Rebooting the bedtime routine after a long stay with the grandparents? Talk amongst yourselves.

Little boy sleeping on the couchThe broken bedtime routine. It's so maddening because you can remember when it used to work. Especially difficult because life doesn't magically pause while you try to manage your child's sleep problem…which has quickly become the entire family's sleep problem.

From Santiaga:

I have two children: a 3 YO son and a 10 month-old daughter. We live in a two-bedroom apartment so they share a room. My son used to go to bed very well. We had a great routine for bed: once I tucked him in I would rock my daughter to sleep.

Our world came crashing down when my husband was involved in a life-threatening accident at work. He spent six weeks in the hospital during which we stayed at my parents' house.

My son's bedtime routine changed: his grandparents put him to bed by turning on a movie and staying up with him until he fell asleep. I don't blame them — it was a stressful time for all of us.

Once my husband healed enough for us all to return home, I tried to go back to my children's original bedtime routine. It didn't work. My son would get out of bed, dig in the refrigerator for a snack and throw a fit to watch a movie. The only thing that I have been able to do is put a movie on for him, but he isn't sleeping in his bed — he is sleeping on the couch. I can't get him to sleep before 1 AM and I don't know what to do.

I can't make him lay down in his bed. He cries, then wakes up my daughter. When I go to soothe my daughter back to sleep my son runs into the living room and refuses to leave. By that time it's around 11 PM and I am ready to give up.

I literally don't know what to do anymore. I hope Parent Hacks readers can help.

Oh, so painful. I'm glad you had support as your husband recuperated, but I'm so sorry this is one of the side effects of the ordeal.

Any change in routine — even a long vacation — can upset the balance at bedtime for young kids. And bedtime needs and routines are so closely tied to each kid and situation…it's hard to give definitive advice. (Who am I to give sleep advice anyway? My first kid had a terrible time sleeping, and my second kid slept beautifully, and it's not clear how much I ever helped or hurt the situation.)

My gut tells me that the answer is calm, kind, firm persistence in reinstituting the routine. It won't be easy (as you already know) and it will be loud and distruptive for a time, but I expect, if movies are never again an option at bedtime, the fight would eventually ease up. Perhaps replacing the movie with some quiet movie music in bed? Or getting movie-themed picture books to read together? Sometimes offering a compromise lets the kid know you're listening to what he wants, but you're not budging on the TV at bedtime.

Parents of toddlers and preschoolers: any wisdom or helpful resources you can share with Santiaga? She really needs our help…certainly more than my "gut feeling" can provide.


  1. Brent says

    Reading a book or two in bed might work. Every couple of weeks we make a quick stop at the public library to checkout 20 or so books to read at bedtime. If you can read it in his bed that would probably be ideal but even reading it to him in your bed with really soft lighting might do the trick.

    Best of luck.

  2. Jodi says

    Maintaining a firm “no” is bound to work eventually, but some kids are more stubborn than others.

    A transition time might be okay too. Something like one 30 minute movie for a few nights, then a 15 minute-episode for a few, then a 10-minute one, then a 5-minute video, then 2-min, might wean him off the habit.

    Another way to wean the movie-sleep association would be to move up the time of the movie. Choose a length that is acceptable and slowly move the timing earlier in the evening so it’s no longer associated with going to bed.

    Trying to replace the movie with something is also a good idea. A book or music in bed could be good options.

    Stay strong. Everything is a phase.

  3. Jodi says

    Oh, also, could you move your daughter to your room for a bit, so it’s not as critical if your son is noisy about the change in routine?

  4. Nicole says

    “what happens at grandma’s, stays at grandma’s”. You have a different routine at your house. Even a three year old can understand that.

    Also, talk through the routine and the expectations during the day – not at bedtime, when everyone is tired and stressed out. Do reminders at bedtime instead “remember how we do this next, remember you agreed you could pick the story?” or whatever you choose.

