Kids Health Info

Bedtime problems (Preschool)

  • Many parents have problems getting their children to bed, especially with preschool and school-age children. Many children will use excuses to avoid going to bed such as "I need to go to the toilet", "I need a drink", "I just need to tell you something". This can often delay the sleep time significantly. It is important that parents decide on and stick to clear rules about a bedtime routine. Parents must stick to these rules all the time. It is also important to praise and reinforce good behaviour.   

    What can parents do?

    1: Be clear about what your child needs

    What a child wants is not always what they need. Although some children want to stay up and have difficulty getting to sleep, this does not mean that they do not need sleep. As the parent, you need to decide and be clear on what is reasonable bedtime behaviour and what changes you expect. Once this is decided, it is easier to stick to the set limits. Limit-setting often benefits the child in more ways than just improving sleep, as they feel secure and contained. 

    2: Rules

    • Explain the new rules to your child during the day. Don't leave it to tell them for the first time when they're stalling at bedtime. You do not need to go into a lengthy discussion. 
    • Remember this is not punishment so try to engage the child. It will help if your child knows what to expect. 
    • Expect some resistance. Your child probably doesn't want to change, so things may get worse before they get better. 
    • Be consistent.

    3: Children need a consistent bedtime routine

    • Have a predictable, enjoyable routine with calm activities such as a bath or a set number of stories.
    • Avoid stimulating activities. Stimulating activities include watching TV, running around and computer games.
    • Have a set bedtime that has already been explained in the rules. 
    • Try not to start negotiating with the child at bedtime. Do not enter a battle with the child if they protest. Calmly remind them of the new rules and continue.  Remember, this is what they need.
    • Put your child to bed and leave the room while they are still awake.

    4: What then?

    If your child calls out:

    • Calmly tell your child it's time to sleep.
    • Do not enter into a discussion. 
    • If they get upset, return to reassure them but be brief and limit what you say. 
    • Be 'boring'.

    If your child comes out of their room:

    • Calmly return your child to bed. 
    • Remember this is not punishment, but be firm. 
    • For some children, any attention (even Mum screaming) is better than sleep, so limit what you say.  Be repetitive and boring and do not enter into a discussion. 
    • If your child stays in bed, praise them. 
    • If they get out of bed again, return them to bed again. 

    Be consistent

    • Behaviour change can be challenging and it may take some time before you see improvement. 
    • Be consistent and stick to your routine.

    5. Reinforcement

    Rewards are an important part of any behaviour change, in both children and in adults.

    • Preschool age children respond well to stickers.
    • The idea is to focus on success, not on failure.
    • Give the reinforcement immediately. 
    • Children who are very resistant will need praise or a sticker at the beginning of the bedtime routine. For example, for putting on their pyjamas. 
    • Reward the child first thing in the morning for the night before. 
    • Remember, focus on the successes.

    Key points to remember

    • Bedtime problems are common.
    • Consistent routines are important.
    • Positive reinforcement (praise, rewards) is necessary for behaviour change.

    For more information

    • RCH Centre for Community Child Health
      To book an outpatient appointment please call (03) 9345 5466 - Sleep Clinic.
      Please note, this is not an advice line.  
    • Monash Medical Centre
      Enquiries tel : (03) 9594 5656
    • Melbourne Children's Sleep Centre

    Melbourne Children's Sleep Centre logo

    Produced in consultation with the Melbourne Children's Sleep Unit, Royal Children's Hospital (RCH). Many thanks to the parents who helped with this factsheet. First published 2005. Updated November 2010.

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This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.