Toddler bedtime hell: Uh-oh for the summer nights

It’s happening again, the same as last year. We thought we’d sussed it, and now it’s back: Bedtime hell. And I can’t believe it, I thought we’d learned some tricks. You have these battles too? What can you do about it? 

Parent yells at wakeful child

Go to sleep! Calm down! Just relax and drift off! Aaagh! Laura Lloyd 2015

After a four-month stint of bedtime hell last year, I thought we’d got ourselves onto a great pathway, and now I’m parentally discombobulated, stressed and trying frantically to problemsolve something it feels only a very advanced child psychologist could help with.

That’s what I wrote last week. And you know what? Everything is better already. 

Not perfect, and my 3-and-half-year-old’s bedtime seems to only happen at ten to ten every night, but – hey ho. You know. It’s loving again. Less shouting. Less tearing of hair out. Less dangling of the sweetie jar over the lavatory shouting menacing things about flushing away treats.

And that’s always how it is with any parenting challenge: you think it’s gonna last for ever, and you wrack your brains for solutions (I offer some concrete ones below), but in the end, all you really have to do is keep calm (Calm!? I’m very frickin’ calm! I’m a calamity!) and wait it out.

Did you get a big whiff of drama on my part?

Yeah, I know. One week ago I was getting all catastrophic and up in the air. And that’s part of it: drama is all rather exciting/dreadful. It dominates the brain and heartsease. And that’s exactly what’s so rewarding for a kid about a big, bad reaction.

Ach. Yuck.

If I don’t react, I’m left with my blood pumping; and if I do lose my temper, I’ve failed and invited the whole situation to repeat itself. The only thing is not to rely on my cool when the situation comes, but to become a strategist – but what strategy do we need?

When I’m in bedtime battle mode, this is how I feel:-

I wake in the morning full of anxiety – all I want is the day to be over so I will know if bedtime has been completed or not. Peacefully, or not – I just want the hurdle done.

I feel constantly irritated, provoked, as if my blood is still boiling from the evening before and I can’t cool it down to its base level. I feel on the edge of endurance; that the animal in me has been aggravated and wants to drag me, despite my better self, towards violence. I feel as if I could slam doors and hurl crockery. Yagh! (Don’t call social services. I don’t think I’m actually going to be violent – I just about trust myself on that – so much as I feel the urge to it throbbing within me and it sickens me about myself).

Big feelings, on both sides

I feel myself a child too: rejected, unloved, insecure, guilty, a bad mother.

That’s partly because rejection plays an explicit part of the whole game actually – it all started last year with refusals to kiss us goodnight, as I remember. Sometimes one parent gets spurned in favour of the other. It hurts. Suddenly all the great times in the day get forgotten and there’s total insecurity – does my child love me?

My own memories of bedtimes, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or later Lord of the Rings read aloud by my parents with hundreds of different accents, were magical. Bedtimes were my safest space, my heaven, love and intimacy and contentment in warm blankets and snuggly toys and being watched over.

That’s how it should be! But when it’s a fight, I feel unsure my toddler knows I love her and I feel that there is some perversity at work: that she wants to elicit wrath or hatred to prove an unlove she fantasises. I feel insane.

I fake it, trying to make it with my little girl

But it’s day now, right? So I pretend to be OK, and I do as many positive things as we can: I spend quality, 1:1 time with her; I gently impose boundaries during the day when necessary; I praise the hell out of her for all that she does in the day that’s exuberant, imaginative, caring, creative – which is easy, as it happens, since she’s mostly a gem in her daily life. So another lovely day ends.

Here it comes. The same lovely, loving bedtime routine we’ve alway had – bath together with chat and toys, teeth, PJs, two stories lovingly snuggled up together on the bed read with a headtorch, and then…

Hey!

…in the bit where we normally lie together on her bed until she finds her way to slip away, it all goes wrong.

She kicks the wall, shouts, waves her feet in the air. Once or twice – thankfully only for a night or two then it passed, she bit us, once she spat at us (I think some other kids were into that at her nursery at the time), once she kicked up so wildly from the bed she booted me in the face. Since I’m pregnant right now, all that kicking feels pretty precarious too.

