands as part of being put down to sleep? She has to have every stuffed animal in just the right place in her crib, then the blankets have to be put on in a particular order, etc. If something isn't just so, we often have to start over again! I know that part of it is simply a delaying tactic, but it's starting to drive me a little nuts!
A: I knew my own daughter’s bedtime routine had become unmanageable when one night, after an hour of kisses, stories, rocking, singing, and blanket placement, she asked for a final hug and I snapped at her, "Fine, but this is IT!" In that moment, I thought to myself, whatever happened to bedtime being a warm, nurturing time? After an hour, all I felt was trapped and at the mercy of a very small and sleepy dictator.
When it comes to bedtime stalling, it’s easy for parents to feel manipulated and therefore frustrated with their child. For many children, though, going to sleep alone in a darkened room is the most challenging separation they encounter each day. A long bedtime routine may be an important coping mechanism that helps them prepare for being separate from their loved adults overnight. When parents show their (quite natural) frustration about bedtime, it is likely to only increase their child’s insecurity or fearfulness and fuel their need for a longer bedtime routine.
However, stalling may not be the only motive at work. A child’s temperament is also a factor. Children who have a strong need for routine and order to feel safe and secure may heavily rely on the structure of a rigid bedtime routine.
Whatever the underlying cause, here are some steps you can take. First, begin to set some limits with your child that respect her need for a consistent routine and closeness with you, but that are manageable as well. And make them incremental. For example, if you usually read five or six books before bed, have her pick three or four and eventually get down to the number of books that are acceptable to you. If you usually rub her back for 20 minutes, gradually reduce this to 10 and then 5 minutes. If bedtime involves strategic stuffed animal placement, let your child pick her 3 favorite stuffed animals, rather then the whole menagerie. She may initially protest, but if you are loving but firm, while maintaining the spirit of her loved routine, she will adjust over time.
Letting your child know when bedtime is approaching can also be very helpful as your child feels more in control of the transition and consequently more safe and secure. This may also help her separate from you when it’s time to say good-night. Before you know it, it’ll be sweet dreams for everyone—you included.