    Also use a sticker/reward chart: no yelling = a sticker, or no movie = sticker. 5, 10, ? stickers gets a small whatever-is-suitable-in-your family. For us, we have a LOT of 3.49$ playmobil figures. 8)


  5. says

    I wonder if your son’s attachment to the movie isn’t just a matter of a different routine but a soothing ritual that helped him cope (unconsciously) during a stressful time. You might try offering brief, repetitive reassurances and – maybe not at bedtime – the chance to talk about what happened for him while your husband was in the hospital. Even if he wasn’t in on the details, I’m sure he knows something upsetting happened.

    On a more pragmatic note, I’ve found that total consistency and clear communication go a long way. After easy bedtimes for a year and a half, our 3yo started getting up for 1-3 hours in the middle of the night, extending her bedtime ritual to 90 minutes, and not going to sleep without one of us. It’s improved a lot since we got back to a super-consistent routine coupled with a lot of calm reassurance: start bedtime at the same time and just after her bath, just me doing it (not my husband), the same message every night (# of stories, we’re going to have a great day tomorrow so you need your sleep, etc) and executing on that plan. Confidence and calm seem to be the critical factors – any variability, changing course, trying something else midstream, all upset the boat.

    Good luck! Oh – and I’d bet if you can temporarily remove your littlest one from the equation (another room for bedtime?), both you and your son would be able to focus better. I can’t imagine having to multitask this one!!

  6. Emma Williams says

    I had a similar issue with my son a few years ago. Its tricky but there are two ways I have found with my two children. You can either explain to your son that at their grandparents house it is different but that routine will not work at home and make a picture timetable. Then your son can see the order of his evening and check items off as you go along. For example dinner, bath, stories, sleep. A favourite toy or if there is a teddy or blanket you could borrow from your parents that smells of their house may reassure him whilst he re adjusts.
    The other option is if he has a daytime sleep. Do not let him nap that will readdress the balance quickly for you and persevere with no nap its exhausting for you but come bedtime you will be grateful.
    Hope it helps. It is so exhausting for you I hope he settles down soon for you.

  7. says

    First, I feel for you.

    Second, I’ve been the primary care-giver for my two kids, who are now 18 and 21.

    Third, my advice to you is to let it go. Yeah, sleep is important, but if they go to bed late for a few months, it’s not going to kill them. What will not be good for them is to experience the steady stress of bedtime drama.

    Which leads me to a practical solution: Let’s say that they’re not going to bed until 11pm. Talk to them, explain that you “need to look out for their health, so this sleep thing, think of it like broccoli.” Kids get that. So once you’ve explained it to them, tell them that every night will have bedtime that is five minutes earlier, each night, until they get to a sensible bedtime. First night of the new program, bedtime is 10:55pm, then 10:50pm, etc. They’ll feel better because you’re mellow. You’ll feel better because you’re doing something that’s going to work. Everyone’s happy.

  8. Theresa says

    Do you have, or could you borrow a portable DVD player for awhile? Let him have a movie on very low volume in his bed, and just get him used to sleeping in his own bed? Once you’ve crossed that hurdle, perhaps you move toward taking a night or two away a week and replacing it with a story or music,you could tell him the batteries need to charge that night so you need to find something else to do that night and just keep adding until he’s down to like one movie a week and maybe move it out into the living room before bed on like Saturdays for awhile, then start ‘missing’ it until its not a habit, or maybe keep it as a special treat or something.

  9. says

    Oh my goodness, I feel for you. This is my story exactly ( the sleep and the house bit, I am sorry to hear about your husband)
    I’d love to hear the outcome. We are still struggling with 3yo refusing bed and watching movies in our bed until all hours and the having tantrums most of the following day because she I so exhausted. I can’t ‘ make’ her go to She will scream and bang the door and wake my 15 mo with whom she shares a room. How did our parents do it when we were all in the same room??

  10. Martha says

    I second the picture timetable idea! More than a year ago I created a silly clip-art chart for my 4yo, posted it on his wall and enthusiastically declared that because he was such a big boy, he was ready to have a special new bedtime routine. Despite my fears of rejection, he bought into it and complied the very first time! He still looks forward to it every single night and loves to check off each item with a pencil as he goes (you could also use stickers by each item or incorporate a reward system if needed).

