How To Put Kids To Bed When You Normally Don’t

When you’re not normally the bedtime person, it will take consistency and a good deal of study to get the kids down smoothly.

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A dad tucks in his daughter for bed.
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Parents tend to fall into habits and roles. Dad makes dinner and handles bath time. Mom makes breakfast and gets the kid dressed. Over time, this allows for caregivers to develop expertise and for kids to enjoy the comfort of routine. But it also presents the problem that when the bedtime specialist isn’t available, chaos can ensue as children try to renegotiate in order to squeeze in a couple more minutes of wakefulness. Stepping into bedtime duties as the substitute can be extremely stressful, particularly if parents unused to that role don’t have a clear strategy.

“You don’t ever want to surprise a child,” says nurse practitioner Maile Moore of the Sleep Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. So the first step to getting a kid to sleep without a lullaby from Mommy is letting them know in advance what’s going to happen. “Tell them, even if it’s just a night before. Less advanced warning is actually better because they will have trouble conceptualizing if you tell them too early.”

But, of course, that isn’t always realistic. Stuff comes up at work. Stuff comes up at home. And ultimately, context is key. For instance, in cases in which the primary bedtime parent is still in the house, but unable to do bedtime duties due to sickness or injury, a kid may have much more difficulty accepting the substitute.

The ease of bedtime for a substitute also changes with a kid’s age. Older children who are much more aware of what’s going on may resist the non-bedtime parent, for instance, while younger kids may take it far less personal.

“I recommend at an earlier age really trying to incorporate each parent into a role in bedtime,” Moore explains. Early bedtime involvement for both parents will reap future rewards, regardless of how the roles eventually work out.

How to Put a Kid to Bed When You’re a Bedtime Substitute

Moore points out that no matter who is stepping in for bedtime, everything becomes far easier when a good bedtime routine is already established. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, kids will know what to expect and understand their place in the flow of things. The routine will remain a constant independent of whether mom, dad, aunt, grandad, or a babysitter is putting them to bed. Also, a strict structure around the routine helps a substitute navigate bedtime without surprises. It offers a structural roadmap that leaves them little room to mess up.

When bedtime is already loose and somewhat chaotic, there are far more opportunities for mischief, which kids will exploit mercilessly. “Having limits in place is helpful,” Moore says. “If a child is testing limits and a substitute is permissive, it can push bedtimes hours later.” That can throw off a schedule and cause sleep problems for the coming nights as well.

A good way to avoid this is to make the bedtime routine more concrete with a physical schedule that both kids and substitutes can follow along on with. “Sometimes having a picture chart is really helpful,” Moore says. “It at least keeps parents consistent.”

A picture chart simply lays out the nightly routine through the use of simple drawings: A book for story time, a toothbrush, a hug, a lightbulb. Placed in order, the kid can follow along with the parent. And if it’s built on cardstock and laminated, literally anyone stepping into the bedtime role can pull it from a drawer and follow along.

But, Moore points out, that a substitute may not nail bedtime even if there feel completely prepared. “If it’s not working it’s okay,” she says. “Just stick with it.”

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