So for the last couple of months, my 3-year-old twins have started coming up with a million reasons for why they can’t go to bed. Apparently, they’re not tired. Also, they’re suddenly afraid of the dark. And one is sick, so so sick, he says. And they need water. No, no, they need ice water. And one more book. And another song. But not that song. And then it’s, “But Mommy, Mommy, but Mommy…” as I walk out of the room.
I mean, I knew this was coming. They make expletive-filled books about just this problem. Still, it doesn’t make it easier when my tank is empty, my stomach is growling, and I’m ready for this day to be OVER. So, my husband and I came up with a few strategies to help squash the little rebels’ uprising, and restore peace to our grown-up time. If you’re struggling with similar antics at bedtime, try these tricks yourself…
1. Prepare the barracks. Toddlers and preschoolers can be wily. They also seem to have a touch of OCD. So if he doesn’t have that particular monkey or the corner of his sheet is not perfectly tucked, well then, you’ve got a problem. So while my husband is giving them a bath, I make sure their beds are just-so, stocked with all of the essential stuffed animals and blankies. There is cold water with visible ice at the corner of each bed. Their pillows are not slipping from their cases. Where is Curious George? Oh, right here. Mickey Mouse? Right there. You want Tenderheart Bear? Pa-dow, got it, FACE! I don’t want to be scrambling to find all of their beloved animals or slippers so I leave no room for error.
2. Stick to a routine. If you’re like us, you’ve had some kind of bath-book-song routine since your kids were babies. Of course, as they get older and more opinionated, it’s tough to stick to a strict schedule. Still, you’ve got to try: A steady, familiar routine helps them feel more settled and prepared for bed, especially as separation anxiety and fear start to sneak into their little heads. Sure, they might fight you on taking a bath (and maybe you don’t even feel like giving one), but the more you stay the course, the more relaxed they’ll feel. And the less they’ll try to play you. Still, play you they will…
3. Don’t negotiate with tiny terrorists. Sometimes, kids have a little bit of anxiety at bedtime. Think about it: They’re alone, in the dark, without you. Sometimes I’m even afraid of the dark and I’m a grown-a*s woman! Still, it’s fairly easy to tell when your kid is seriously scared, or just trying to work the system. I know better, but we’ve had sitters — and a Grandma — who manage to get bamboozled into leaving the door open or reading two more books or coming in again and again. One night, they spent almost two hours calling for my mom, sometimes fake-crying, hollering, “I need you, Gaga.” But grandparents are weak. We parents though can’t afford to be weak! That means you really can’t give in too much when you know your kid is manipulating — no to one more book or one more song, no to leaving the lights on, and no to 20 minutes of “cuddle time” (I totally gave into that one for like a week straight because, duh). They can be users, your little ones. If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. So try not to give in too much.
4. Cover the bases with a bedtime story. Although they will tell you otherwise, my boys aren’t really that afraid of the dark. Still, about a month ago, they were making a big deal about how dark it was in their room, especially now that the days are getting shorter. Since they unplug everything, I couldn’t get them a nightlight, so I started telling them bedtime stories that I hoped would ease any fears. This is the one place where I will negotiate. So after we’ve read books and sang songs and said goodnight, if they ask for a story, I will give them one. Usually, I keep them short, and just tell some made-up tale about the magic fairy who sprinkles rainbow dust in their room to give them sweet sleep. Or the superhero who stands outside their window to keep monsters away. Or the Mama Bear who loves her baby bears so much that she always stays close to the cave to protect them. Last week, I told them the tale of Jim-o-Lantern, the purple pumpkin who grants wishes to good boys who eat vegetables and listen to Mommy. (You can borrow that one). They’re totally cheesy stories that involve some element of magic and sleepiness and Mama love, but it always helps settle them in.
5) Be clear about your bedtime rules. You’ve probably heard parenting experts tell you that if you say it, you have to mean it. The same rules apply at bedtime. If our kids are getting in and out of bed while we’re singing them their songs, we’ll say, “Get back in bed or we’ll stop singing.” And if they keep running around, that’s it, no more song, and we leave the room. If you tell your kids that you’re not coming back until the morning, and you stick to it, they know you mean business. If you’re like, “Okay, you have your water, Mommy is NOT coming back in here!” and then you return ten minutes later when she asks for her Elsa cape, she’ll know she can keep working you. Once we’ve given our boys everything they need, we’ll say, “Goodnight, we love you, we’ll see you in the morning but we’re not coming back in right now.” They’ll still call for us, but if we don’t go back in, they get the message and give up. Maybe it sounds harsh, but if your goal is to nip all of this bedtime drama in the bed, there has to be a little bit of tough love.