Bedtime Routines for Preschoolers

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Conflicts with spouse about 3-y-o's bedtime routine

April 2007

My husband and I are struggling with how to handle our 3.5 year old son's bedtime routine. I'd like him to be in bed, lights our by 8:00 PM and I have a simple routine of books, pajamas, teeth brushed, and rocking with music that takes about 30 minutes. When my husband isn't home, this is what I've done and it's worked pretty well. Upstairs at 7:30, lights out at 8:00PM. On weekends, my husband is home and he has different ideas. He takes up to an hour for bedtime reading many more books, giving in to requests for ''one more...'' and usually starts putting him to bed at 8:00 so he's really not done untill 9:00PM. On occasion, my husband will be home early enough to put him to bed on weeknights and here lies the problem. Because we do things differently, my son has come to prefer having his dad put him to bed (and I can't blame him, he gets everything he wants and gets to stay up an hour later) and he is fighting me to stay up until his dad comes home so that he can have Dad put him to bed. What's worse is, his dad will often tell him that he's going to ''try to get home in time'' to put him to bed, but often doesn't so my son cries and whines refusing to let me put him to bed. We have two children, the babys routine, thankfully is quite simple. But I am exhausted by the end of the day (I also work) and want both children in bed by 8:00 PM so that I can have some much needed quiet time. I've asked my husband to stick to the same routine that I do at the same time, he says he will, but then just does it his way. He says I'm too rigid, but I think he really just enjoys knowing his son prefers him. Short of just giving up and letting dad put him to bed, at whatever hour, what can I do? I've been quite sad about this, each night my son whines on and on about wanting Dad on weeknights when I'm not sure when dad will be home, but I'm ready to call it a night. The hours between 6-8 are horrible. I feel so defeated and unnapreciated. frustrated

The problem with these sorts of conflicts with a preschooler is that it quickly turns into a power struggle and the preschooler has a lot more energy and will power to win! Nip the problem in the bud and just don't fight him. Let your husband put him to bed. Either your husband will get sick and tired of the inevitably longer and longer process and will switch to a routine similar to yours, or you all will find yourself with this new routine that takes one more responsibility off of you.

Also, it sounds like you are on the verge of taking it personally, having your feelings hurt by your kid's reaction. Remember that he's just a little kid and wants to have more say in his life. Its not personal. He loves you just the same. Jenny

i have a similar situation though my son is younger and i think my husband will go for the argument that DS will sleep better (fewer wakings in the night, will feel more rested in the morning) if he goes to bed by 7:30. could you use that argument with your husband?

It sounds to me like you need to get strong and lay down the rules for both your son AND your husband. Unless your husband is willing to come home early and help out or simply take over, he has no right to question how you do things or undermine your parenting. And it is very unfare of him to tell his son that he will try to come home early and put him to bed and then he doesn't show up. That's totally NOT FARE to you or your son. Not only does it undermine you, but it is hurting your son. Your son is filled with hope and anticipation that his father will come home soon and put him to bed. What does this do to him everytime his father doesn't show up? What kind of message is he sending to his son? It shouldn't be up to you to fulfil that hope and keep him awake. It is the responsibility of your husband to fulfil his promis and to not mislead his son or give him false hope. You also need to tell him that it is exhausting for you to have to battle with the bedtime routine. Your husband needs to understand how important it is for children to get plenty of sleep and how improtant it is for a routine, and especially how important it is for you to get both children in bed at the same time at 8PM SO THAT YOU CAN REST! Does your husband really need to work late? If so, then he needs to understand that you are having to work extra hard after you come home from work taking care of the kids and putting them to bed. If he feels like he needs to connect with his son and spend quality time, then he needs to come up with a better plan that doesn't cause stress for you or interferes with your routine with the children. He needs to either come home early and put his son to bed by 8PM, or he needs to wait until the weekend and spend the whole day with his son and still put him to bed by 8PM. If he wants to read him a lot of stories, he can do that during the day. Laurey

I swear, when I was reading your post, I was thinking, ''Did I write a post to BPN and forget?'' I have your EXACT problem! I am sure my friends will think I wrote it - except I don't have a job. I have no advice, my husband and I even went to therapy for 6 months over this exact issue, and...nothing changed. Except we ran out of money, with the cost of therapy and babysitting. All I can say is, if you want an understanding ear, e-mail me. I have stopped talking about it with my other mommy friends because I think I am becoming annoying. But the therapist we saw was terrific, her name is Claire Stone and she has a website - you can google her. You may have better luck than us. Another frustrated mommy/wife

Good job getting the kids in the routine! If it were me, I'd offer my husband a couple of options, and explain how difficult it is to essentially be a single parent most nights of the week.

