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Our 4-year old has unfortunately started having meltdowns a couple of days a week before bed. It's really sad because she'll often put together a great day, just to cause a house-wide problem near the finish. These happen in a fairly predictable but hard to prevent pattern:

  1. 6-7 PM "Meh" eating: Doesn't eat a ton during dinner, but does eat something (usually a handful of rice but only a bit of protein like chicken, ham/bacon, etc.)
  2. 8 PM Delayed Routine (~20 minutes): Bedtime starts just a bit later than usual, either due to dinner dragging on (see: "Meh" eating) and/or her toddler brother having a bath while she does something fun.
  3. Lack of Focus: The classic sign is that she'll start zoning out (not as responsive) or has trouble stopping tasks.
  4. 8 PM - 8:30 PM Meltdown: Pretty much regardless of how gently she's nudged toward the bedtime routine steps, she will then hit a meltdown. These sometimes start a bit verbal, but usually pretty quickly go down to a complete breakdown of whining/crying/being mean to stuffed animals/lightly slapping at people/running away. She basically can't say what the issue is, though sometimes her mood still shifts a bit based on how we interact with her.
  5. 8:30 PM Feeding: At some point, the meltdown subsides enough that we can get her to eat a bit. If she doesn't eat, she still starts having issues. After she eats more, she usually levels out.
  6. 9 PM: Sleep. She'll finally level off and be okay, at which point she's verbal and says things like "I was mad. How are you feeling? Were we both mad?" She's usually no longer upset.

So the question then is, has anyone had these and do they know good strategies to solve them? Having checked some websites, they range from "I've tried this" to "Stop your useless BS about feeding my kids beets for dinner to prevent meltdowns." The most effective methods we've done so far are:

  • After dinner snack: If we can, re-visit dinner during the small delay period before bed time and get more food in. When this works, it's great. But sometimes she's just not hungry (e.g., ate food, but it's just rice and quickly burning off) or she's had so little she's already starting a meltdown.
  • Calm down basket: Sometimes we can head off the meltdown with something super interesting (e.g., squishy things), and then get food back in the game. This isn't always feasible, and needs to be reserved for critical times, otherwise she can start whining about not getting the calm down basket when she'd otherwise okay (i.e., it's too rewarding to use much).

Does anybody have other tricks that they use which can either prevent or recover from these? They can get pretty rough. I'd be interested in any angle of improvement:

  • Calming Down: At the point where a kid is non-verbal, crying and alternating between running away to knock down stuffed animals and charging back to whap at you, anybody know good strategies for a 4 year old to calm back down? Infrequently she remembers to try some breathing stuff (thanks, Daniel Tiger) but a larger bag of tricks would be great.
  • Defuse Before Meltdown: At the point where she starts looking glassy-eyed or otherwise likely to meltdown while focused on a task, anybody know good ways to move that to food or something else useful?
  • Eating: Finally, anybody have good thoughts on how to handle when the only thing they'll eat is quick-burning? I think we're basically getting a meal-sized sugar crash during some of these, where a non-trivial amount was eaten (enough to be moderately full) but burns off for a crash prior to bed time.

Or any other suggestions are great, in general.

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There's a lot to unpack there - but I think there are two places to focus.

  1. Bedtime. While I'm the last parent to say a kid should have an early bedtime (mine have gone at a similar time to yours since younger than that), you may want to consider an earlier bedtime in case it helps. While it seems counterintuitive, being too tired is a bad thing at bedtime, because the child loses their self control. Move the bedtime up a little bit and see if that helps.
    Also, if you're still having her nap, consider changing that. We noticed that removing the nap and moving up bedtime helped our kids a lot at around 3; even a short nap would make it harder for them to go to bed later. But for some kids it's the opposite - the nap helps bedtime. You have to find what works best for you here.
    Beyond that, consider changing up the routine some. If there's consistently a problem at one point, consider a proactive intervention that avoids it. When my kids have issues like this - and my seven year old is, for the last few weeks - what I try to do is to plan to come into the bedroom around when the issues are likely to start (9pm for us right now), and intervene in a soft manner - something as simple as giving a snuggle for a few minutes can help stave off issues. Last night I talked to my seven year old about the meteor shower for five minutes, went off to look up a question he had, and came back to a sleeping child.

