Bedtimes can be a stressful time for parents and children. Sometimes we have tried to set a sleep schedule or a routine, but for some reason, they haven’t been successful. What should be done in these situations? What is the reason that a sleep schedule may have failed?
A couple different things could be at play. First, don’t be too hard on yourself as a parent. Sleeping and bedtime routines are sometimes difficult and hard to be consistent with. However, schedules and routines can be unsuccessful if they’re not followed consistently. Before you give up on your bedtime routine, check in to make sure that you are providing consistency for your child. Are you starting at a similar time and doing similar steps in the routine in a similar order? If not, try to reset and do something that works for you and your family that you can be consistent with.
What If I’m Following All the Steps and It’s Still Not Working?
Even if all of these factors are in place, sometimes we need some additional help to be successful. The first thing we can do in these situations is offer additional positive reinforcement (Walker and Buckely, 1968). Positive reinforcement is when a behavior is followed immediately by something preferred which will increase that behavior in the future (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). The preferred item should be something your child enjoys, so it will be different for everyone. It could be reading a certain book, singing a song, a high five, or a favorite toy. Since this is a bedtime routine, you don’t want to introduce anything highly stimulating such as a tablet or TV time. It’s best to keep it related to the bedtime process and something that can be done in their bedroom.
When offering additional reinforcement, you want to first decide what you will be giving as a reinforcer and how often. If the bedtime routine is 10 steps (brush teeth, wash face, change into pajamas, etc.), will a reinforcer be offered after each step or only once the routine is completed? The answer to this will be based on what piece of the routine your child is having difficulty with. If brushing teeth always causes an argument and therefore disrupts the success of the bedtime routine, then a reinforcer should be offered for brushing teeth nicely. If there is resistance to every step of the nighttime routine, then each step may need to be individually reinforced. If it’s the last step, getting into bed, that is unsuccessful, then maybe the reinforcer needs to be related to the last step. For example, if they nicely get into their bed, you can read their favorite book, sing their favorite nighttime lullaby, or sit with them for an extra five minutes after you tuck them in.
If staying in bed is the problem, a reinforcer for the morning may help. For example, if they stay in their bedroom throughout the night, they can earn an extra treat with breakfast or watch their favorite TV show in the morning. For kids who get out of bed multiple times before falling asleep, staying in their room throughout the night may be too difficult to start with. When providing reinforcement, we want to make sure our kids are successful and contact the reinforcement so their behavior will start to improve. For these instances, if your child gets out of bed on average 4 times before fall asleep, you could set the goal at only getting out of bed 3 times. Once they are consistently getting up only 3 times, you could bring it down to 2 times and then to 1 time and then to none.
Hang in There!
Sleep schedules and routines can be very difficult. If your child is having difficulty sleeping, you most likely are having trouble sleeping, too. Be patient with your child and with yourself, try to stay consistent, and offer reinforcement throughout the schedule. For more information on kids who wake up frequently overnight, stay tuned for the final installment of our sleep series – when it’s hard to stay asleep. You can also sign up for our sleep workshop here.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis.
Walker, H. M. & Buckley, N. K. (1968). The Use of Positive Reinforcement in Conditional Attending Behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(3), 245-250. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1968.1-245
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