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Lately my 4.5 year old son has started getting back up after bed time.

Frequently we will go through the entire bedtime ritual, including a bath, pajamas, brushing teeth, books, and then being tucked in. But after that he will climb down from his loft bed, and come out of his room over and over again. Sometimes this happens 10 or more times in a single night, and he might not finally go to sleep until well after 11pm.

I'm worried because he doesn't get enough sleep and in the morning he's tired when its time to get up for preschool. Its also a big disruption to the limited private time for my wife and I.

What can I try to help bedtime run more smoothly?

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Sleep apnea can also be a cause of poor sleep, even in kids. –  nGinius Apr 5 '11 at 1:38
    
Just an update: ultimately this behavior went away as he got older. The advice in the accepted answer, however, was very helpful while the problem was going on. –  Justin Standard Apr 19 '12 at 23:35

9 Answers 9

up vote 16 down vote accepted

It's difficult for everyone when a child is fighting sleep. Everyone is tired, which makes it hard to be patient (for parents) or obedient (for children). Parents are desperate for even a few minutes of quiet, private, intimate time, and that time is quickly evaporating as the child keeps bouncing around.

Recognize that alarm clocks and strict scheduling of life are not natural, and are particularly difficult for children to adapt to. (And for adults, too; how many of us love the snooze button?) Our ancestors usually slept until they were done sleeping, instead of letting a machine tell them when to wake up.

Can you adjust your mornings to let people sleep as long as they want? Most people can't, but if you can...

It's great that you have a rich bedtime routine. This ritual helps a child know what's going on. The world is a complex place, and a familiar routine can be reassuring. This will work greatly to your favor when your child decides to go along with your plan. And that will happen; this trouble will pass in time.

Children aren't born knowing how to go to sleep. Falling asleep comes naturally, but putting yourself to sleep is a skill. I teach my children the "three C's of going to sleep":

  • calm - no rolling around and squirming
  • quiet - no talking, singing, clapping, or kicking the wall
  • comfortable - no standing, or holding a foot in the air, or sitting on a chair

(The 'q' is a joke that they can laugh at when they're older.)

I've noticed that when a tired child does all 3 of these, they fall asleep very quickly. So teaching this lets them know what to do, and helps them recognize what they're doing that is preventing sleep.

Third, when I restless kid in the evening, I find it usually helps to snuggle up with the child. Kids love snuggles, so this is attractive to them, and gives them a reason to stay in bed. If a child continues to fight sleep, I am right there to remind them "calm, quiet, and comfortable." Having taught them the "three C's", that works better than "stop hitting yourself; stop whistling; stop kicking the covers off."

Remember to take it easy on yourself. You will get through this. Good luck.

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+1 for "snuggling" it's how we kept our son in bed when he started doing the same thing. –  MichaelF May 4 '11 at 14:29

We've been fighting this, too.

We just moved out 5.5yo out of her toddler bed into a twin bunk bed. That has helped, but not sure why (she wasn't too big for her bed). Ultimately, though, my dad started bribing her to sleep on her own futon when she spent the night at my parents' house and I've instituted the same thing with taking money away when she sleeps in our bed as "rent".

It's been working well, we're up to like 80% of nights her sleeping in her own bed, with a few of those nights her moving into our bed at around 6am.

She likes to take her pocketbook out to buy things when shopping and $1 a night has worked well, plus she's earning the money to buy her toys and setting her own budgets (instead of begging us for toys). She even bought her little brother some action figures. That may not work with (younger) boys.

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$1 per night is a lot of money for a five year old ($30/month). Make sure you don't set a precedent for relatively huge allowances later on. This blog article describes one way of doing allowances. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 4 '11 at 17:37
    
@torbengb It's worked out well in the end, she started to refuse to take the money (she started to call it my money) and now sleeps all night in her own bed. Like most things with kids, it was a phase. I think the money helped make her understand it was an important issue. –  Cade Roux May 4 '11 at 19:13
    
Bright kid! :-) –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 5 '11 at 5:46

The single best solution we've found so far with our 3.5 year old is two fold:

  1. no more afternoon naps, or at least cut them down shorter. If it's taking 2 hours for him to get to sleep after bed time, then cut 2 hours out of the nap. (he was taking 4 and 5 hour naps some days, then bouncing off the walls until 10:30 or 11 at night.)
  2. get them out and active during the day... lots of walking and other exercise to wear them out and get them tired... particularly in the evening after dinner before bed. We've been trying to use Nickelodeon Fit on the wii for this since the weather has been horrific all winter, rather than driving to the mall or downtown or someplace with indoor walking space... but he's just not old enough to get the concept of the game yet.
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Being overtired sometimes is counterproductive. –  jny May 4 '11 at 15:14
3  
Yes overtired should be avoided but exhausted certainly helps! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 4 '11 at 17:36

At 4, we deal with that some. A few things have helped reduce (but not completely eliminate) the instances of getting back up - besides the points of cutting naps and increasing daytime activity that the other folks answered.

Often he'll want one of us to lie down with him while he goes to sleep. When this is requested, he is told he has to lie still and quiet for five minutes first. He'll usually end up getting up once or twice before getting the 5 minutes still and quiet, but ultimately its usually over within 15-20 minutes. Then we lie down with him and he's out in another 10-15 minutes.

