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It’s bedtime for your child, and you’ve already gone through your normal routine, but you’re experiencing a variety of different sleep avoidance behaviors from your child! They may cry, call out for attention, get into toys, make extra requests, turn on the lights, or even leave their bed altogether. Developing sleep routines for your child can be a challenge, but there are some things you can do to help set yourself up for success.

  • Make sure high-stimulation activities occur long before it’s bedtime. This gross motor movement may increase energy levels, but it could also be certain videos or games that elevate their excitement levels.
  • Provide non-contingent access BEFORE bedtime to the things they often request AFTER bedtime. It could be physical items like a stuffed animal or hugs and bedtime stories. This will help decrease their motivation for it once they lie down to sleep.
  • If their challenge is that they keep wanting to play with things once they lay down, you could implement a clean-up game and put preferred toys to bed, getting them ready for sleep to indicate it’s time for bedtime.
  • Create positive routines that make PREPARING for bed fun. Keep this as consistent as possible.

Creating a bedtime routine

It’s important for your routine to be simple and easily repeatable! A routine that comprises a few steps can be important as it gives your child time to transition from any fun, energetic things they may be doing to creating a relaxing bedtime environment.

An example routine may be:

  • First, we brush our teeth
  • Then we put pajamas on
  • We get into bed and read a book
  • We tuck our stuffed animals in next to us
  • Last, it’s time to say good night and turn the lights out

Signaling Sleep

It is also important to ensure that your child’s bedtime environment signals sleep. This can help to consistently signal that there has been a transition from daytime (play) to nighttime (sleeping) and that it’s time to go to bed.

  • Make sure it’s dimly lit.
  • Have a special nightlight that you turn on
  • Have engaging items or toys put away
  • Have the room or space a cooler temperature
  • Make sure their sheets/blankets are comfortable
  • Make sure their pajamas are comfortable
  • Try the use of a white noise machine in their room
  • Try a nighttime timer that is one color when they should stay in their room and changes colors in the morning when it is an appropriate time to wake up

Responding to Challenges

Your routine is in place now. How do you respond to inevitable challenges from your child?

    • It’s important to stay neutral and gently guide your child back to bed
    • Provide as little attention as possible when you respond
    • Be careful that you’re not letting them engage in any high-energy activity
    • When you bring them back to their room, be sure not to indulge in a lot of questions or talk a lot about why they can’t do this or that
    • You want to get them to return to the bedroom and those sleep signals as soon as possible
    • Consistent responding is going to be key; the important part is to guide them back to bed as consistently as possible for several days

Bedtime Pass

The “bedtime pass” is a simple intervention from which many kids benefit. You’ll start with a pass with your child’s name, and you can even allow them to decorate it to make it extra special.

It’s important that they get this pass every night, exchangeable for one excused visit or request. So that means once they lay down, they are allowed to get up within reason for a particular reason! It could be something like using the bathroom, getting water, getting an extra hug, or getting one question answered. You wouldn’t allow certain things, like playing with toys, jumping on a trampoline, watching TV, etc.  You can discuss this with them ahead of time and review the pass rules.

It’s also very important that it’s a one-time use per night. So, after they use that pass, they will have to present it to you in exchange for their request, and then they surrender that pass. After the pass is surrendered, any other requests or questions are not honored; you just gently remind them, ‘You’ve already used your pass, and return them to their room.

This can be a beneficial intervention because it sets bedtime rules and expectations. You’re still providing a little bit of access or attention, but it’s more controlled before denying the rest.

Note: This blog post is based on a Bierman Caregiver Webinar.

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  • Ashley Ahlers

    Ashley grew up in New York. She is a BCBA who holds a Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in Development Sociology from Cornell University. Ashley trained at the May Center School for Brain Injury and Related Disorder while completing her Master’s degree. She has several years of experience working with children and adults with developmental disabilities and challenging behaviors in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Ashley has worked in various settings, including residential schools, clinics, public schools, residential group homes, and home programs. She is thrilled to join the Bierman team! In her free time, Ashley loves watching TV, skiing, traveling, reading, and spending time with her husband and newly rescued cat, Nora.