    I think the chart is reassuring for my son because he has a clear set of expectations, a ritual to follow, and something that gives him a feeling of accomplishment/control because he’s in charge of reviewing the chart and using the pencil. It also prevents me from having to be the “bad guy” all the time. Instead of me telling/yelling at him to go brush his teeth, I just say “Go check your chart and tell me what’s next!” and the chart does the job for me. For some reason this makes all the difference in removing the power struggle!

    I also think moving bedtime back by 5-10 min for a few weeks along with earlier movie times would help your son. Maybe also switch from a full movie to a single 30-min TV show episode. Then you could even “wean” him to a 10-min episode or introduce a bedtime book instead. (Most kids’ shows on YouTube are posted in 10-min increments and my son never notices that they’re shorter than a “real” 30 min show!)

    Also, if your son likes stuffed animals or any soft toys, maybe you could also introduce a new “bedtime friend” for him that he only gets to use when he goes to bed on time and stays in his own bed. Set a clear understanding that his friend can only stay with him if he follows the bedtime rules – otherwise he has to give the friend back to you. If it’s a toy he really likes, it won’t take him long to learn how to keep it with him!

    You can do it. It will get better. Feel empowered to take charge of the situation and involve him somehow in the bedtime process to give him a (limited) sense of control. Good luck and deep breaths!

  11. Tam says

    So many good suggestions.
    Also could try audio books based on favorite movies. In bed. With headphones.

  12. Janet says

    If you try a previous commenter’s advice to watch progressively shorter movies, I’d like to suggest the free educational videos at There’s a new featured video every day, but some are geared toward older kids so watch for subjects that might not be age-appropriate for your 3-year-old. Brainpop Jr. is for younger kids, but they feature the same video for 7 days (the repetition is a good thing). The videos are typically less than 5 minutes long, and your son may even learn something! We use the free apps every night to watch in bed with lights off, and my boys are 12 and 9!

    Whatever you decide to try, good luck! Sounds like you all have had a rough go of it lately. There are some great ideas in these comments. We’ve used low-volume movie soundtrack music, quiet stories, and a bedtime routine chart in the past. Hang in there! You will find something that works.

  13. Samantha says

    I am sorry you have had such a scary and continuingly exhausting time of it! I am glad your husband is on the mend, and I hope you start getting some sleep soon too! For your son, you might also try the Indigo Ocean CDs and books. They have simple stories with soothing music and ocean sounds in the background. They teach kids basic relaxation exercises that have had amazing results with putting my kids to sleep very quickly. A friend was having extended problems getting her daughter to sleep, and in less than a week, these have her sleeping at a proper bedtime. You can play the CDs quietly beside your child’s bed, or read the stories quietly. We have ‘A Boy and A Bear’ as a book, and the younger DVD of stories starting with the Angry Octopus. You might try them. Both my 4 and 6 year olds love them (the 4 year old sort of resents how powerless he is to avoid sleep once they are playing, so he does resist some, lol). Good luck, and be gentle with yourself.

  14. Victoria says

    Almost same problem. My 2 year old son fell asleep like a dream every night, slept in his own bed, 930pm sharp. My daughter was born (2 bedroom duplex) they ended up having to share the room and still are. Nap and bed times are a time I began to loathe. My daughter who is 1 1/2 now still falls asleep perfectly, in her crib, one sippy and her nap time binky and she is out. My 2 (almost 3 year old) is a different story. He needs puzzles, and paper to write abcs and numbers, snacks and drinks. He has so many excuses he can never even pick just one. My way of combating it until we move into a 3 bedroom, is having him fall asleep in our bed. I was really iffed about the whole idea of getting our son to get used to falling asleep next to me instead of by himself, but for now as a temporary fix it works. For nap times (lizzy 1 1/2 y.o sleeps 2 hours and he sleeps 3 1/2), he sleeps in mommy’s bed, at bed time, he falls asleep in our bed and I transfer him to his. Even still, it takes him about 1 hour to fall asleep whilst singing abcs and twinkle little star, but as a temporary fix, I am satisfied with it. You can try something on the lines of that, just until he has a room of his own or he is a little older. Also a trick to try is tell him a “new rule” at a mediocre time, like middle of the day. Just tell him “from now on, we have a new rule. Starting today, (or Friday or whenever), you’re going to sleep in your bed. We won’t be making silly noises. Or watching movies.” Have then repeat it such as “do v you remember the new rule?” Which he replies “yes” which you then ask “can you repeat it to me” which he reiterates. That way he knows the rule and knows it has to be followed. It’ll still be hard for some time, maybe you can stick a play pen in your room and have your daughter sleep there while you try to fix his schedule. I learned that new rule thing online researching how I’m going to have Eli move to his own room lol. Sorry if the advice is all over the place and it sounds like I’m babbling, but now you have a couple more ideas you can mule over and make your own.

