Care and Feeding

Our Daughter’s Sleep Resistance Is Getting Worse by the Night

Once upon a time, our bedtime ritual was perfect. What went wrong?

A toddler girl has a tantrum against a pink background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by  monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter turns 4 in a few weeks. She is a happy, goofy, bright, wonderful little girl about 95 percent of the time. She has also always been a good sleeper, until a few weeks ago. Our previously solid bedtime routine (bath, pajamas, books, songs and sleep, always at the same time every night) has turned into a Herculean struggle. No matter how tired she is earlier in the evening, she spends the entirety of bedtime revving herself up. She interrupts the stories and songs a thousand times to ask questions and refuses to get under the blankets or put her head on the pillow. After I say goodnight and leave, she comes out of her room multiple times saying she wants milk, or needs a stuffed animal, or isn’t sleepy. I used to leave her room and close the door at 8:30 p.m.; last night, she didn’t stay in bed until nearly 10.

These 90-minute showdowns are tough on my patience. I end up snapping at her and threatening to throw her toys away (which, when I must follow through, causes a tantrum). Now she goes to bed after an hour-plus of unpleasantness, rather than in a nice cloud of love and cuddles. I try to stay calm, but it only seems to enable her; then, I inevitably lose my cool and she gets upset because I’m upset. The same happens with my husband, who does bedtime a couple of nights a week. Does she need a later bedtime? (With our intended schedule, she gets 10-to-11 hours of sleep/night, which I thought was appropriate for her age.) Is it because it’s summer and it’s still light out when she gets in bed? I’m also pregnant; she seems mostly excited about it, but could that be it, too? Is it just a toddler power play? What do we do?

— We’re All So Tired

Dear So Tired,

You are describing classic toddler behavior, but it certainly may be intensified for your daughter, and you, thanks to the changes taking place around her right now. Though you should revise and reimagine the bedtime schedule to account for anything that may not be working, such as waiting for her to request milk instead of making it (or tea) part of the ritual, I think your bigger concern should be finding ways to cope with this and any other kid behaviors that test the limits of you and your husband’s patience.

I’m pretty sure you know that threatening to throw away an almost-4-year-old’s toys because they wouldn’t go to bed is not a good way to inspire sleepiness or submission. This is so much a part of toddlerhood that it would almost be unfair if you weren’t experiencing it. You two have to learn to watch a sleepy kid flail for her “freedom” to remain awake without losing your tempers. What is it that you can do for yourself when you’re feeling tired and don’t have the energy for a polite discourse about the need for rest? Try taking a moment away from your daughter when you’re feeling frustrated to take some calming breaths. Talk to her like a reasonable person, though she may not yet be able to communicate like one. Accept that sometimes, she won’t get as much sleep as you’d planned, and that’s okay.

As far as addressing the actual resistance to sleeping, is she taking in too much sugar before bedtime? Does her room feel comfortable and safe to her? Is she watching TV shows or playing games that are getting her wound up? Do a full assessment of what you’re currently doing before bed and experiment with some changes: a longer story, a later dinner, etc. Start adjusting the lighting and the volume around the house about 30 or 40 minutes before you begin the bedtime ritual—not all at once so as to sound a “BEDTIME” alarm. But do this knowing that things might not get better for quite some time. Wishing you both lots of patience and some good rest for the entire brood sooner than later.