My three-year-old son is very active and gets more so around bedtime. We have a bedtime routine that begins at 8:30 p.m. and includes a bath, healthy snack, storytelling, teeth-brushing and three books. After I turn out the lights, I sit by the bed until he falls asleep. Otherwise he will jump up and follow me, making a game out of us chasing him. When he does, I bring him back to bed, tell him he doesn’t have to go to sleep but he must stay in his room. Most nights I lie next to him and hold him so he can’t get up. He cries in protest and eventually falls asleep from the exhaustion. By then, I’ve fallen asleep too.

My husband and I have tried turning out all of the house lights, pretend to go to bed and get up after he was asleep. This sort of worked, but sometimes he fell asleep as late as midnight and we were exhausted. Now I’m toying with the idea of putting an outside lock on his door. This approach seems barbaric, but if we don’t get some sleep soon we’re going to fall apart. Please advise!!! — Lara from Alameda, CA

Group Facilitators Answer:

Dear Lara,

Many parents can relate to the stress of this nighttime “game” and how easy it is to get caught up in it. Your son sounds like an energetic night owl who takes a long time to unwind. His temperament, a high energy level with little need for sleep, is what The Parent’s Toolshop calls PU behavior. It’s a “Parent problem” (because it involves health issues and broken rules) that involves “Unintentional misbehavior” (resulting from the child’s temperament*). Unfortunately, PU behavior can “mutate” into PO behavior (“Parent problems” that involve “On purpose” misbehavior) if the child gets payoffs for misbehaving. While your intentions are good, your son is getting payoffs when others react to his behavior by chasing him, holding him, laying with him, or stopping what they are doing. As long as he’s getting attention for not going to bed, he’s sure to continue resisting bedtime. It’s also turning into a power struggle, which will only intensify if you use desperate measures like restraining him or locking him in his room.

We have a few suggestions for you, by following the PASRR formula in The Parent’s Toolshop. (If children are not sleeping due to insecurity or lack of self-comforting skills, another plan is better to use. Read the article at


We have had 6 years of opposition to going to bed with every excuse known to man and usually some sort of angry outburst/misbehavior. So after class this week, I read word-for-word your bedtime advice article {this article} and teleseminar package. The next night was completely different. I did what you said and he looked at me and said, “OK”. Then he walked himself to bed quietly as if he had been waiting his whole life for me to say those words. He did not come out of his room and was asleep within 5 minutes! I am still a little freaked out about it, but it has been working and we are so relieved! I wish I could say we are ecstatic too, but we are too tired from six years of bedtime struggles:-) — Mary Mancuso, OH


P-revent the problem from starting or worsening
You have established a good bedtime routine and follow it consistently, but there is so much activity leading up to bedtime it may be over-stimulating for him. Several of us recommend starting the routine earlier and having the more quiet activities near the end of the routine. Make sure bedtime isn’t the only time he’s getting “quality time.” Also, maintain a consistent early wake-up time and if he takes a nap, shorten it, make it earlier or eliminate it so he is more tired at night.

Then you need to explain to your son how body energy works. Use the comparison of a car, which needs gasoline to have energy to run. Tell your son that sleep is so important because his body grows while it’s sleeping. The body also uses food and sleep to make energy. Ask what he thinks would happen if someone drove a car really fast for a long time and never stopped to give it more gasoline. Then make the comparison that his body needs to take rests too, to let his body fill up energy for the next day.

A-cknowledge the other person’s feelings
You can point out that his body may need less sleep than others, but it still needs sleep- even if he doesn’t feel tired. Tell him he needs to respect his body, learn how to listen to it and give it what it needs. If you think he gets up because he’s afraid he’ll miss something, reassure him that when he goes to bed Mommy and Daddy have their quiet time-which your bodies need-and you mostly do boring stuff.

S-et limits and express concerns
Now you need to be clear and firm. Bedtime is quiet time. He doesn’t have to sleep but he must stay in his bed (or room) and remain quiet. When he goes to bed, you are done playing and talking.

R-edirect misbehavior
Brainstorm ideas of quiet activities he can do in bed: listening to tapes, talking or singing to himself and looking at books are just a few ideas.
Then, give him three objects, like three hoops or strings to hang on his door or three balls in a bowl. He can come out of his room or call you to his room (the latter is our preference) up to three times. Each time you have an interaction after bedtime, he must give you one of the objects.

This next idea is optional, but is often helpful. Tell him you will come to check on him every fifteen minutes as long as he has at least one object left. If he knows you will check on him, he may be less likely to check on you. Give him a tangible way to track the time, but not a timer that could startle or wake him. Increase the time each week as his behavior improves and he’s falling asleep earlier.

If he uses the first object, respond to his request, take the object and say nothing more. If/when he gives you the second object, remind him that he only has one more object and might want to save it in case something really important comes up.

R-eveal discipline
After he gives you the third object, confirm that you will no longer come to his room (even if you’ve been checking on him) and/or he cannot come out of his room. Be clear that if he does you will not give him any attention.

Now comes the really hard part-follow through. We guarantee he’s going to thoroughly and persistently test this new plan for a couple days to a week. If you’ve laid the foundation by doing everything listed above, your consistent follow through is the final key to this plan’s success. Here’s how it works:

The fourth time he calls for you to come to his room, say once, “It’s quiet time so I am not talking.” Then ignore all further attempts to get you to respond. If he comes out of his room, act like he’s not there. Continue reading or focusing on whatever you were doing-and make sure you are doing something you can focus on intensely. Don’t look up to acknowledge his presence, don’t huff and puff in frustration or roll your eyes. He’s not there. If he gets in your face or escalates, pretend he’s invisible.

When it is time to check on him again, go to his room. He’ll probably follow you if he came out. Remind him that after he’s given you all his objects you’ll only come to his room or talk to him at your regular check times. Empathize that he’s disappointed and suggest that he might want to save one of his objects tomorrow night for emergencies. Reveal that he can still do quiet activities in his room, but if he leaves his room again, he’ll be giving up those activities, too. Tell him you’ll still check on him as long as he stays in his room and is quiet.

Then leave. Ignore his behavior and follow through on your plan. If he comes out or calls for you, wait until the next check time and tell him you won’t check any more that night, but tomorrow he can try keeping an object and having you check on him regularly.

The only exception is if he goes for a desperation move and does something dangerous. In this case, gently but firmly carry or direct him to his room while saying “I can’t let you hurt yourself or others. I love you and hope you’ll choose to make your bedtime a happy one.”

Like we said, we are sure your son will test your commitment to this plan, but we also know from experience that this plan usually works. Lay the groundwork, follow the plan step by step and consistently follow through with love and self-control and this will make bedtime peaceful. It will not be easy, but what you’ve been doing takes far more energy and less spine. Many parents have walked in your shoes and are grateful they were able to successfully break their child’s habit of getting out of bed and their habit of reacting in ways that reinforced the behavior. We hope you’ll give us a report on how things are going in the progress area of the forum and wish you and your family all the best.


If you are interested in more information about the tools and techniques mentioned in this article:


Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network, and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop. For 30+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series. Jody currently serves as the online parenting expert for Chic Mom Magazine and dozens of other parenting sites.

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