1. If you want to come home earlier and start the routine earlier so they're still in bed by 8, then great.

2. If you are dealing with the kids all the time and you want to do it your way, then great.

3. Since I have to deal with the aftermath of the routine when it's messed up, if you can't come home earlier/get the kids up and out in the morning, etc., then you have to get the kids in bed by 8 or let me do it. Period. This is a problem. I envy you being so organized as to get something done in the evening, and it is hard when you're a ''single parent.'' You can also try telling your husband that it's great that your son wants him to do the routine, but it needs to be a routine that works for both of you. Kindly but firmly, if you can, you need to educate your husband.

How about making the rule that it's your schedule during the week and his during the weekend? That's a simple enough rule for your 3.5 year old to understand. That'll give you ''your time'' during the week when you REALLY need it. And then (hopefully) your husband helps out on the weekends so that 9 p.m. is not as exhausting as it would be during the week for you.

On the bright side, it's nice that your husband wants to see your kids at the end of the day. There are families where the children go to bed by 7:30 or earlier, with parents who come home home regularly after the kids' bedtimes. Anon

I think that you should be way too exhausted to have sex if your son doesn't get to bed until 9. But if your son gets to bed at 8, you are raring to go. Try that and see if your husband figures out what's in his best interest. Mine did. Consequences work with everyone

My main thought was that I wondered whether it would be possible to make a permanent shift in your son's bedtime to 9 pm, while also trying to get him to get up an hour later. Could your entire routine be shifted throughout the day so that lunch is an hour later, etc. and the baby's naptimes too?

I was thinking if everything could be shifted an hour later, then your son and his father would have more time together during the week, which may be what this is all about. It's great that your son's dad really wants to spend time with him after work and put him to bed. I'm sure your son is yearning for that time to connect with his dad. My son, who is 2, has a really hard time if he doesn't get to spend at least an hour with his dad each day. Your son may be feeling the same thing. My husband too has an awful work schedule, but I try to shift bedtimes/dinner times a bit each day to make it more likely that they'll be able to see each other. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it's really great for both of them to have that time to connect. Best of luck, Laurel

Yes you do need time to unwind at the end of a long day and 9:00 pm becomes too late for you. May I suggest that, you and your husband agree that he take on the more flexible, longer- lasting, later bed time routine which fits his style on Fridays and Saturdays when you and he do not have the preasures of the work day ahead of you the next day. You can do some relaxing while your husband is doing the bed time routine. During the week however, you take on the bed time earlier routine. If you institute this consistantly, even call it ''weekend go to bed'' and ''weektime go to bed'' to clearly distinguish the difference and give your son no options in the matter, he will adjust to the routine, but it must be a routine. This way you all get at least some of what you want. Good luck! Keley

Getting two kids, 3 and 5, brushed, pj'd, and into bed

Sept 2004

HI, I have a 3 and 5 year old, and struggling with ways to get them to brush their teeth, put on pajama's , and stay in bed. any fun suggestions/tips? anything? thank you so much. lorrie

We use a timer and race to get everything done. It works like a charm. I usually set it for about 10 minutes and then dramatically and frantically try to beat the clock with lots of cheering when we do. As far as staying in bed, I used a chart. The got a smiley face for every night they stayed in bed and a frownie face if they got out of bed. The smiley face was accompanied with lots of high fives and ''You did its!'' I highly recommend the book ''How to Behave So Your Children Will Too'' for more tips. Helena

Have you tried a bedtime chart, made with their help, that shows each task to be done before bed? Kids seem to get a kick out of ''checking off'' each step. And regarding staying in bed, we tried something that sounded too simple to be true, but it worked. Each time our son got out of bed, I would kindly and gently but wordlessly lead him back to bed and tuck him in. Since I'm not speaking, there's no way to get wrapped up in the game to see how long he can keep me there. And seriously: 2 nights and he was done getting out of bed. Good luck. DL

I actually just accidentally discovered a so-far quite effective way of keeping my 4 yr old and 2 yr old in bed after lights-out. I put on a CD or story tape at low-volume and let them listen to it until they fall asleep. The 4 yr old in particular doesn't want to miss any of it, so she stays in bed, and they always are asleep before it finishes. anon

3-yr-old adding food to bedtime ritual

February 2003

Our spirited 3.5 yr old boy has started a new series of bed time issues. The worst of which is he wants to eat again b/c he's hungry!

