Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Bedtime Struggles February 1, 2012

Filed under: Sleep — Heidi Emberling @ 10:09 pm

Why is it so difficult for some children to go to bed…and stay there? We are exhausted at the end of the day, so they must be too, right? Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. Bedtime is a transition, and transitions, as you know, can be quite challenging for young children. Bedtime means that children have to stop playing (a terrible thought), prepare themselves to separate from their parents, lie in a somewhat dark room, and try to fall asleep. No wonder bedtime is often fraught with tantrums, oppositional behavior, and an endless supply of delay tactics. How can we support our children through this end-of-day transition in a way that doesn’t leave us frustrated, angry, or disappointed that we ended the day with a huge battle?

First, it may be helpful to think about how many transitions are inherent in your bedtime routine. Let’s look at a typical evening. You finish dinner and the child may have some time to play. After play comes a bath. After bath, we put on pajamas. After pajamas, we brush our teeth. Then, we pick out stories. Once we read stories, the lights are turned off. We may sing a goodnight song. Then, we leave the room. That’s eight distinct transitions! And it repeats every night. No wonder both child and parent are exhausted by the time the child gets into bed. And that doesn’t include the times a child gets up after you leave the room!

One of the best ways to strategize navigating these evening transitions is to find ways to help your child feel “ownership” over the bedtime routine. What does this mean? The more control a child feels during the bedtime transitions, the more likely she is to complete each step without a battle. One effective strategy is to “externalize the parent.” Here’s an example:

Visualize and create a bedtime plan. One family I worked with came up with a fabulous train track, where each “step” is a “station.” (See photo—this was aimed at morning struggles.) The child, who was fascinated with trains, could move his train from station to station as he completed each part of the routine. In this way, the “external parent” (the “chug chart”) informs the child which step (or “station”) comes next. That way, it’s not the parent telling the child what to do next; instead, the chart lays out the order of the routine. The best part is that the parent can ask the child what’s next, rather than tell them what to do.

And what about delay tactics? “I have to go potty,” always works like a charm. “One more hug or kiss,” is successful because what parent can refuse that request? Asking for a drink of water, inventing or obsessing about a new fear (of the dark, of monsters, of ghosts, etc.), or begging for “one more story,” are also popular delay tactics. For these tactics, I often advise parents to pull out the “Golden Ticket,” used for “one extra thing” at bedtime. This is just a piece of gold construction paper, decorated as you see fit, that you can hand to your child at bedtime each night. Again, the power is in their hands! Your child can decide which “extra thing” they want to choose each night (limit: 1). This shows your child that you are willing to give them that one extra request, while also limiting your generosity so your 30-minute bedtime doesn’t become a 3-hour torture session.

Let me know how it goes!
Heidi Emberling, MA


Good Night, Sleep Tight August 26, 2011

Filed under: Sleep — Heidi Emberling @ 3:41 pm

Good Night, Sleep Tight

I was recently invited to speak on the topic of Sleep on “Childhood Matters,” a Sunday morning radio program hosted by Rona Renner, RN on 98.1FM here in the Bay Area. (You can listen to the August 14, 2011 program HERE). During the show, we took phone calls and e-mail questions from parents of children ages 10 weeks, 4 years, a 5th grader, and a teen. And what I realized is that sleep is not just an issue for new parents with babies, it’s an issue that profoundly affects parents throughout childhood and beyond. Even when our children do sleep through the night, we may still lie awake ourselves, especially during stressful times.

Ensuring that our children are getting enough sleep is a fundamental goal of parents from the earliest months of life until our children leave home. In the early years, we wonder if we should keep our children close while they sleep, or encourage them to sleep independently. We may limit our daily outings in order to stick to a schedule for naps. And we may devise elaborate schedules and routines in order to encourage our children to sleep. In the preschool years, new fears disrupt sleep patterns: from the obvious (monsters, spiders, cartoon villains), to the more subtle fears (starting a new school, moving from crib to bed, potty learning struggles, or beginning kindergarten).

