The Magical Evening Routine

If you haven’t experienced it yet, you’ve heard of it…bedtime meltdown. It can range from fussiness to hours long stand-offs that comedian Jim Gaffigan once referred to as a “hostage situation in reverse. I’ll give you anything, if you just go back in there!” Once the situation has devolved into bribes and tears, it may be time to embrace a full evening bedtime routine.

What is a Bedtime Routine?

When you think of a bedtime routine for your child, what do you picture? Brushing teeth, choosing clothes for the next day, and a sweet bedtime story, with a last ditch glass of water request is probably what comes to mind. Done in the same order every night, at the same time, this abbreviated routine, can work for many families. If this hasn’t worked for you, you aren’t alone. To understand why, we need to dig a little deeper into what causes the problem, in the first place.

What Causes Bedtime Meltdowns?

Every child is different, but here is a list of reasons a child may be experiencing bedtime tantrums:

  • Anxiety – they have unresolved stress from the day and going to bed means that they will have to finish dealing with it by themselves. This can cause a ramp up in stress that results in tantruming. Try – for verbal kids, adding a regular “talk it out” session to review the day.

  • Parent escalation – some children cry as a stress reliever. They aren’t even really mad or sad about anything, they just need to get that stress out. This can make a parent really uncomfortable, especially if they are “fixers.” The stress reliever can also manifest as last minute running or an escalation in “fidgety-ness.” If the parent escalates the situation by offering discipline as a solution, that could derail the stress relief and turn it into a tantrum. Try – model calmness and try a calm activity. If the child is walking, a walk around the home to say goodnight to all the rooms (or favorite toys) may disrupt over-activity with a calm activity. If the child is crying, ask about how their body is feeling and if it is feeling better now that they are crying. Remember, your job at bedtime is to DE-escalate.

  • Overtiredness – it seems counterintuitive, but children who are well rested during the day, also sleep better at night. Overscheduling or removing naps too early can cause children to become so tired at night that they are just a hot mess and are incapable of a calm transition to sleep. Try – make sure the child isn’t on the go all day, every day. If a nap has recently been removed and the child doesn’t seem to be adjusting, maybe try adding an abbreviated one back temporarily.

What is a Full Evening Routine?

We as parents sometimes treat sleep as a last resort, choosing to stay up late and play, instead of getting a good night’s sleep. It is no wonder our much less mature children do, too. FOMO (fear of missing out) is one of the biggest reasons children struggle with bedtime. The answer may lie in the term “bedtime routine.” What these children may need is an “evening routine.”

It isn’t a rigid plan to do everything the same way all the time, but a structure to the evening that is familiar and happens in the same order every night. An evening routine starts before dinner. Does the child help or do they have another activity planned? Dinner happens at the same time, and then the same thing happens after that. Is it cuddling up with one of the parents while the other cleans up? Then, perhaps it is bath time.

It doesn’t actually matter what these activities are, but that they are done in the same order every night. Children relax inside of structure (even though they may seem to strain against it.) It gives them security to know what is coming next. If the evening is a bit chaotic and they don’t know what is happening next, they may be surprised at bedtime. But, if one part of the evening flows into the next to the eventual, and expected end, it makes it easier for everyone involved.

What you may find is that your child begins to relax much earlier in the evening. Bedtime becomes a logical conclusion of the day, instead of a battle of wills. Their little bodies and minds understand the day is ending and begin the work of unwinding as a steady process, as the routine predictably takes them through the evening and lands them in bed yawning and rubbing their eyes. For the parent who is dealing with a two-hour fiasco every evening, this can seem like an impossibility. It doesn’t work for every family, but for those it does work for it can be life-changing.

Once the full evening routine has changed the dynamic in the home, it can be relaxed and possibly dialed back to just a bedtime routine. It may become second nature and you continue it indefinitely. The important part is to create a healthy tone and safe place for everyone to be able to sleep well, parents included. Of course, it bears saying that not everyone has the luxury of staying in every night. However, consider the benefits of getting rid of nightly tantrums. Bedtime meltdowns are a real quality of life killer and can damage the relationship you have with your child, and potentially with your partner.

If a traditional bedtime routine isn’t working for you, It may be worth it to suspend outside activities for a time to try an evening routine. If neither traditional nor evening routines are working for you, and hasn’t for some time, you may want to consider coming in for a consultation with your pediatrician. Evening routines can be magical, but they aren’t magic and sometimes sleep problems are caused by something deeper.