We serve him dinner around 6-6:30PM. Usually he eats well. If he fools around, and doesn't eat that much we remind him that we won't feed him later, dinner is the time to eat. Then he takes a bath, reads books/plays and then we get him in bed by 7:45- 8:15PM. He then rolls around, sings, talks to himself etc. and hollers, ''Mommy, I'm hungry, I want more food''. If the darn kid would just close his eyes and go to sleep, then he wouldn't be hungry again!

So far, we've fed him every time, but we're angry and resentful about it(not good). Has anyone else encountered this hunger situation? I don't want to feed him again b/c I'm being set up for a nightly ritual which I might not be able to control/want. It also re-starts the whole night time process, when he eats again, brush teeth, calms down and it's almost 9:30/10:00 PM! Also, we live in a small house, so when our boy screams hunger he wakes up the baby, and we are faced with putting both back to sleep.

How do I stop this manipulative behavior FAST? MBM

BE STRONG!! It really sounds to me like your kid is just trying to prolong his bedtime and he knows what button to push with you -- the ''I'm hungry'' one. Tell him in advance that there will be NO more bedtime snacks/meals. The thing you should know is that by this time (after a few days of eating at 8:30 pm), his tummy is getting used to eating at that time of day... so by this point, his blood sugar is probably dropping a bit at that time and he really and truly is feeling hungry. However, he does not actually need food (you did feed him dinner!) and after a few days of not eating at bedtime, he'll be back to not actually being hungry... though he might play that ''I'm hungry'' card again, so I repeat: BE STONG! :)

I have this issue sometimes. My brother in law is staying with us and a few weeks ago, as my 3.5 y.o. daughter was upstairs calling, I'm hungry'' I was asking him about this, is this manipulative behavior, etc. She is my first born and he said, ''you know, who knows. When your second gets to be her age, you may be able to say, hey, she is still a baby. She doesn't have the same control, and perhaps she is not old enough to eat when she is supposed to. So maybe with the second you will simply give her a little cream cheese sandwich and brush her teeth extra good in the a.m.'' We went on to discuss how with the first born you expect them to be older in some ways, forgetting really, how young they still are in the scope of things. Well, I was really touched by this conversation. Since then I have made less of a big deal over this and oddly, since I huff and puff less when she asks, she has almost stopped doing it. sign me- letting go a bit

We had a little trouble with this with our almost-3-yr-old. I think it started because she truly was hungry after not eating well at dinner. So as you did, i focused more on making sure she ate well. If she still didn't, I offered a snack before bed -- things that seemed filling: bananas, graham crackers, milk. If she started asking to eat, but i knew she had eaten well, I told her no, that she could have a bottle of milk, but that was it. If she didn't drink it, I told her she must not be hungry. The antics seem to have stopped (knock on wood.) Good luck.(PS: my feeling is, if they occasionally don't brush their teeth before bed, it's not the end of the world.) mary

''How do I stop this manipulative behavior FAST?''

Stop giving in to it! You recognize it as manipulative. He's just found a button of yours that works when he pushes it. You can't stand the thought of sending him to bed hungry, yet you recognize both that dinner is the time to eat, and that he does eat at dinner.