  2. Meals. I'm absolutely not a "clear your plate" person, nor a "eat what we give you or nothing" person; but it sounds like something needs to happen at mealtime to get the right food in her stomach at this point. This may be hard to correct now, as the easiest time (in my experience) to get on a good eating habit is about 1-1.5 years old, but it's easier to correct now than later.
    Our rule at mealtime is that they can eat or not eat however much they're hungry for, but, they stay at the table for a reasonable amount of time (we don't necessarily say "until we leave", but at least for some time), and if they don't eat the food that's there, we save that food and they can eat it later - but no substitutions.
    Around 5 we started letting them prepare their own alternatives if they had an issue with our food, so long as they've tried a few bites. Leftovers are easy to get for a 5 year old, even if they aren't allowed to use the microwave yet (ours could, but we understand that's not for everyone); and our youngest loves simple things like refried beans, lentil soup, things that come in a small package prepared already, and are reasonably healthy.
    Either way I think the goal should be to increase mealtime consumption and to eliminate the 8pm meal. Look at snacks after lunch - is she eating a lot at 4pm or 5pm? Maybe change the contents of that snack, or remove it, so she's hungry at dinner. Our rule on snacks: after 5pm (1.5 hours before dinner), only veggies or fruits for snacks, and if mealtime becomes an issue we remove even that, or would move it up to 4pm. This ensures that if they do snack, they get something that's not substantially worse than what they'd have for dinner.
    Also, we have a fairly effective veggie strategy. We prepare simple, lightly steamed veggies that are as good quality as we can manage (mostly frozen green beans/peas/broccoli), and we prepare them first, putting them on the table before the rest of the food is ready. Hungry kid comes over, grabs a few handfuls of the green beans or whatever, and then presto - they have already eaten their vegetables even before the meat/starch comes out, and they've eaten something that's reasonably durable calories - longer starches, not too much white bread type starch and not too much sugar.

You also might evaluate whether the 8:30pm food intake is really seeking food - or if it's more seeking comfort. Our kids very often get a glass of water a little after lights out, and I think it's as often that they just want to see us one more time rather than actually wanting the water.

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  • On a similar vein as this, I have been giving my slow-eating 3yo "pre dinner". Where she starts eating during dinner prep, half an hour before dinner is usually served. As we are prepping dinner, she participates and eats some of the veggies that are ready, etc. This way she (1) gets longer to eat, (2) is more interested in eating food that she helped prepare, and (3) is getting full up on veggies before we give her carbs. It isn't too much of an inconvenience to prep some veggies slightly earlier in anticipation and it works surprisingly well. – eipi Jan 3 at 21:03
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I learned from another parent "after tired comes daft", which means, that the children act in crazy ways, when they were tired, but need to stay awake. With our son this phrase most times was true, and is still (6 years old).

Like for us adults not each day needs the same amount of power. So some days we want to go to bed early, and some not. Sometimes we can survive two or three days, before we fall into the bed like a stone.

Because you wrote the detailed timetable, I assume you been aware about the pattern, your daughter has on the "bad evenings". Maybe you can find a pattern too, which days (weekly?) fulfill the criterion to have "bad evenings". For us it helped to find this days (weekly it started Wednesday or Thursday, until Friday, and depending of the activity-level too, if with a lots of movement or without). At this days we started the "go to bed" routine 30 minutes earlier. This means, that we (my son and I) started on these days dinner without my husband, and he joined later. Before we shared the days equal to bring him to bed (odd and even), but because my husband comes home late, we now changed into Mo-Tue -> husband, Wed-Fr -> I, and shared the weekend how it was necessary to stay in balance.

Because of the dinner: I read a lot about "healthy eating" of different concepts, and what was the main point for me was this: If you give your child a variance of options, they will choose the best for them (exception are sweets). And if you have a close look: at the night, there are not really powerful things to do, for which you need a lots of food intake. We tried some days to let our son choose his dinner (he chose raw vegetables, no bread/rise/noodles/potatoes or meat) and he did not awake at night to say "I am hungry!". Breakfast and lunch he ate normal, so we know, he will not reduce weight (and he did not). This reduced our pressure in the evening too.

For us the signs of "glassy eyes" and "zoned out" where the validation, that we were to late this evening. We found other signs, viewable before the mentioned, to find the "edge" to start the "go to bed"-routine.

Now, with him in school, we enjoy the more time of going to bed, because it gives us the option to read books aloud (parent read, child listen) or discuss important things (it seems the time at the day, when big questions pop up in children's brains...). But it depends on our (parents) days too, if we have enough time/nerves left, to stay focused on him. It is not perfect, but I too, try to avoid the meltdown, because in fact it enlarges the time, until he fall asleep substantial...

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    100% accuracy in the statement “after tired comes daft.” Whether it’s nap time or bedtime it’s critical to get them to bed BEFORE they are actually tired. I’ve observed the transition from tired to tyrant in my daughter in as little as 10 min. If I happen to see her winding down at dinner, I’ll scoop her up and get her off to bed sometimes skipping brushing (not ideal!) so as to avoid awakening the “beast.” The “beast” being an overtired, adrenaline fueled 4 year old who usually sticks around for at least 2 hours. – Jax Dec 28 '20 at 20:17
  • @Jax Maybe is rinse the mouth with water-soluted tooth paste an option? (Better than nothing ^^). And we observed an energy-excess when he got a lots of sugar in the evening (birthdays, Christmas, big desserts...) – Allerleirauh Dec 29 '20 at 13:09

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