How to keep a 7 year-old in bed after bedtime? Talk amongst yourselves.

At Amazon: What to Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Problems With Sleep
At Amazon: What to Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Problems With Sleep

Gina from Canada needs our help motivating her daughter to stay in bed so she can have the evening "off-duty" she needs:

My daughter is a jack-in-the-box at bedtime. She's 7 years old.

We finish her story, kiss her goodnight, leave the room – and then she calls after us for hot milk. And then she's out of bed to go to the bathroom (she has only recently become dry at night so it is something she is working on). Then she comes down 1/2 hour later to tell us she can't fall asleep.

It's starting to drive me crazy! I get that she may need to go to the bathroom, or even that she's having trouble falling asleep. But I don't want to hear about it anymore! I don't want any more updates!

Basically, once bedtime has begun (8:30), I consider that my time and (much as I love her) I need her to let me be.

What can I do to get her to, if not go to sleep, then stay in her room?

My first thought is: why is she getting out of bed? Is she afraid? Is she lonely? Is she bored? If you can get at the reason why she's getting up, you can address it while at the same time crafting a temporary system of rewards to help motivate her to stay in bed.

If she's afraid or lonely, offer to sit with her after she's in bed. We would go through our usual bedtime routine, I'd kiss her goodnight, and then I'd sit on the floor next to her bed and read my own book while she fell asleep. The key for us was no interaction. Comforting presence, yes, but the goal was bedtime and sleep, so no talking or chatting (there was talk time during the bedtime routine).

I also referred to post-bedtime as "adult time" so she understood that, even though I was sitting with her to help her feel safe, it was my time to rest and recharge with my own book.

We gradually reduced the amount of time we stayed until it was no longer necessary.

If she's bored, give her a couple quiet, non-screen activity options she can do while in bed. Reading and drawing are the obvious two. A gentle reading light next to the bed can double as a night light.

As for the reward system, my absolute favorite is outlined in the workbook What To Do When You Dread Your Bed by Dawn Huebner. This brilliant book is addressed directly to kids. Not only does it help kids normalize and communicate about their feelings about bedtime (whatever they might be), it takes the family through a series of exercises, including a "pass" system for staying in bed.

I'll leave the details to the book, but the basic idea is that kids get a limited number of passes they can use to get out of bed. Once the passes are used up…well, they're used up.

The exercises outlined in What To Do When You Dread Your Bed aren't an instant fix, and they take commitment from the whole family. But they're fun, illuminating, and respectful of both kids' and parents' needs.

Parenthackers, what's your best stay-in-bed-at-bedtime advice? What worked for you and your kids?

Related: Digital clock "cure" for kids who can't fall asleep

Also: A "tape trick" for keeping your kid in her room at bedtime

More: Sleep tips at Parent Hacks


  1. Malva says

    My first thought is that she’s going to bed too late.

    When my oldest was about that age, we had huge issues getting her to go to sleep. By carefully observing her, we were able to determine that she had a low energy moment around 6:30pm every day, then she would build back up and be bright and alert when it was time for bed. We switched up our routine (mainly we started having dinner at 5pm)and she was sleeping by 7pm most nights, which seemed crazy early to us at the time.

    Our middle kid is 7 and until recently, was also going to bed at 7pm. We’ve recently moved that back as it started taking him too long to fall asleep. So he gets to play quietly in his room from 7 to 7:30. At 7:30 we turn off the light and he does something quiet in bed from 7:30 to 8 (he most often chooses to watch a show on my ipod or play his ds) at which time we come say a final good night.

    So different kids, different methods.

  2. Erin says

    Audio books are what keep our kids in bed. They both listen to stories on old ipods plugged into speakers after lights out. My six-year-old girl loves Ivy & Bean, Ramona, and Sparkle Stories.

    But, honestly, I’m just pretty mean after about 8:30. I will take next-day privileges away if they keep bugging me. (So first, they get a warning. Then, they lose their one tv show for the next day. Then they would lose their treat for the next day. But we’ve never even gotten to that one!)

  3. says

    I guess I was just mean. I usually decided to start with the harshest punishment I thought it might take (and that seemed to “fit the crime”) instead of gradually getting more strict. Sometimes I feel like we train kids to push “just a little more” and they learn they can get by with their behaviors. I would certainly try to see if there is a fear involved, but if it seems manipulative, put the lid on it swiftly and strongly. She sounds like she needs a 30 minute, then 10 minute, then 2 minute warning to take care of milk desires, bathroom, book reading etc. before bedtime. (Keep that routine the same every night.) Explain to her the consequences you have pre-chosen to deal with her jack-in-the-box behavior. She’s old enough that telling her in no uncertain terms that it must stop might be all it takes. But then when the time is out and it is bedtime, the time is just out. No more communication with her. Even if you have to physically guide her back to bed, don’t make eye contact or talk. Even if you have to do it a dozen times. Really. In the morning, if she violated her part of the deal, you tell her that the pre-chosen punishment will happen. And make it happen. (Don’t get into it at night, it’ll just prolong the trauma.)

