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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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A Nightmare for Some Families: Getting Children to Bed at Night

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 23rd 2008

 One of the biggest complaints that I get from many couples with children is their frustration and aggravation with getting their children to sleep at night. Mostly, the problem involves the youngest of children, from 1 to 10 years of age. However, there are others for whom the problem can persist much longer. Why is this such a problem, what can be done to prevent the problem and how can the issue be solved once it already has become a sore point for the family?

Why is it Difficult to get Children to Sleep?

Unless there is something seriously wrong with a child there is no reason why they should not be able to go to bed with a minimum of fuss. Therefore, it is my contention, based on experience, that the source of the problem usually lies with one or both parents. Again, it must be stressed that sleep problems should be minimal unless there is a serious problem such as ADHD, fever, serious mental illness, fear or any other of a variety of serious problems. The medical doctor (pediatrician) should always be consulted when a serious problem like this is chronic. However, if the doctor reports that everything is well with the child, then parents must look to their own selves as the problem:

Mistakes parents make:

1. There are those mom's and dad's who have difficulty setting set patterns or habits for the everyday life of their baby and older child. Therefore, there is rarely a regular schedule for eating, playing and sleeping.

2. Some parents surrender the moment the baby cries. Learning is quick, even during infancy and conditioning takes place alerting the baby the crying is rewarded with cuddling and attention regardless of the reason for crying.

3. There are those people who are convinced that allowing the baby to cry is a traumatizing experience. Therefore, they take the baby into bed with them in order to prevent the crying.

4. There is a philosophy among some that it is better to allow the baby to sleep in bed with the parents and that this builds a more secure child.

5. There are those who cannot stand the sound of crying and immediately respond.

6. Separation anxiety can be a problem. However, it is sometimes the separation anxiety of the parent who finds it difficult to place the child in it's own bed away from the parental bedroom.

7. Parents fail to set regular routines for themselves and their children that allow a predictable and comfortable cycle to the day and evening. These cycles include breakfast, play, naps, and sleep.

While these are a few of the errors parents make, the result is usually that, as the baby grows into toddler hood and early childhood, it terrorizes the parents into keeping the baby in the parental bed. What are the possible consequences?

A. I have dealt with more than one father who becomes resentful that the child is in bed because it interferes with sexual intimacy.

B. A variation on this theme is either the mother or father who goes into the child's room and sleeps with the child.

C. Parental conflict, jealousy and anger mounts as the youngster continues to terrorize the parents and interfere with their privacy.

D. One or both parents are exhausted by having their sleep interfered with in the middle of the night so that they are always exhausted.

E. The child becomes a tyrant so that they are ruling the household.

In dealing with a baby, toddler and young child, it is important to know that they are healthy. In no way is it implied here that cries should be ignored if those cries are unusual and out of the ordinary. Crying can be a symptom of pain, hunger, fever or some other problem. However, if it is clear that all is well and that the crying and screaming are part of a pattern of refusing to go to bed, then it is the parents who must be firm and set a pattern that enables the child to sleep while protecting parental rights. There is a difference between parental neglect by ignoring cries, versus allowing the child to become a tyrant.

How to Prevent Problems?

Retiring to bed is one of the daily routines that should be predictable. Most of us do better when there are routines. A pattern of conditioning sets in so that both children and parents start to feel sleepy because the body' internal time clock knows that it is getting to be that time.

As part of the bedtime routine, reading a story while the child is in bed further encourages sleep. The absence of television, music and other distractions in the bedroom prevents distractions that can be over stimulating. These types of distractions make more difficult to go to sleep.

Vacations can and do interfere with the daily set of routines that parents establish for themselves and their babies and older children. However, after vacation is over it is important to re establish to old patterns and routines.

Comments are welcome and encouraged from all, especially "frazzled parents."






Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

my childs a screamer! - Michelle - Sep 10th 2010

So for the 2 years my daughter did wonderful, when i said "its time for bed" she simply gave her night hugs and kisses and went to bed, and stayed in bed untill morning. Now immediatly after we put her in her bed before we can even turn around to get out the door she screems bloody murder, like someones killing her.. My husband and i find ourselves sitting in the door frame until she falls asleep. and that only lasts a couple of hours. im exhausted what do i do!. Last night we tried  leaving her door opend which seemed to work until the wee hours of the night and in shr comes wining and cryiing. HELP HELP HELP!

getting to bed - hysteria - Dawn - Jul 9th 2008
I don't know what to do..My daughter is perfectly healthy, perfect, polite lovely child, but when it comes to the evening - a complete nightmare.  She has never slept very much during the night, but has always slept in my bed, even when a baby, if you tried putting her in her cot she would wake up and start screaming, so because i was working and desperate to get some sleep i would let her stay up with me and then take her up to my bed.  Another problem which has only happened in the last couple of months, is that she won't even let me leave the room and she becomes hysterical, which i am sure is linked in some way.  When i have attempted to put her to bed, she screams, cries, hits the door, and it's really upsetting, it's almost like she's been posessed like in the exorcist, because she is such a good child - this is my only problem.  But now with this constant clinginess, i'm finding it harder and harder, and don't know what to do.....please, help

My own experience - - Apr 8th 2008

I had difficulty encouraging my second child to go to bed. I certainly agree that being firm and establishing a non-negotiable routine was the answer. I also found that making the bedroom a place my son wanted to be in helped. Sounds indulgent, but I bought him a slightly fanciful car bed, this really seemed to help as it sweetened the "sterness" of my routine enforcement. This one is similar to what I bought if anyone wishes to try it:



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