A Scientific Look at Why Children Hate Bedtime

Guest Blogger: Brianna Kelly

According to the National Sleep Foundation, children between three and five years of age should be sleeping between eleven and thirteen hours per night. However, about 52 percent of American children resist bedtime at that age. Part of the problem may rest with parents who are either tense about bedtime or have not set a recognizable and soothing bedtime routine. Young children need a routine that is predictable so they can associate certain times and activities with sleep.

Research by Pennsylvania State University researcher Douglas M. Teti indicates that parents are often the key to helping children soothe themselves into a refreshing night’s sleep. Many children experience troubled bedtimes when their parents:

  • Are not adept at noticing when the child becomes drowsy
  • Are not aware of the need for a set, predictable routine every night
  • Permit the child too much freedom at bedtime
  • Allow television or video games too near to bedtime

Gwen Dewar, PhD of Parenting Science cautions that parents should not be too rigid in their expectations of children at bedtime. Some children may have separation anxiety or other fears, be dealing with stresses either at home or in school or have physical problems that cause sleep problems. It is important to determine what is causing the problem in order to come up with an effective solution.

The practice of separation children from their parents at bedtime is a relatively recent development in the evolution of parenting. For millenniums, humans were hunter-gatherers and kept their children close during the night out of necessity. Being isolated was dangerous, so children stayed close to their parents. Isolation would probably have caused panic.

In order to deal with normal fears and soothe themselves, children’s brains must have a certain level of maturity. They need to be able to distinguish between what is real and what is merely apparent (that thing that looks like a large animal in the room is just the shadow cast by the dresser or teddy bear). They need to have a sense of time so they can predict when certain things will happen (they will see their parents again in the morning). They need to have control over their emotional responses.

Most children will not have those abilities before the age of five or six. Younger children have a stronger need for the presence of a gentle, reassuring adult to be present. The most important thing parents can do to make bedtime a good time is to provide a soothing routine that can be depended upon to occur every night. Quiet music, favorite books, a small snack and drink, and hugs are all part of this. Giving the child a “one-time pass” to use in case they need to leave the bedroom to go to the bathroom or just get a reassuring hug can also ease the transition.

Children need to be able to verify that no monster is living under the bed, just waiting to slither out and nab them when they fall asleep. Parents should heck with them, using a flashlight to illuminate every corner.

Providing a soft light can reassure children who are afraid of the dark. This can gradually be made dimmer and, eventually, be discontinued as the child matures. A toy or blanket can also provide some soothing for the nighttime jitters.

Physical problems such as allergies and sleep apnea can also play a part in sleep problems. Parents who suspect a physical problem should check with their pediatrician and may need to test for the presence of specific difficulties. Children diagnosed with ADHD are often more susceptible to sleep problems, which can be helped with judicious treatments.

Young children also test limits that their parents have set. It may be difficult to tell the difference between fears, physical problems and plain old willfulness. That is one of the dilemmas of parenthood. Providing small rewards and praise for a child who remains in his own bed may help to motivate compliance.

Once the parent determines that no other problems are interfering with sleep, it is time to institute sleep training. One popular method is to place the child in bed and sit quietly where the child can see the parent until he falls asleep. The key to this is to avoid talking or looking at the child. After bedtime hugs and kisses, parents should touch the child only to put him back in bed if he gets out.

Above all, parents need to remain calm and patient. Yelling at the child will only make him more fearful and reluctant to go to sleep in a separate bedroom. Overcoming nighttime fears and the child’s determination to test limits will take a good deal of time and patience. The reward is a good night’s sleep for all concerned.

About the Author: Brianna Kelly has over 5 years experience publishing articles on childcare education and parenting. She writes on a regular basis for Giraffe Creches and Montessori Schools, who have 18 locations based in Dublin, Ireland.


This is a guest post from one of our supporters.

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