Changing Bad Bedtime Behaviors of Children

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2003

Dear Annette,

I have a BIG problem--or I should say my daughter has 2 big problems!! To make a long story short--I have 3 grandchildren--a boy 6 years, a girl 22 months and infant 2 months. 

The problem: 

The 6-year-old stays up way too late at night At least 2-3 times a week wakes up screaming or at least crying.

The 22 month old cries all the time and NEVER wants to sleep!  She will be almost asleep--then she starts kicking her legs, rolling around, flaying her arms, crying, or all of this at once.  I blame my daughter and her husband for not starting reasonable bedtime routines when they were infants—

So is there a chance to change these habits?  Is there a medication that could be used temporarily to alleviate the problem? 

Would the children's father's smoking pot have anything to do with these problems?

Please, I need your help--sleepless nights are not my thing!!  I never had this problem with my children--they slept all night, every night, unless they were sick!

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The Answers:

1.  The 6-year-old stays up way too late at night

To get him on your schedule do the following:

Put the child down at the appropriate time each night.  Do not let any excuse do to prolong the time for bed.  See that he has gone to the bathroom just before bed and gotten his drink.  Warn him ten minutes ahead of time that his bead time is in ten minutes and to wrap up whatever he is doing, because bedtime is in ten minutes.

Whether he has chosen to sleep or to play in his room, get him up at the time he should have gotten up given that he did go to sleep.  Keep him up throughout the day so that he is not napping or resting.

Jot down several activities to keep him busy throughout the day.  If he tends to lag, because he is tired, give a glass of orange juice to give his a jolt of energy and keep him going.  The basic idea is to keep him busy so when it is bedtime, he is dog-tired and ready to go to bed.

You didn’t say if the child has changed time zones to come to stay with you, but if so, his circadian clock (the clock his body goes by) could be off, so that could be part of the problem of his being up too late.

2.  At least 2-3 times a week wakes up screaming or at least crying.

See what he is watching on TV.  Stop him from watching horror stories or terribly violent shows.  It is not unusual for children to have nightmares, but night terrors are.  The only way you can find out what is happening with him is to go to him directly and ask him what his dream was about.  We have all had nightmares.  You will recognize the general themes of them from your own nightmares from childhood.  Talk briefly about the dream and point out that it is not real.  If it is a monster under the bed, get a flashlight and you both look under the bed to make sure the monster is not there, etc.  Basically, reassure the child that he is safe and you would not let anything or anyone hurt him.  Finally, encourage him to go back to sleep.  If this means he needs a drink and a bathroom stop, so be it.

Horrific dreams are not normal.  These can be cause by anything from physical to mental problems.  If they continue, the best thing here is to get him a physical from a doctor to see if it is a physical problem.  After you have ruled out possible physical problems, it is time to have a psychiatrist check him out.

3. The 22 month-old cries all the time and NEVER wants to sleep!  She will be almost asleep--then she starts kicking her legs, rolling around, flaying her arms, crying, or all of this at once. 

Make sure there is no physical reason for this behavior.  Example…wet diaper, chapped bottom that needs medicating, being hungry, too cold, too hot, or a temperature = illness.  If these have all been taken care of, the child just does not want to be alone and/or wants to have attention, i.e. be picked up.  Tell the child good night.  Hold your ground and let the child cry.  If you give in even once, you have reinforced the behavior.  Intermittent reinforcement tells the child that if she cries long enough, she will get what she wants.  Remember:  A behavior exists because it gets the child what she wants.  It has become a good tool.  Adults & children hate to loose a good tool, so they will try the tool.  If it does not bring the needed results, then they try it even harder.  Finally, when it doesn’t work it is stopped for a time.  Since good tools are hard to come by, the child will try to see if this tool will magically start working again, so you will see this behavior tried off and on.  Be consistent!!! Never allow this behavior to be reinforced.  If you do you have told the child that if she uses this tool, it might get her what she wants, therefore she will continue to try it and the behavior will never be extinguished.  You do not want this, so be consistent!

Also, do not be tempted to peek into the bedroom to see if the child is alright.  The child is expecting this and listens for your foot fall and will be looking for any visual sign that her cries is getting her what she wants.  If she is reassured that you are coming to her rescue, the behavior will continue in earnest!

I blame my daughter and her husband for not starting reasonable bedtime routines when they were infants—

4.  So is there a chance to change these habits?

Young children’s habits are easily changed if you are consistent.  Meaning, whatever you do you must stick with.  Don’t change back and forth or they will believe, like a gambler, they will eventually get lucky and win if they try long enough.  Also, if the mother wants to initiate these same changes, she will have to go through the same testing period that the children will put you through, to see if they can do what they want.  She too will have to be consistent, which is something that she has not been, apparently. 

5.  Is there a medication that could be used temporarily to alleviate the problem?

Never give a child a medication unless a doctor and the parent approve it.  Sleeping medication, which is what I assume you is what you talking about, is not a good thing to use continuously, anyway.  They really mess up the body and can be addictive.  You would never want to do this to a child.  Grownups shouldn’t do it to themselves either.

6.  Would the children's father's smoking pot have anything to do with these problems?

I’m not certain from your narrative, whether the father is currently using, or was doing so when they were conceived, so I will speak as if it is a current problem.  First, either way the father has messed up his gene contribution in making the child and if still using, continues to mess the child up through second smoke, if he is doing it around the children.  Even with a through physical, you may never know the extent of the damage that has been done.  Do not fool yourself into to thinking that the children came out unscathed from his drug use, there is always damage, somewhere.

During the physical, the physician needs to be told of the drug problem and any physical and/or mental problems the children are having.  That way he will know what potential problems to be looking for.

Did you know that the State Child and Welfare Department would make the father leave the home, until he was deemed clean and not addicted, if they knew that the father was still using, with children in the home. 

How do you feel about the children being constantly bombarded with drugs in the air they are breathing?  If the mother will not take a stand about the father’s use, perhaps you should.  These are your grandchildren and they need to be protected.  

7.  Please, I need your help--sleepless nights are not my thing!!  I never had this problem with my children--they slept all night, every night, unless they were sick!

Congratulations!  You have signed up for sleepless nights when nightmares happen.  Doing what I told you to do can alleviate the other problems.  Just be consistent!

Good luck to you,

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

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