Taming the Bedtime Tantrum


Bedtime tantrums.

They usually begin soon after children begin sleeping through the night--and parents begin taking peaceful evenings for granted.

Described as “loud verbal or physical protests” by C. Merle Johnson, a professor of psychology at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, bedtime tantrums typically start around age 2 and can continue until age 7.

To avoid or curtail them, child-care specialists offered these suggestions, based on research and experience:


-- Create an enjoyable bedtime routine.

In a recent study, setting up positive bedtime routines and progressive ignoring of tantrums proved better than doing nothing at all, found Vaughn Rickert, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and Lisa Adams, a psychological examiner at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

Positive Routine

At the end of a six-week study, children who followed a positive bedtime routine were having bedtime tantrums less than 10 minutes a week, compared to an average of 160 minutes before the study, Rickert said. Children in the “gradual extinction” group, whose tantrums were ignored for longer and longer periods, were having bedtime tantrums less than 20 minutes a week, compared to an average of 130 minutes before the study.

In the control group, the average bedtime tantrum time was 80 minutes a week after six weeks, about the same as before the study.

Positive bedtime routines should begin about a half-hour before the child’s current bedtime and begin progressively earlier each evening so that the desired bedtime is eventually reached, Rickert said. The ritual should include four to seven nonstimulating but enjoyable activities such as reading, singing and talking, he added.

Smooth the Transition

Positive bedtime routines can smooth the transition from day to night, agreed Dr. Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston and author of “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.” “If there’s not a positive pre-bedtime routine,” he said, “it’s often much too much to expect a young child to give up the excitement of the day.”

-- Offer positive feedback for good bedtime behavior.

Set up a reward program using stickers, Ferber suggested. Each night a child goes to bed without throwing a tantrum, parents can offer a sticker (depicting cartoon or fairy tale characters). After accumulating a specified number of stickers, which can be affixed to a poster, the child can claim a special prize, he added.


-- Be firmer about enforcing bedtimes.

“All children are potentially arguers about every privilege they have or don’t have,” child-care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock said in a telephone interview. Either let the child stay up as late as he or she pleases, he advised, or make bedtime absolutely definite, and enforce it every night.