With my son it was the two, three and four drinks of water after bedtime (complete with plaintive yells, ''but I'm THIRSSSSTY!'') until finally I said, ''One drink after toothbrushing'' and no more. Now he never asks and rarely drinks even his one drink. virginia

I suspect you'll get lots of ideas on general bedtime routine stuff, but we, too, had the ''hunger'' excuse. What worked for us (most of the time) was to not challenge whether he was really hungry or not, but to start bed-time a little earlier, with the first item (before toothbrush, story, etc) being ''do you need anything else to eat or drink before you go to bed?''. This way, you are giving him the opportunity to meet his needs (as HE sees them), without having to argue about whether he could actually be hungry after such a good dinner, etc. Of course, it is up to you to decide what healthy foods to offer. Now I can't guarantee he won't come up with another stall, but this should take care of the hunger/thirst excuse (or need). R.K.

hi--i don't have a way out for you, but i can tell you that our daughter started the same thing at about 3.5. she now always wants a bedtime snack, whether or not she ate a lot of food at dinner. instead of fighting it, we've given in somewhat gracefully. we brush and floss right before bed and then she has a choice between apples, cheese, nuts, and occasionally baby carrots... the thing is, she goes through growth spurts at unpredicatable times these days, and we figure that if she is really hungry at bedtime, she should eat (and she does!). she eats in bed (ugh, i know) as we read bedtime stories, and has to finish before the stories are up, so she doesn't sit there eating to procrastinate against sleep... so my advice would be to give in, make a few guidelines that make you comfortable, and then make sure the snack choices are at least super-healthy! anon

I am still pregnant with our second child and so cannot comment on the possible issue of sibling rivalry. However, I can speak to the experience of a 3.5 year old wanting a post-dinner meal, but only after having skipped dinner. My 3.5 year old daughter has, on occasion, COMPLETELY skipped her dinner meal, either because she simply wasn't hungry or was too busy playing. Our general rule of thumb is that she is invited to eat with us at the table until we are done eating. Since dinner is just as much a social event as it is a fortifying one, she is made to play by herself until mom and dad are done eating. Being the attention monger that she is, this rule usually lures her back to the table to take a few (more) bites.

We pretty consistently offer a variety of foods in an attempt to avoid a wholesale rejection of the meal, including NUTRITIOUS sides that we know for a fact that she enjoys, such as garbanzo beans, apples, oranges, and cheese. Although we do not include these extras on our own dinner plate, it takes all of two or three minutes to prepare. Right or wrong, no matter how well or how little she eats at dinner time, we always offer her the choice of dessert, even if it's the same apple she refused to eat at dinnertime.

On the few occasions in which she has asked for yet another meal after already tossing in bed for awhile, we regretfully inform her of two things: (1) that the next meal is breakfast, and (2) that it is our job as parents to make sure she eats nutritiously and on a healthy schedule. Of course, this meets with resistance, but consistency on our part has convinced her that a post-dinner meal will simply not be a part of her routine. It sounds from your message that even though you have reminded your son that another meal is not forthcoming, his ''antics'' have unfortunately been rewarded with, ahh, another meal. As *mean* as you feel and as unhappy as your son gets when you refuse him this last supper, my guess is that after a week or two of really holding your ground, this issue will be resolved. This message assumes that your son eats enough good foods to reasonably tide him over until breakfast. Good luck, and happy dining! planetgrrl

My 3.5 year old is very similar to yours. I think our son's requests for food are probably a stall tactic so we try to offer healthy bedtime snacks prior to brushing. Then he is read to, sung to etc. for about a half hour before we leave his room. Any requests after that are turned-down, and he knows that we mean business and that he must stay in bed and read to himself. We haven't encountered nightime wake-ups requesting food, but if I did I would probably offer him bread or crackers with water to fill his stomach and not leave lots of sugary residue on his teeth. Maybe your dentist could recommend something else? Courtney

My daughter used to do the same thing. I suspected it was simply an excuse to stay awake a while longer and get my attention. However, just in case she was hungry, I gave her food---raw broccoli, carrots or green beens. It was great because often she would eat them--- which gave her a taste for raw veggies, and when she actually wasn't hungry she would not.

Once she realized that at bed time only vegitables and water could be eaten--- I told her it was bad for her teeth to eat anything else--- she eventually stopped asking for food.

Now I make sure to take her to the bathroom and give her water before taking her to bed, in order to get rid of any other excuses to stay up later.

Good luck! MB

My son, and then my daughter, did the same. What I found was that they actually WERE hungry, as evidenced by their ability to eat. Having read that cheddar cheese does not contribute to tooth decay, and may actually help remineralize teeth, we made a new rule: when the children are in bed, and have been lying quietly for ten minutes, one of us will bring them some cheddar cheese. Sometimes, when they are really hungry, they specify, ''several, big pieces,'' other times it's just a symbolic scrap. I won't say this has solved all our bedtime problems, but it has certainly helped a great deal. sign me ''It's the cheese!''

