Many parents believe that five-year-olds should go to bed on their own without arguing, and when their own child doesn’t, they feel frustrated. They get tired of saying, “Brush your teeth,” and “Now put on your pajamas.” They’re also bothered if their child dawdles or gets up once she’s been put to bed.
Independent bedtime habits develop slowly. Most five-year-old children can fall asleep without having their parents stay with them, and many can take care of their middle-of-the-night needs: going to the bathroom, getting a drink, or finding an extra blanket. However, it’s still common for five-year-olds to need help at bedtime. Many require prodding at night, and some don’t get ready at all unless their parents guide them through almost every step of the process.
All these reminders are necessary because children have a hard time separating themselves from their activities. They’d much rather continue playing or watching TV. And because bedtime is of no interest to them, they’re easily distracted and need to be kept on track. The procrastination that bothers so many parents is the result of the young child’s inability to focus on something she doesn’t want to do.
Children this age still need their parents for bedtime rituals, which continue to be important. Some kids can’t go to sleep without a story, a conversation, or a hug and a kiss. In busy families or on rushed days, bedtime may be the only time parents and children have quiet contact.
While most children need some parental help at night, if your child has consistent trouble at bedtime, try to find out why. There might be a simple explanation. Perhaps she’s hungry and needs a snack in the evening. She may avoid bedtime because she’s afraid of imaginary creatures or the dark and wants to put off going to sleep as long as possible. If that’s the case, spend fifteen minutes or so in her room while she falls asleep, try keeping a light on at night, or suggest that she sleep with a personal treasure or newly received gift. She may also sleep more securely in a room shared with a sibling. She may also need less prodding if she falls asleep in your bed or if she knows that she can climb into your bed in the middle of the night.
Your child may have trouble because she simply isn’t tired. Some parents, understandably eager for their child to get enough sleep for school or for time alone in the evenings, set bedtimes without considering their child’s actual sleep needs. If you know that your child isn’t sleepy, have her go to bed a little later, and be more flexible on weekends.
If her bedtime problems seem to be just habitual, you’ll have to set limits and tell her the consequences of too much dawdling. “If you don’t get ready quickly, you won’t have time to play before bed.” “When you take so long to get in bed, I don’t have time to read to you.” It’s important to anticipate evening struggles rather than let annoyances build up to an angry battle of wills. It’s also important to help your child bring her day to a pleasant close. Tell her something exciting that’s coming up, and remind her of how special she is.
You can also try rewarding your child for getting ready on time. “If you’re in bed in five minutes, I’ll let you listen to a CD before you fall asleep.” One child would get ready quickly in order to hear favorite stories about her family.
Bedtime will be less stressful if you try to be patient and remember that your child will gradually assume her own bedtime responsibilities. Meanwhile, as long as she responds to your reminders and does get ready for bed, you don’t have to worry or feel defeated.