Parenting expert, family counsellor and bestselling author Alyson Schafer has spent decades working with families on the kinds of issues that keep parents awake at night. Whether speaking with parents as the resident expert on daytime television programs or conducting individual counselling, Schafer says getting children settled into a regular bedtime routine is one of the top struggles faced by most parents.
In partnership with Kellogg's® Rice Krispies®, we spoke with Schafer on the best tools for success.
Q. Why is it so important for children to have a regular bedtime and nightly routine?
A. Kids like routines in general, whether it's bedtime routines or structure in a preschool classroom. It makes them feel safe, it makes life more predictable, it makes them feel more in control and it allows them to be confident and successful. It's the same with all of us—if we understand the world and how it's supposed to play out...we know how to behave.
The other point is there is a whole biological piece. Because the brain is wired to recognize patterns, when we create a bedtime "go-to-sleep routine" the brain is smart enough to recognize that we are beginning the pattern. So, if we always start bedtime [the same way], with PJs and a snack and toothbrushing—it starts signalling the body to shift circadian rhythms to get into sleep mode, to help us fall and stay asleep.
Q. Is incorporating a small snack and enjoying it together with your child before bed a good idea?
A. With a snack before bed, I would say we want to make it part of the routine. What I mean by that is, I'm distinguishing from a child who has learned to stall, dawdle, or procrastinate [by asking for a snack], but any time a family can break bread together and be together, that's great. It's not supposed to be a behavioural time, it's supposed to be a social time.
Q. So for most parents, at some point they will run into the night or nights where children just do not want to go to bed. Is there a way to prevent that from turning into a tantrum?
A. First of all, it's OK for kids to protest. They don't like that the fun of the day has ended. The first thing that parents can give is an empathetic response to de-escalate the tantrum by joining them in their sadness. For example: "I wish we could play longer too, we just got started."
Secondly, I really think it's important that a timer or a clock starts the process because when a kid has the perception that there isn't a bedtime routine—if they just dig their heels in long enough, they will get an extra 15 minutes—a child learns to use emotionality to avoid bedtime. And you can bet they are going to do it every night. You are setting them up to have that meltdown.
[A better way] is just being kind and saying, "You can go to bed happy or you can go to bed upset, but 7 is 7 and that's our bedtime." It lets them know it isn't just you being a meanie...it's really just saying that this is our time, and every day it's the same.
Q. So being kind but firm is important?
A. Yes, I think the next important piece is rather than trying to convince a child to get upstairs, I as a parent would go upstairs. Lead instead of trying to get them to lead. I think one of the most important concepts for parents to understand around these routines is we need to be less focused on the child's behaviour and more focused on our behaviour. We don't know what the child is going to do, but we know what we are willing to do. For example, "I'm not willing to fight, bicker or nag. I'm willing to go upstairs and say it's bedtime."
Q. The other behaviour we've touched on already is the foot-dragging kids, who come up with a million excuses. How do you keep this child moving?
A. Part of it is using the clock, so they understand time constraints. Keeping your calm is really important. It's important that the parent does not become emotional. One of the goals for the child is to not only to get more time but also to irritate the parents. You might have to say things like, "You know what, potty time has come and gone. I will leave the potty in your room for you, and you can use it on your own."
I believe in co-creating a routine with a child. When you are creating that routine, make it as visual as you can...a chart, stickers, poster board, whatever.
Q. Are there ideal conditions to have for kids' bedtimes?
A. There are lots of best practices that we know about sleep. We know no screen time an hour before bed. All iPad screens should be turned down to the lowest light. That helps the brain prepare for slowing down. Other triggers to shift the circadian rhythms are to have as little light in room as possible so blackout curtains [are good]. The body responds to a drop in temperatures so if a room is cool, that signals the body that it's time to sleep. Some people do very well with a white noise machine. It drowns out background sounds. The brain seems to really like that.
[If kids are having sleep problems] I tell parents you really need to experience the kid's bedroom yourself. Like, go in there and sleep one night, because it could be traffic noise [that's keeping them up].
Q. Lastly, what about parents? Is part of the reason we need an established children's bedtime routine so that parents can have that cherished adults-only time?
A. Absolutely. Parents can't replenish until their kids are in bed. The last thing you want is to be so exhausted that you can't enjoy your leisure time. How many people fall asleep next to their kids in bed because they are so exhausted themselves? We are a chronically sleep deprived society. That really should be our time to say, "This is mommy and daddy's time. We need to have our special time too."
That is re-bonding time...where you remember the friendship and that bond that you have. It is critical to the health of the marriage and so it's a healthy thing for kids to learn. When you are figuring out what to teach kids in life, learning how to be in a healthy relationship is really important. They need to see strong leadership in a family. That the "captains" are getting along and co-operating and being in love. That's what makes them feel safe and secure.
The takeaway? Parents should remember that bedtime should be enjoyable, and that means taking a few minutes every night to slow down with your children to have a snack such as a bowl of Kellogg's® Rice Krispies®, read a story and snuggle before bedtime.