Thus far he probably doesn't believe you when you say, at dinner, that you won't feed him later, because you always do. Perhaps you could offer him a small snack (e.g. crackers and a glass of milk) right before you brush his teeth the first time, If he eats, he's had a snack and is not hungry; if he doesn't eat, he wasn't hungry in the first place. Either way, when he yells out later that he's hungry, you can tell him that no, you will not feed him, and then stick to your guns with a clear conscience. It will probably require ignoring him while he yells for a few nights, but if you are consistent, he will probably get over it pretty quickly. anonymous

How to stop this behavior, which may or may not be ''manipulative''? How about a later dinnertime? Or a post- dinner snack *before* he brushes his teeth? Does he have access to water by his bedside? (A sport bottle of water next to the bed has been helpful for a great many of my mommy friends. Of course, it can become a potty training problem, but it does help with those late night pleas for drink or food.)

I suspect we've all been in the position of muttering through our teeth, ''why won't you just go to SLEEP ALREADY!?'' but as I'm sure you know this isn't very productive. Clearly something about your evening routine isn't working for your son, and what he seems to want now isn't working for you, so work on finding some middle ground. Incidentally, if he's well-rested on the nights he doesn't get to sleep until 10 p.m., maybe you could aim for a somewhat later bedtime as well -- not as late as 10, but not as early as 8. Holly

You stop this behavior by not giving in to it. If he says he's hungry, you tell him breakfast is in about 9 (or whatever) hours. Being hungry for a few hours won't hurt him, but the manipulation and angry feelings it arouses will hurt your relationship. My younger (also spirited) daughter also takes a long time to wind down in the evening after I've put her to bed, but I've taught her that if she gets hungry she just has to wait until breakfast. She can come out to get a drink of water, which she can do by herself without disturbing the rest of the family, and that sometimes helps her feel not quite so empty. Of course if she drinks too much water then she has to go to the bathroom again ... but she can also do that by herself. These spirited kids (active, intense) can have a real hard time letting go of the rest of the world at the end of the day, but I firmly believe they need to learn how, and parents can be a big help by setting a firm bedtime & having firm bedtime rules. Melinda

Your child is more advanced than mine is - mine didn't start pulling this until he was about 3 1/2. We have the same dinner schedule and he was doing the SAME thing, except wailing plaintively ''I'm hungry.'' I felt like Oliver Twist's mother (if that makes sense.) My solution is to tell him he can have a slice of bread and some milk or water, sitting in bed. I figure if he's really hungry he will chow down on that. So far what he's done is taken a bite or two and a swallow of water and that's that. Since I stopped fixing him turkey sandwiches at 8:30 he's eating a better breakfast, too. Fran

Before thinking about how to solve this problem, I would encourage you to try to connect with your son around what may be the underlying cause of his behavior. I'd worry that finding a solution without understanding the problem would not meet either of your needs!

I'm concerned about thinking of his behavior as manipulation, because I know I get angry any time I think someone is manipulating me! I'd rather think of what's going on without getting angry, so I'd try to look for his feelings and needs. Is he still alert and feeling antsy, and needing more outlet for his energy? Is he anxious because he wants more companionship or attention? Is he scared around sleep and needs some connection and reassurance? Is he excited about life and wanting to express his enthusiasm more? Depending on which it is (and it could be many more), I would try to find a way to connect with him around his need and try to meet it EARLIER, or adjust the bedtime ritual to leave time for connection.

I would also encourage you to pay attention to your own feelings and needs. ''Bed time'' is a strategy which I imagine you set to meet some needs of yours - rest for yourself, sufficient rest for your child so you enjoy your day the next day, time to attend to household activities, time for conneciton with your spouse - and maybe others. You may want to express to your son your frustration with this situation and your need for support around getting these other needs of yours met. I believe children are much more responsive to hearing their parents' (or anyone's) underlying needs than they are to rules and regulartions (which seem to me to be made to be broken).