Those nights when he's just too wound up, we establish a penalty for getting out of bed beyond emergencies (bathroom, scary noise, stuff like that. Usually taking a favorite toy away for one day does the trick.

This is all for a kid who is genuinely tired but a little hyper - he just needs the motivation to lie still long enough to relax. If you don't think he's tired, you need to rethink the sleep / nap schedule first.

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A couple thoughts come to mind.

  • Having some set routine for evenings might help, where activities scale down in excitement.
  • Similarly, a regular bedtime and and wake time, even through weekends, could help.
  • Eliminating sugar after a certain time, including juices and maybe even milk. If he's tired in the morning, but not at bedtime, there might be something else keeping him alert.
  • I've read recently that nighttime television, or staring at a computer monitor, adversely affects sleep. Maybe try turning off these items after dark.
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Hey Jeff, unfortunately there is no scaling down in excitement for him (as you know...) –  Justin Standard Mar 30 '11 at 5:38
    
Then instead scale UP the activities during the day, so he's more exhausted in the evening. My son is also hyper, and simple pure exhaustion makes a world of difference - but it can be very hard (and exhausting!) to achieve. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 30 '11 at 8:58

The two most common mistakes I've seen is putting kids to bed when they're not tired, and not adjusting their sleep schedule as they get older. It might be a clue if you put your kids to bed at 6:30, they scream for a half hour that they're not tired, then you have to put them back in bed every half hour until midnight, then they wake up at 6. Also, kids don't need as much sleep when they get older, but parents often try to hang onto their evening alone time.

At our house, we start getting the kids ready for bed at 8, and in bed by 9 at the latest, which is kind of late compared to most of our friends and family, but many of their kids are still popping out of bed past the time our kids are fast asleep. Also, our rule is the kids have to go to bed sooner when they are acting tired, conveniently defined as most things that disturb the parents' quiet time ;-) The toddler is often in bed by 7, the 4 year-old by 7:30-8, and the almost 7 year-old usually actually asks to go to bed around 8:30.

The other thing that helps is putting them back in bed immediately after they get out. If they get to sleep with mommy and daddy for a while, or play for a half hour before you catch them, they've already reaped the benefits and have no incentive to stay in bed. To help with this, we bought a wireless door chime for their bedroom door, the kind like shops have to let them know a customer entered. We only had to use it around a week for each of our permanent children when they first started coming out of their room. It took about 3 weeks each when we had foster children that came to us "untrained." Also, don't give up. You might have to put them back in bed 10 times the first night, but they will give up sooner and sooner every night, until they don't bother trying anymore.

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With both of my two kids, we had great results with a clock designed for toddlers — something with a cartoon day picture, and a cartoon night picture, which are lit depending on whether it's time to stay in bed or time to get up. We made our own, but there's several commercial products including this one.

Like all such techniques, it'll vary a lot from child to child. For our oldest, it worked well when she was two, and then pretty much stopped. But the younger one is much more concerned about structure, and she's followed it pretty religiously so far (and she's 4½ now, just like yours).

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We're soon to be moving our son from his toddler bed to a full sized bed. He's simply too large for anything else. (3 years old, 106 cm tall and 20kg.) He'll get out of bed the first 3 times we lay him down regardless of how tired he is (and we shoot for exhausted every night!), unless we're REALLY lucky. We've also cut out his afternoon naps, and try to avoid him passing out cold on the couch after a long day of play.

Sometimes I think the solution is duct tape.

We just pick him back up, give him some snuggles and put him back to bed and cover him over. Sometimes he'll ask for me to sing him his song, and I'll do that for 5 minutes or so, but then it's always back to bed. He doesn't come out of his room once it's bedtime (we can hear his size 27 feet slapping on the floor as he runs to the door), because we have a gate in the doorway. (We have a STEEP set of stairs to the first floor of the condo and we don't want him roaming and falling down them onto the tiled ground floor.)

We have a solid bedtime routine; bath, cuddles and a story and then up to bed and saying goodnight to the sock monkey (don't ask), his mouse (rat), bunny, etc and finally goodnight to Mom & Dad and Matthias. So right now I think it's a phase he's going through trying to assert himself and his wishes. He doesn't scream and fight us, he might whine a bit but he goes back into bed relatively easy enough.

So basically keep him tired, keep a steady dependable routine and stick to it.

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Have you ever heard of / tried the tape method?

I haven't actually tried this yet (my oldest is still in a crib), but I know quite a few parents who swear by it. The interesting thing about it is that you get the child to view it as a sort of cause-and-effect - it's not that you're a nasty mom/dad forcing them to stay in bed, there are just consequences to their actions and if they choose to face them they can come on out.

The basic idea in short (read the link for more detail):

Put 3 pieces of tape outside the child's door - one at the door-almost-closed position, one at the door-wide-open position, and one in between.

Explain to your child that they're big now, and big kids use the tape system. Rules:

  • The door starts off wide open at the outermost piece of tape.
  • The first time the child comes out (for anything other than a legitimate bathroom trip), they are sent back to bed and the door is moved to the middle piece of tape (half open).
  • The second time, they are sent back to bed and the door is moved to the next piece of tape, so that it is just left open a crack.
  • The third time, the door is closed completely for the night.

(Of course, this will only work if you're ok with the door being open at night... But it's probably better than a closed door with a kid refusing to stay inside :) )

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