    Not mean. Just strict. I need my adult only time!

  4. Gina says

    HI everyone – Gina from Canada here. Thanks so much for all the tips! The books sounds great, and the advice to just be more firm and strict is also very good – I am usually pretty strict about things but I think I’ve been duped on this one. She’s a good kid generally but also like most kids likes to push the limits. The book might help too – she often talks about being so excited or getting caught up in thinking about something. An earlier bedtime is also something to consider, though I do think she’s getting enough sleep in generally with about 10-11 hours most nights. I’ve also been implementing a reward that seems to be working in the last week since I sent the email to Parent Hacks (see the Parent Hack about the Warm and Fuzzy Jar – she loves to get Warm and Fuzzies!).

  5. says

    From @RealRosieLarson on Twitter: 4 every school nite they don’t stay in bed, my sons lose 1 weekend nite sleeping in mine. U can use any fave thing as bait.

  6. Jasi says

    Our good sleeper is going through the same at 6. It’s tears every night about 40 minutes after bedtime when she realizes that she can’t go to sleep. She has too many thoughts, she tells me. I’m thinking of letting her journal in bed, if she can’t sleep, about her day, her thoughts and what she wants to dream about (like a story). We’re hoping this works because the snuggles make her miss us more, the explanations of why she should sleep bore her and the promised consequences (will not get her show tomorrow after school if she hops out of bed again) just make her cry. Too many tears for our big little girl. =(

  7. says

    Jasi: Our experience was similar. My daughter is not one to defy so when there’s a problem, it’s not a matter of disciplining her out of it (most of the time). Our approach (in addition to above) was to teach her deep breathing. The combo of 1. no lights in the room 2. keeping eyes closed no matter what and 3. deep breathing almost always put her to sleep within 10-15 minutes. We taught her about how her body can actually help control her mind, even though it’s often the other way around. Lowering her heart rate and reducing stimulation naturally relaxed her brain.

    She still got up quite a bit in the middle of the night, but over time it helped. It took a long time, though.

  8. Melissa says

    My boys are 8 and 10 and I rarely have this problem, but I think it’s because of something I started when my first was really young. I could not get him to stay in bed to save my life! So I tried something I read that worked like a charm. I put a CD player in the room and put on a soothing piece of classical music. I put it on infinite repeat of the single song, so he wasn’t waiting for the next song to start and it became a nice background noise. It gave his brain something to focus on, without being a stimulation. It had an added bonus of keeping him from hearing every little sound the adults made so he wasn’t curious about what he was missing. I still put on the music for my 8 year old when he asks, which is most nights.

  9. Marie says

    Hi Gina,

    You mention that she says she is says she is too “excited or getting caught up in thinking about something,” and that brings me instantly back to my own childhood sleep issues. My parents were strict ans once we were in bed, we were in bed. We could get out to use the bathroom but then we’d have to go right back, no delays or detours. We had no toys or books in our bedrooms and the threat of punishment/loss of privileges definitely kept me in bed. However, it did not help me go to sleep. I can remember so many nights sitting up in my bed just staring out the window counting cars that drove by (not many) and basically just having my mind running through every little thing from my day or anticipations or dreads (i.e tests) of the next day.

    The older I got, the worse the problem got for me and by the time I was in my teens, a pattern of insomnia was firmly established. As an adult, insomnia is something I still struggle with and if I get out-of-sync for even one night, it can take me weeks to get back to a ‘normal’ sleep schedule. So for me, reading that your daughter is essentially having trouble ‘shutting down her mind’ is a big red flag.

    I have two children, a 26-year-old and a 6-year-old. I did not begin to find something to help me transition until about three years ago when my younger son started having more issues staying in bed and falling asleep. He had early sleep issues that ended up being caused by a soy issue and milk intolerance but once we figured that out, he started sleeping ‘normally.’ But around three-years-old, he started having issues falling asleep and staying asleep. I read many different books and tried many different methods and hacks to get him to go to sleep and stay asleep. It would literally take me hours to get him to sleep, even though he was tired!

