End Your Child's Bedtime Battles with These 6 Steps

Don’t lose sleep over bedtime hassles with your kids. These useful tips will help you transform dreaded bedtime battles into relaxing evening routines just made for slumber.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #616
The Quick And Dirty

A solid bedtime ritual can be easier than you think. Try these six practical and fun tips to create a peaceful environment for your family each night.

  1. Prepare a solid bedtime routine
  2. Learn the signs of an overtired child
  3. Be mindful of diet, exercise, and daily quiet time
  4. Get your child their own alarm clock
  5. Offer a bedtime pass
  6. Opt out of the bedtime battle

If you've ever cheerfully awakened after a good night's sleep—and hopefully you have!—then you know the power a restful night has to make you feel renewed and invigorated. But what if bedtime struggles with your child are preventing your family from getting that sweet (and essential) slumber? These six strategies can help end bedtime battles for good.

How much sleep does your child need?

In 2015, the National Sleep Foundation gathered a panel of 18 experts to update its sleep duration recommendations. They offered some guidelines for how many hours of sleep children and adults in different age groups generally need. For "healthy individuals with normal sleep," here's what they suggested:

  • Newborns: 14-17 hours
  • Infants: 12-15 hours
  • Toddlers: 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers: 10-13 hours
  • Elementary-school-aged: 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers: 8-10 hours
  • Young adults: 7-9 hours
  • Older adults: 7-8 hours

We'd all like our family members to benefit from the right amount of healthy sleep. But busy parents know this isn't always easy to accomplish. Worse, suppose your sweet cherub hassles you each night about going to bed? In that case, hiding under the covers might seem more appealing than summoning the energy to take on a nightly battle.

Don't fall into the nightly bedtime woes. Instead, try these tips to help your entire family get peaceful rest more often.

1. Prepare a solid bedtime routine

One of my favorite parenting words (other than nap) is routine! Without question, my sanity and my family's overall well-being would not be as strong if not for creating structure in our busy lives. A solid bedtime routine helps your children wind down and also lays the foundation for a positive start the next morning. In 6 Steps to a Successful Bedtime Routine, I shared tips to help you craft a nightly ritual specific to your family's needs. 

  • Start by deciding what time your child will hit the hay and work backward. If 9 p.m. is bedtime and prep takes 30 minutes, then make sure you kick off the bedtime routine at 8:30 p.m. every night.
  • Less is more! A short routine works better than letting bedtime prep drag on.
  • Make it predictable. Incorporate the same 4-5 steps every night.

Younger children can benefit from a visual step-by-step guide to your family bedtime routine. Use Canva (or print photos and glue them to poster board) to illustrate your sleep routine. For example, Step 1: Shower or bath; Step 2: Brush teeth; Step 3: Put on PJs; Step 4: Bedtime story; Step 5: Goodnight cuddles and kisses; Step 6: Lights out!

If you want your bedtime routine to be a success, you must be consistent. There will be evenings when you don't feel like sticking to your plan, but it's even more critical to stay the course when you lack motivation. Patterns work for a reason—because repetition and structure are comforting and we can expect the same results most of the time. And once your child learns you won't waver from the evening schedule, he'll be less apt to challenge it.  

2. Learn the signs of an overtired child

Overtired kids can be a challenge at bedtime. Rather than wind down, overtired children tend to bounce off the walls, only adding to your frustration. The best time for a child to fall asleep is just when she's getting drowsy, recommends pediatrician Dr. Marc Weissbluth. He's a sleep expert, father of four, and author of one of my favorite books, Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child.

Overtired children will show symptoms like:

  • Problems regulating their emotions
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue and daytime tiredness

If your child is consistently overtired by bedtime, it may be time to make adjustments. Maybe bedtime needs to come earlier. Or maybe you need to adjust your child's daytime nap schedule. Also pay attention to things that could be making it difficult for your child to wind down. Maybe your teen's pre-bedtime video game session is making it hard for her to make the transition to sleep. Move that play sesh to an earlier time to create a buffer between gaming and lights out.

If your child often has difficulty getting to sleep or you suspect he may have a sleep disorder, consult your pediatrician.

3. Be mindful of diet, exercise, and daily quiet time

Be aware of what your child eats in the hours leading up to bedtime. A study in adults showed that meals lower in saturated fat and higher in protein help people fall asleep faster. Higher fiber intake was also associated with getting better deep sleep. On the other hand, sugar was linked to more middle-of-the-night wakeups. Staying away from sugary snacks and highly-processed foods is a good idea in general, but it turns out it also plays an important role in sleep!

Multiple studies have found that regular exercise correlates with better sleep.

Keep an eye on how much physical activity your child gets throughout the day. Multiple studies have found that regular exercise correlates with better sleep. Let your child burn off some energy in the afternoon or before dinner. Bonus points if that activity happens outside so your child is exposed to natural sunlight, which helps with regulating his circadian rhythm, the natural process that helps control our sleep-wake cycles.

Quiet time to wind down before sleep is also important. Help your child get into the habit of relaxing quietly in the evening before she begins her bedtime routine. She might chill out with a book, spend some time coloring, or just get lost in thought. Make sure the activity isn't too stimulating—the goal is to help her brain ease into switching off for the night.


4. Get your child an alarm clock

I'll credit my mom for this idea. Once my siblings and I were in kindergarten and had to wake up for school each day, she got us our own alarm clocks. We learned to set them with practice and turn them off, a part of our nighttime and morning routines. We all felt so proud to manage our alarms so we wouldn't be late for school. It also helped us know when it was time to go to bed. 

Today's parents can choose from a wide variety of clocks known as sleep trainers. Like an alarm clock, this is a toddler-friendly way to let young kids know if it's okay to get out of bed using colors, facial expressions, and different sounds. 

5. Offer a bedtime pass

If you're looking for a creative solution to help you win the goodnight struggle, the bedtime pass might do the trick. This clever idea allows a child access for one post-bedtime trip out of his room. The catch is that the child must have a specific purpose, such as a visit to the bathroom, needing a drink of water, or a hug from mom or dad. And he's only allowed one pass, no exceptions.

The idea of a bedtime pass stems from a study published in the October 1999 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Patrick Friman, one of the study's authors, said that it's unclear why the strategy works, but there are three possible explanations:

  1. A child saving the valuable pass may simply fall asleep waiting to use it.
  2. The presence of the pass could offer a sense of security.
  3. Having access to a once-forbidden want (a trip out of bed when it's past bedtime) makes it lose its appeal.

Simply brilliant!

6. Opt-out of the battle

It takes two people to participate in a battle. Make the conscious choice not to take part in your child's bedtime drama. After you implement the first five tips recommended here, it's time to take your power back and bow out of the evening struggle. Don't negotiate with your child. Instead, calmly explain that this is how bedtime will unfold each evening.

Above all, you must mean what you say and be consistent with enforcing your bedtime routine. Remember that new habits don't develop overnight (no pun intended!), and you're going to have to commit to making it work. Be consistent and non-emotional as you retrain your child to accept his new bedtime experience. Soon, these battles will be a thing of the past.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.