The one thing we can’t do, and this is frustrating for all parents, is fall asleep for our children. We can encourage, cajole, bribe, threaten, wish, plead, demand, hope, and plan for good sleep, but the act of falling asleep lies squarely in the child’s domain of control. Here are the areas you can control as a parent to support your child as they fall asleep: create an environment conducive to sleep, stick to a regularly scheduled bedtime and nap schedule, and follow a cozy (but not extensive) bedtime routine.

Environment: Is your child’s room prepared for sleep? Is it quiet, calm, dark (enough)? What about soft music or white noise? Is there a small night light? Depending on your child’s age, do they have a pacifier, stuffed friend or favorite blanket with them?

Schedule: Do you always put your child down at the same times for nap and bedtime? This gets tricky for children in the first two years as they move from three or four naps to one nap per day. Parents want to be consistent with naps, but also flexible as their child grows into less daytime sleep. Children set their internal sleep clocks to our external schedule and routine. Think about the last full-time job you had. Did you always have lunch around noon? Most likely, you began to get hungry about 15 minutes before lunchtime. Do you always go to bed by 10pm? You may start yawning by 9:45pm. You want children to set their clocks to your schedule.

Routines: Moving from high-energy activities to quiet, calming ones help guide a child towards sleep. When I support families in creating bedtime routines, I always begin from dinnertime. Everything you do from dinnertime on is part of your bedtime routine. If there’s time to play after dinner, make sure to offer quieter activities: puzzles, books, shape sorters, drawing. It’s important to do things in the same order each day, since children rely on you to provide predictable and gentle transitions.

Focusing on the areas in your control, such as the environment, schedule, and routines, can reassure you that you’ve done all you can to encourage your children to sleep. Now, it’s up to your child to do the rest.


Summer Sleep Troubles July 13, 2011

Filed under: Sleep — Heidi Emberling @ 11:33 pm

Seems like a lot of families are struggling with sleep issues during the summer months, when daylight lasts into the evening, schedules are varied, families are traveling or hosting visitors, and routines are different from the school year norm.

Children thrive on predictable routines, so it makes sense that sleep patterns are often disrupted by our more diverse summer plans. Here are some tips to help navigate changes in summer sleep, keeping in mind the only three areas we, as parents, can control: environment, schedule, and routines.


-Make sure the room is dark, either at home with black-out shades, or, if traveling, use extra blankets or towels to drape over those lighter hotel blinds.

-Bring your child’s favorite white noise sounds or music CD with you while traveling, for comfort. The same is true for a favorite crib bumper, sheet, or pillow (or pillow case).

-If you’re traveling, but your child is staying home, leave a favorite nightshirt that you’ve worn several days before you leave. Your child can snuggle with it while you’re gone.


-Some families move the evening schedule earlier or later even before they leave home. In this way, the child is already “adjusting” to the new time zone before you even board the airplane. Also, some families allow the child to sleep in a portable crib in their own room a few days before traveling.

-If you can, keep your child’s regular nap and bedtime schedule intact while traveling. This can be difficult, but it is one way to support a regular sleep schedule while away from the comforts of home.


-If you know your child will be up late, move the entire evening routine later. This means, eat dinner a half hour or hour later, followed by a later bath time, pj’s, teeth brushing, and story reading. Bedtime schedules begin with dinnertime.

-If your child has difficulty falling asleep or wakes up in the middle of the night, have a consistent sleep plan in mind to implement right away.

Remember that travel is most difficult for the toddler crowd. They are too young to sleep anywhere/anytime in a baby carrier, but may not be old enough to be amused by coloring books or videos. Toddler need to move, so long airplane or car rides are particularly challenging for this age group. Be prepared!

Many children will need 3-5 days to re-adjust to the environment, schedule, and routines at home when you return from travel. Be consistent with your sleep plan, and they will fall back into predictable patterns quickly.