    In the end, it took a combination of things: A steady routine, a musical toy that plays music for 15 minutes and then shuts itself off, a rain/ocean sound machine (he preferred the fireplace one, but hearing fire kept ME awake!), and my (or my husband’s) presence nearby. Because of his early sleep difficulties, he still slept in our room at that time and I started to realize an unexpected side-effect of his new bedtime routine. After a couple months, the music was lulling both of us into sleep and the rain sounds (not rain forest, just rain) was helping us both fall back to sleep when we’d wake up. It is not 100% for me, but I now need that music and rain sounds as much, or maybe more then he does.

    So I would suggest that if your daughter is saying she is having a hard time ‘shutting down,’ maybe trying something to help aid her with that. You say she is a good kid in general, so why not believe what she is saying (I know it can be a difficult balance to distinguish) and try out some solutions aimed at helping her quiet down her mind so she can fall asleep more easily before threatening to take away privileges? If it later becomes clear she is indeed just trying to dupe you then you can always pursue that course then.

    The ability to go to sleep quickly is a HUGE gift we can give to our children. The older they get, the more difficult it can become to learn it. But if you can teach it before they get too many ‘bad’ habits into place, it can literally change their lives. As someone with life-long insomnia which absolutely started with me as a small child, I can attest to how much of an issue and hindrance it can become as children become teens and adults.

    My older son also has sleep issues too but got into yoga and meditation as a teen and uses meditation to help himself fall asleep. Though it requires a lot of discipline from him which can make it more likely to fail when he is sick or over-tired and needs the sleep most.

    I would caution against letting a child start writing in a journal at bedtime! I did this for years (starting as a teen) in the hopes that it would get the worries and thoughts out of my mind and let me sleep, but if anything, it just gave me more to think about and I would end up writing half the night away. Maybe if it were done like an hour before the bedtime routine started though? That may give the opportunity for the thoughts to get out but then a buffer to distract from them a bit too.

    Another method, that I frequently use to get back to sleep after a really bad dream, but that could help with just falling asleep, is to think of a positive story or daydream. Not just think it but imagine it as if it is a movie playing out in your head. In my case, I find it can often blur the lines in my head between day dream and actual dream and tricks my brain into going back to sleep. But I could see how for a child, it may be enough to distract their thoughts and allow then to drift off to sleep.

    Wow! This is much longer then I intended, but learning to sleep is such an important skill for a child to learn. It is not always just that they don’t want to go to sleep. Sometimes children really just can’t do it on their own. Teaching them strategies can help change their lives (literally) for the better! I am sure there are many better strategies out there too!

  10. says

    My then 3-year-old quit sleeping this summer. It was like having a newborn again. She was up every two hours, and, despite dark circles under her eyes and other physical symptoms of sleep deprivation, she just could not sleep.

    Her pediatrician recommended melatonin before bed, and we used it for a few weeks. The first night she only woke up a couple times, and with each subsequent night she slept for longer stretches. After a month we took the recommended week off and we haven’t needed it again.

    I’m definitely without medical credentials, and I’m sure melatonin isn’t a good solution for every kid. But please consider talking to your pediatrician if your kid’s sleep habits change dramatically. For some kids it can even be an early sign of juvenile diabetes.

  11. Ilima says

    I second the vote for audio books. I’m so grateful my parents let me fall asleep listening to books on tape as a child. Now I listen to them on my iPod, and my daughter loves them as well.

    In terms of discipline, one family we know uses this method: for every minute the kids are out of bed after bedtime, they go to bed a minute earlier the next night. It seems to work very well, because their kids are invisible in the evenings!

  12. Tim says

    My 7-year old son has been going through a phase of this. Bedtime is typically between 8 and 8:30. We generally read for about 10-15 minutes together. For a while, he was asking us to lay with him with his light off. At first, we were OK with this, because he almost always fell asleep pretty quickly. The problem was that we were also dozing off next to him, and those cat naps cut into our own precious, child-free hours at night.

    When we stopped laying in bed with him, he would either a) read for an hour or more until he fell asleep with a book in his face or b) continue to get up and whine about not being able to sleep. He seemed to develop a fear of being “alone” on our second floor (something which extended into non-sleep hours too), even though his younger sister was quietly sleeping away in the room next to him.

    We ultimately decided that he could do one of two things: keep his light on and read without us being upstairs OR turn his light off and crack open his door while we spent a few minutes in our own bedroom reading or putting away laundry. If it’s getting really late, we’ll insist he turn his light off (but we’ll stay on the second floor until he dozes off) because this gets him to sleep most quickly.

    I recall having my own irrational fears at his age, and occasionally insisted on sleeping on my mom’s bedroom floor. I think it’s partially an age thing, particularly as he’s an advanced reader. I feel like he can’t always process or compartmentalize the material he enjoys reading most.

