Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.
This week: If you can’t handle the stress and fights that go along with bedtime, is it okay to just give up on it completely? Have your own questions? Email email@example.com
Dear Scary Mommy,
I have three kids: 7, 5, and 2. Bedtime has become such a struggle around here between the fighting, the stalling, the whining, the 100 questions per kid, the endless tucking in, the inevitable request for water or another pee before bed…I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t. No matter what my partner and I do, bedtime takes forever and with three kids at different ages who all need different things, we feel pulled in too many directions. Recently, I just gave up completely. I let them all stay up (with the exception of the two-year-old, who is an absolute bear if she doesn’t get to bed at a decent time), play on their tablets, read books, and just go to bed when they want. I know it’s not sustainable to just let kids do this, but I want to scream just thinking about the 2-hour bedtime scenario we just quit doing. I’m at a loss.
Ah yes, the inevitable bedtime bonanza. Listen, there isn’t a parent alive who doesn’t relate to this entire situation in every way. Kids have a serious case of FOMO, no doubt about it. That’s all this really boils down to — they like to Do Things, and if they aren’t Doing Things because they have to go to bed, they’re afraid they’re going to Miss Things.
That being said, we need to find a solution here that doesn’t leave you absolutely wrecked mentally and emotionally. I totally understand reaching a breaking point where giving up is what you have to do, and that’s OK. But like you said, letting your children forgo an actual bedtime isn’t sustainable. So let’s work on that.
I’m not going to get into the number of hours children need each night for each age. I’m sure you’re aware. And even if you aren’t, you know growing kids need a lot of sleep. And while letting them run around or do whatever they want until they’re tired enough to go to bed may seem like it makes sense, think about it from an adult lens. We don’t go and go and go until we collapse in a heap on the floor (well, not usually). We get our pajamas on, we wash our face, we brush our teeth, and we lay in bed. Sometimes we read, scroll through our phones, or watch TV to settle down. No matter what we do, we all find ways to settle ourselves enough to fall asleep.
Temporarily allowing bad habits isn’t going to permanently damage your kids. But good sleeping skills don’t often come naturally to children, and that’s where the structure of a routine comes in. The better their sleeping skills are as kids, the more likely those skills will sustain them through their teen years, young adulthood, and beyond. Mental health and sleep are intimately intertwined.
Here’s what you can do. After pj’s and brushing teeth, each child gets to ask one question — maybe they’ll spend time thinking about what they really want to ask instead of bombarding you at bedtime. Read one chapter of a book both of your big kids will enjoy (the Wayside School series, Amelia Bedelia, and Captain Underpants, etc.) instead of book after book after book for each kid. Allow some flexibility with things like having to go pee, of course. But have them fill up little cups or bottles of water to carry up to their rooms ahead of time so it’s already there.
Aim to cut bedtime down to 30 minutes, tops. You can do it! Set timers, offer extrinsic motivators, do whatever you have to do to get everything done in a half-hour. I know it’s hard. I know you’re tired. Think of this as a goal for the whole family — not just you. The predictability of the same order and the same amount of time for each task will sink in, and that alone should decrease anxious minds before bed.
Bedtime doesn’t have to be chaotic. It won’t always be perfect. Just remember on those extra rough nights when you’re exhausted and feeling down: you’re giving them the gift of structure, the safety of a routine, and lots of love. It won’t always be like this, I promise.