Eventually either the adult or the child can no longer cope with the confines of the bed and darkened bedroom and one of us gets up from the bed, and the drama moves to the hallway with grinning refusals on her part and us trying to keep our tempers, if they haven’t been lost already.

It’s a full-on power struggle then: “I won’t go to bed, and you can’t make me”.

What happens next can go one of two ways. 

  1. A saving grace: Occasionally we resolve it when we impose a ‘quiet time’ and she acquiesces (2 minutes of soft, adult accompanied, cuddly-toy-enhanced, totally silent time out). This almost invariably calms us both, and then in a resettled mood we re-enter the bedroom and lie down together and 45 minutes and plenty more wallkicking later sleep has happened. Another kind of resolution occurs at random when she accidentally hits a doorpost in her flailing to hit us, or headbuts the bed whilst caterpillar-kicking upwards, or somesuch minor injury that makes her cry, and then she’s ready to go to bed and accept solace and give it up. (I’d be pretending to be a holier human than I really am if I said I hadn’t occasionally hoped that such an accident would befall her just to draw a line under the antics – I write that only so you know how desperate it can get).
  2. A runaway train: But if these accidents/twists of fate and fortune don’t occur, then we have an ever-escalating situation on our hands, a runaway train: for example, ever more grinning refusals and provocations (more hitting and kicking for example), but we are at a loss to put in boundaries.

Why not just impose boundaries and consequences?

It’s bedtime. Normal rules don’t apply. It’s not a good moment to escalate things further to a Time Out, as we might in the day over a serious breach. That would just be taking her from her bed and injecting a load more punishment and adrenaline. Plus, we don’t have our Time Out technique nailed in all honesty, so it would involve huge, probably vigorously physical, resistance, and then everything gets messy and regrettable.

What do you do when your child is unstoppably provocative?

This is what we do, when we’re at a loss.

If we stay calm, we parents openly sit around wondering how to unstalemate it; threats are made to move the bed to another room (this would be counterproductive since the kids’ bedroom has total blackout).

Sometimes, we make things worse by threatening and imposing sanctions are for the following day: “You’ve lost your cartoon time”, and then offered back for good behaviour (but threatened sanctions are often perceived as part of the game, where she’ll also test whether they are going to be followed through, leading her to lose a whole domino-rally of ever-more-tragically-ditched pleasures that we then have to dismally see through the next day).

Sometimes – and I’m aware that this is absolutely why we’re stuck with the behaviour – I’ve lost my rag, escalated the situation into a child-satisfying level of drama, yelled myself hoarse, openly cried real melodramatic anguished tears in front of her, or tried to manhandle her into her bed like a bouncer evicting an unruly drunk (that overpowering is a form of I’m-bigger-than-you violence, I’m under no illusions).

There’s a big payoff for bad behaviour

And this clearly can’t be overstated: her smiling face shows that she finds the attention level, albeit negative, thrillingly satisfying to have engineered.

The circumstances are similar to last year: a perfect storm of:

  • a new baby’s imminent arrival (well, last year our now one-year-old had already arrived, and this year there’s anticipation of another in a few months)
  • a change to the sleeping room  (last year she went from cot to big girls’ bed; this time she’s moved in with her sister into a huge shared playroom
  • long summer nights with light outside
  • hot summer nights

Is this just toddler testing or an emotional workout of some kind?

When it’s happening it seems far removed from the real underlying issues. But I can guess at them. Those worries about roles and new siblings: Where do I fit into it all? Can I please monopolise the attention like the new baby does/will? Am I separated from you now, forgotten about, are you going onwards without me? Have you got any parenting left for me, I can’t do everything on my own yet? Are you, parents expecting a new baby, about to shut the door on me?

But remember, this was last week.

And you know what? It’s come and gone. It came back with a force after I yelled. It was worse after a transition – the ‘welcome home’ night from a nursery-school trip away was really fierce, for example. And I’m a dope, and it’s a salutory reminder of one of life’s key lessons:

Things ebb and flow: they just do. 

Kids’ development comes and goes, forward and a bit back, experimentation and revisiting.

But what about us? We’re in bedtime battle hell and it’s been going on for weeks! What should we do?