  13. tiffany says

    We have a set bedtime routine: bath at 730, stories at 800, and in bed at 830. I give them hugs and kisses and tell them “bedtime rules are in full effect” as I walk out of the door. They know the rules, 1. Stay in bed and 2. Be quiet. If not, there are consequences, such as no electronics the next day. It has worked like a charm for the past 4 months. (My children are 9, 6, and 4.) I think they have only had things taken away once in the beginning…

  14. says

    Sneaky reading!

    Hand her a flashlight and introduce her to reading under the covers. Sneaky reading has no rules. You can read under there all night (no one ever does). If you get “caught” and mom says turn off the light, you don’t have to. Mom must wink and pretend to be mad, saying that reading is bad for you. Good sneaky readers should not laugh too loud at Captain Underpants! Special books should be saved for sneaky reading time, so you have just the right atmosphere for them.


  15. HeatherK says

    We give our boys (almost 5 and 3 1/2), who share a room, crank-powered flashlights at bedtime. We wind them up just the right amount, so that they can look at books or just play with making shadows and things on the walls for a brief amount of time, then they slowly dim as the charge winds down. They usually fall asleep very quickly after we close the door, but if not, they have something to occupy themselves. At that point, the consequence for getting up and coming out of their room is that we take the flashlight away for the rest of the night. That has probably happened twice. The other benefit is, even though the charge dies out, it never completely goes away, so if somebody has a nightmare or needs the potty, they can use the flashlight to get to our room or the bathroom. In the middle of the night, it only takes a tiny amount of light from the flashlight to be effective. I’ve actually been meaning to send this in as a hack for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to it. :) Good luck!

  16. says

    Such creative ideas! I remember when I was younger, it really was the dark that scared me, and having a light on – either inside or outside always helped. It was a great feeling. Now they have lights that come in all sorts of different options and degrees, which is wonderful!

  17. SJ says

    I have to add another one for the earlier bedtime – my son (7) LOVES to read and will stay up half the night reading if you let him- but then he has impulse control issues the next day. We recently moved his bedtime (lights out) to 7:30 from 8:30 and it has really helped him fall asleep sooner. We also have to be really firm about the timing and the reading. If he doesn’t listen then bedime moves back 15 minutes the next night. That threat really seems to work and it also seems appropriate. It’s hard because my husband and I both work, so our time with the kids is really limited at night, but we have a no electronics rule on weeknights already and the benefit has been worth it!

  18. Katja says

    I second (third?) the audio-book plan. When I was about your daughter’s age, my aunt gave me the best present ever: she recorded herself reading the entirety of Stuart Little on some audiotapes. I memorized the whole book as I listened to it each night.

    At 23, with my own son sleeping next to me, I still get to sleep by listening to audiobooks. Maybe that just means it’s addictive, but at least it works.

  19. says

    We also do the audiobooks whenever we can. My girls know that if they are in bed and not talking that I will turn a story on, but if they get out of bed (excessively – they can go to the bathroom once each) or talking, I’ll turn it off. Sometimes if I want to watch a movie (because the audio book plays in the living room) I’ll put the ipad in their room and let them listen to a soothing music playlist on Pandora. If they didn’t have each other to keep them company I’d really wonder about the loneliness. The audiobooks or music work the best out of anything we’ve tried.

    Each day I ask my youngest (she usually falls asleep first) the last thing she remembers on our story and start back from that point. We’ve been listening to Rick Riordan stories.

  20. says

    Oh the struggles of bedtime. It seems like it was easier when they were little . . . but now I have teens and little ones – going to bed at different times, and then add in sharing rooms – and it’s usually quite late before some of them fall asleep.
    I did try to implement some techniques given by Danny Silk (“Loving our kids on purpose”) – but the first time I tried it . . . I failed! :)
    It’s worked a little better since. :)
    One thing Danny did with his kids was not try to tell them to “go to sleep” – but that it was “room time”. he would say “Room time! I don’t want to see you and I don’t want to hear you.” When either of those 2 occurred (which they did in the beginning!) – he would go up to their room and say “Oh . . . it looks and sounds like you are not tired. Great. Come on downstairs with me!” The kids were shocked. What was going to happen?
    He gave each of them a chore (sweep out the garage and the deck) – and when they were done, if they were tired, they could go to bed. If not – he had some other chores that needed to be done. :)
    Smart as they were . . . they were “tired” at the end of sweeping! :)
    The next night . . . more noise from upstairs . . . but when Danny went up this time – he walked in and said “Oh . . . Is see you are not tired . . .” But this time the boys quickly jumped in their beds and were amazingly quite tired all of a sudden! :) He didn’t hear from them again that night. :) Even in later years – he still used “room time” – and the boys knew what to expect if they were “not tired”. :)