If you want more information about the connection process I'm talking about here (it's called ''Nonviolent Communication''), you can email me or check our web site at and

I hope all of you get your needs met more to your satisfaciton! Inbal

WOW -- have you been set up, or what?! It is time to sit your child down (before he gets into the bedtime antics, like first thing in the am) and tell him, ''We have a new rule in this house. When we sit down to dinner, it is time to eat. If you choose not to eat, there is no more food for the rest of the night. It is really important that you eat a good dinner so that you are not hungry later, because starting today, there is no food after dinner.'' Then, FOLLOW THROUGH! He is 3 1/2 -- he will not starve, even if he goofs off during dinner and doesn't eat. Before dinner, you remind him again of the rule. When you are brushing his teeth, you remind him again of the rule and TELL HIM that even if he asks, there will be no more food -- it is bedtime. When he gets into bed, he will ask. Walk in once, remind him of the rule, then say, ''It's time to sleep now. If I have to come back, it will be to close the door (or whatever).'' Then FOLLOW THROUGH. He may be indignant and protest for a night or two, but you need to stand firm and NOT give in. He will not starve. This behavior needs to stop so you all get some down time -- he's got you wrapped around his finger! Be strong! Good luck -- Been there, done that!

I'm also the mother of a 3.5 years old and from speaking to friends around with kids the same age, it seems that many kids this age are going into a phase of bedtime/ sleep change. Our daughter who never slept in our bed and always had great nights started to wake up at the most insane times and come to our beds sometimes 3 times a night (I always put her back in her own bed). She also came up with things like wanting light in her room, insist on having the door open and other strange rituals. I give up with what I think is reasonnable (the door slightly open) but stay firm on the others. Regarding your food problem, it seems that he wants to get some control over his daily routine, maybe you can give him something like a small bowl of dry cheerios and a glass of water at around 7h30 telling him it is all he gets for his bedtime snack, then brush his teeth and go on with his bedtime routine so he's in bed by 8pm. Valerie

Videos for 4-year-old before bedtime?

May 2004

I have been thinking of linking the ''prize'' of being able to watch one hour of videos (taped 1/2 hour TV shows) before bedtime 4-5 nights a week with making my child start taking on limited chores. This would involve cleaning up toys at the end of the day, putting back clothes they have literally walked out of, and getting dressed for bed. I worry that she will not do these chores in the future without the carrot at the end of the stick. But I also would like to kickstart regular chores over the summer. Am I going down the wrong track here? I am so tired by her bedtime with all of the nagging, that a little peace would be welcome. I also am asking whether watching shows a half-hour before bedtime has any stimulating consequences. I would be basically switching the time of video-watching from 5- 6pm to 7-8pm (bedtime is 8:30-9:00pm).

Please don't put videos or TV into a bedtime routine. Take the time to read or tell stories to your child. Think about what the TV (including ads) is imprinting, besides it being stimulating. Your child should have quiet time before bed. Get the chores going before your child (or you) are too tired to bother with them. Why give a reward for chores? You're right, because where does the rewarding stop? I'm in the no-TV and no video camp for yound children especially. Read the literature about how TV affects your children and then think again about what rituals you want to establish. Been there

I would recommend against the TV before bedtime because I have found it to be a problem in the past with my four year old. On the rare occasions on the weekends that I let her stay up to watch a movie with me, she tends to get over emotional and over stimulated. It is actually harder (believe it or not) to put her down. I would advise you to get your child accustomed to chapter books instead. We started with Junie B. Jones and then moved to James and the Giant Peach, then came Charlie and the Chocolate factory, Charlotte's Webb, and we are now about to finish Ella Enachanted. It is great, not just for her but for me too, because I look forward to it as much as she does, and I feel proud to be contributing to her love of books. I have also noticed that her attention span is increasing. When we first started it was hard for her to listen to three pages (ave. lenght of a chapter in James and the Giant peach), but now we can read for an hour and she wont want me to stop. The best part of it though is cuddling in bed before her bedtime, I think it calms her down and she gets the attention from me that she needs just before bed. Since we started the chapter books I have noticed it has been easier to get her into bed. Also now I ask her to put on her pajama's brush, her teeth, and get ready for bed before we begin to read, and i remind her that the longer she takes the less time we'll have to read (she sees this as a horrible thing!). I will also ask her to clean up her toys before she takes her bath. So it is: clean up toys, bath, she gets ready for bed (put on pajamas, brush teeth) and then we read. Good luck! loving books!