Solving the Bedtime Jack-in-the-Box Problem

Dear Parent,

A father recently told me that he has a jack-in-the-box child. He explained that every night the family went through a very lovely bedtime routine with their daughter. Everything worked as it should until he turned off the light and walked out of the bedroom. Then, after a few minutes, the daughter would be out of the bed, wanting some water; then out of bed again because she was too hot or too cold; then again because she was hungry; then again because she heard something; and on the night would continue. He asked if there was a good way to make her stay in bed at bedtime.

The answer is “yes,” but the answer comes in two parts. First, one needs to understand the daughter’s motivation for her behavior. Some children take longer to go to sleep, some need more attention, and some are insecure—they need more assurance. After that, we need to change the routine of not staying in bed.

Some children, even with the best bedtime routine, take up to two hours to fall asleep after the lights are out. They are restless and bored—a prisoner locked in solitary confinement. These are usually the active children who need less sleep than others anyway. Change the rules for them. Bedtime means time to stay on the bed. Provide them with a lapboard, coloring book, and drawing paper. Add a flashlight and books. Allow them to color until they get sleepy, then turn off the lamp and have them read by flashlight.

Children who need more attention (and that is need, not just want) often accidentally learn to get it in all the wrong ways. Ensure they have a non-spillable water-filled sports bottle by the bed in case they get thirsty. They can learn to arrange their bedding and to go to the bathroom on their own without parental involvement. Find ways to give positive attention during the day. Perhaps allow this child to help the parent with chores.

Insecure children feel a need to make sure their parents are home. These are the children whose parents leave without saying “goodbye” in order to avoid a tantrum. When dropping the child off at preschool the parent waits until the child is engaged and then they leave. They have the babysitter come in and sneak out without telling the children. Always let your child know when you are leaving, who is in charge and when you will be back. Then give a kiss and a hug, tantrum or no tantrum, and out the door you go.

Now on to the second part. Each time your child is out of bed after bedtime, gently but firmly guide her back. Keep a neutral face and voice and avoid eye contact. Say, “It is after bedtime; you stay in bed.” The most difficult and important part of this is staying consistent. Inconsistency undermines everything you want to accomplish in this routine. The more consistent you are, the sooner you see results. The sooner you see results, the sooner you can relax in the evenings.


Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.

Leave a Comment