  15. Sabrina says

    I second (third?) the idea of having one child fall asleep in the parents’ room while you are getting your son’s bedtime sorted out. In the past when we have had bedtime troubles, we have made a real effort to have the child spend as much time as possible outside exercising (so that they are worn out by the end of the day) and have them bathed and in pajamas before dinnertime. The BrainPop Jr. videos sound like a good idea for now – they give your son the screen time he has become accustomed to but don’t last long enough to keep him up late. Good luck!

  16. Santagia says

    Hey everyone! Thank you so much for your advice! This if fresh but still… My son has slept in his own room for three days now with the same routine we used to do. Three books, milk, a kiss, and goodnight. The first night, I started tell him hours before bed time that he was sleeping in his bed and made sure he understood that there was no movie. I took my daughter’s crib mattress and laid it on the floor in the living room against a couch and then barracaded her in with laundry baskets so she wouldn’t fall out. My son associated this with “Harmony’s bed is broken?” I saw that as an opportunity and said “Yes.” It turned out he was sick that night and I consider that as a God-send. Also, I had went to the doctor the day before and he told me to try some ‘Melatonin’ or ‘Benyidrill’ to help with sleeping if it just seems that he can’t get sleepy after laying in bed. The 2nd night I didn’t use Melatonin but the 3rd night he was feeling better so he was laying in bed for 2 hours before I gave him some and he was asleep after a while. I got a liquid form and it tastes like lemon water so he likes it! My doctor said after 2 weeks things will be set in for a routine and can move my daughter back into the room.

  17. Santagia says

    By the way, putting a portable DVD player in his room did not work. I thought initially that it would and it was awful… He still wanted to stay up and go out into the living room. That is when I started to spiral down into a “I don’t know what else to do!” stage.

  18. says

    Movies for some reason help our children sleep, within 15 minutes of the movie our children are fast asleep! Reading keeps them awake. We do have volume control though.

  19. says

    I feel for you! My pediatrician recommended an book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth that has been an excellent resource for all of our sleep problems. It’s structured so that you can find the section applicable to your problem first, or you can read the chapter applicable to your child’s age if you prefer. I believe in this situation the book explains that when a child hasn’t been getting enough good sleep, it’s actually harder to get to sleep since the body is used to fighting the fatigue, so he recommends a “super early” bedtime for a while to catch up on sleep. It sounds crazy and impractical, I know, (if he won’t sleep at 11pm will he really go to sleep at 5pm??) but it has worked perfectly for us to get back on track several times. Another factor may be the events which led to the disruption of the schedule. I am so sorry that your family experienced the accident and hospitalization of your husband. Speaking as someone whose family has also had a hospitalization recently, your son’s difficulty sleeping may be partly due to his ongoing processing of that scary situation. He may want the extra time with you at night because it is reassuring or comforting. And children also often “act up” when the family experiences a crisis in an attempt to take the family’s focus off of the traumatic event; in their mind they’re trying to help. As I’m sure you’ve done for the last few months, it may be helpful to continue to talk about any questions or feelings your son may have about the accident and hospitalization, including (as I’m sure you have) that he did nothing wrong to cause all of these changes in his life, and he may even have questions or fears about injury and mortality. You all have been through so much. Above all, give yourself and your family grace as you heal from this situation.

  20. says

    I know. Nobody ever taught us how to raise and discipline kids. We all just go by our instincts and whatever values we picked up from our parents in our growing up years. And my instinct tells me you should talk to your parents and ask them to explain and show (with a little firmness) to your boy that they may have been responsible in disrupting his bedtime and that going back to his old routine would be better all around.