In case you’re in the middle of the maelstrom, or in case I am again and I need to remind myself, here are some of the things that we tried. You’ll probably think we’re harsh, or insane, or obviously misguided for trying some of these things (no, we never did tie her to her bed). You might laugh out loud at the absurdity of some of them. But I’m sharing them because, well, parents get desperate when they run out of strategies. And that desperation needs consoling and calming as much as your child’s behaviour:

Last year we tried the following strategies: 

  • Losing it. (As discussed above, seeing mum and dad go Ape is, in a ghastly way, a great big “goody” for a little kid. They feel powerful, I think, and find that exhilarating and a bit scary. Plus we all love a good drama… and drama needs catharsis… so this is one-way street to tears and regret).
  • Ignoring her while she wandered round the house till about 11pm (really taxing for us, and she loved the gaminess of this, and tested it and provoked it. We kept it up for at least a week – I think if it was going to wear off, it would have)
  • Repeatedly leading her back to her room by the hand, a kind of attempt at calm repetition (the principle of this was OK, but it was really hard to maintain calm. Her stamina was wayyyy better than ours – she could do this for two hours, we would wear thin. It wasn’t nice policing the door and ‘the door’ became a game too, and sometimes she’d have an accident as it opened and she stood mischievously sneaked up behind it. Sometimes she’d resist being led back to bed – and what do you do then? Use more force?)
  • Picking her up and carrying her to bed (She HATED this. It was overpowering to her. For her, it sparked violent kicking while she was being carried, so she interpreted as a violent imposition of force).
  • Sanctions like “your bike goes in the cellar for a week”. (She’d get upset at the time, and angry on the spot, and her own emotion would escalate, but she was a bit young for this kind of consequential thinking and couldn’t really connect between tomorrow and right now, and the urge to test the verity of the threat was far greater than her ability to imagine the pain of tomorrow’s confiscation…)
  • Buying a sun/moon gro-clock to indicate night and day to her visually – (but this is more effective for preventing early wakeups than making bedtime happen)
  • Not bothering with bedtime and just letting her goof around (but even when we tried to go to bed, she was still trying to play her I-refuse-bedtime game, since we had a newborn in the house so we were really aching for sleep at 9pm. Plus, I fundamentally disagree with this strategy because I’m an uptight lady who likes a (flexible) routine: I just don’t believe that 3-year-olds should fall asleep on the sofa habitually at 11, though if you’re able to enjoy your evening alongside your tired kid then good for you – and we’d have to pay the price for a cranky child the next day.)

You wanna know what worked?

Yo. Essentially, what worked wasn’t anything we planned, it was just a surprise: we went on a camping holiday for 2 weeks, let bedtime be whatever time it fell, and our daughter slept in a tent for two weeks with my husband. I think the fact she had a parent all to herself at bedtime was pretty key. An exciting adventure bedtime experience coupled with exhausting holiday daytimes… and then when we got back, we kept a few things, like reading with the torch, and lying beside her. So:

  • New blackout blinds (helped a bit)
  • Totally different routine: taking her on a camping trip
  • No longer expecting her to do it alone: lying down with her, which is a rod for our own back, and yet, kind of meditative, and the lesser of evils
  • Leaving the door open an inch so she wouldn’t feel separated or sidelined, and telling her openly she was not forgotten
  • Plus I did a Triple P positive parenting course, which helped a lot in the daytimes too, to ensure she’d had plenty of attention and was tanked up on daytime love and secure boundaries.
  • On a less positive note, when we were back from our trip we imposed the one effective sanction on a couple of occasions that she had to sleep in her old cot bed if she was very disruptive around bedtime. She really hated that, and so did we because it felt like imprisoning her behind cot bars, but the unpleasantness did hold some sway.

Other than that, she grew up a bit

Who knows if any of what we did solved it, or if she solved it? Maybe it would have run its course. Maybe once the evenings drew in again it’d be happy days, or nights rather.

I think we should share, and be compassionate

When I was looking for solutions, I found none. There were lots of forums where people semi-reassuringly, semi-horrifyingly referred to their kids as becoming “little sh*ts” at bedtime. But that feels unloving.

If you’re a parent having bedtime battle hell, here’s some love:

They’re not little shits. They are a child trying to learn a skill, without any idea how. And crazy for your attention.

And you’re not a big shit. You’re a parent at the limit of your endurance, a person who has run out of strategies, and needs a few more up their sleeve. And you need the knowledge that it’ll all even out, given time.