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  • Writer's pictureRaelene Ostberg, M.Ed.

JUST SLEEEEP! Part 3 - Winning the Sleep Wars

Updated: Jan 30

Have you ever felt like you just didn't want to sleep… so you stay up later than you should? You are having fun! You have so much to do. You are enjoying someone’s company! It is YOUR LIFE and so you should get to choose, right?... Even if you are going to regret it the next day. And, despite the typical morning remorse, you maybe even do it again weeks or even days later. Me too!

Now, imagine you are two, or three, or four years old. Might you feel the same? Especially, if those around you do not seem to value it? WHY do young children fight sleep? Well, maybe they have not bought into that it is important. Maybe, this has to do with our example. Maybe, for our youngest, they feel like we would on an exciting vacation - filled with desire to explore! And, maybe they need to learn and buy in to why it is important. It is normal for toddlers and preschoolers to fight bedtime. It IS natural. But, it is also essential, if they are to be their best, that they get sleep!

Below are some strategies to get kids the sleep they need and successfully gain cooperation. This blog contains a short video, resources, and top tips to help reduce sleep battles and avoid power struggles around sleep.

To address sleep battles:

1) Check yourself. Have you connected with the child? If you have not, that comes first. When children do not receive positive attention, they will fight you just to get it. So, simply stop and give a quick hug, label their feelings, and just bond for a moment. Then, move on to next steps.

2) Keep it lighthearted. When you enter into a sleep battle, both you and the child experience an increase stress hormones. Stress hormones interfere with sleep.

3) Change sleep association. Use a comfort item to transition the child to bed, leaving this soother with the child. For example, you can use a small soft Teddy and, before being expected to sleep, have the bear say "night night" to all surrounding the place of rest. Then, put the bear to sleep next to the toddler or small child. Of course, you can rub his/her back, rock, sing, and help calm. However, avoid picking the child up completely (at least until the child is fully asleep).

4) Nudge the child toward independence. If you decide to change a pattern you have established around bedtime, consider slowly warming the child up, building the skill over time rather than "cold turkey". If they have been in your bed, maybe first sleep beside the bed on a sleeping bag, then near the door, then toward their own sleeping area. Or, if you have been fully involved in the child's falling sleep in their room, gradually “move yourself out." First, sit next to bed, then by door, then outside of the door, and then away completely. Changing a pattern can be difficult. However, the child will learn over time, with your clear limits and support.

5) By preschool, decide how you will "win the battle". When it comes to preschool, power struggles are likely to increase. The child will need more control over the pattern/routine. Fears are likely to increase right along with three-year-old imagination. And, they will also test you to see where the limit actually is. Preschoolers will need quiet time in room prior to being expected to sleep. Discuss the pattern outside of the moment and make agreements. If the child is fearful, leave the door open and the light on in the hall, provide a night light, and reassure the child.

When you see a need to set limits around bedtime, you have a choice. Are you going to


These are ALL are powerful choices.

Lock in.

· Clearly state the limit.

· Repeat a "First ____ then ____" statement. First brush your teeth, then books. First sing songs, then hug "goodbye".

· Provide verbal prompts about what you want your child to do next. Remember to keep it cool. "Walk your feet into your room." "Hug your bear tightly." "Say, 'night night mama."

· Repeat calmly like a broken record. Keep it simple and repeat, repeat, repeat with less words and reduced involvement until the child finally relents. You must stick to the limit through the burst in protest. Staying calm is also essential for success.


Offer a choice.

- You can lay down with book quietly, or with no book.

- Would you like to skip or walk to the bath?

- Would you like to wear the green pajamas or the blue ones?

- Do you want to read two or three stories?

- Would you like two or three kisses?

Natural or logical CONSEQUENCES:

Naturally, if your child wakes you up at night, you are more crabby and less able to play with the child. So, make sure to indicate this to the child. "You woke me up three times, now I am tired and cannot play as much." After three nights of explaining this, my daughter let me know (after a successful night where she stayed in her bed) "I did not wake you up last night." We had turned a corner! So, we played. :)

*Clarify consequences ahead of time. If you come out after our bedtime routine, tomorrow I will not be able to read books. (Yes, I am comfortable as this consequence actually elevates the perceived value of books!)

*Remember to only partially engage. You are tired – not playing, not talking to, not connecting with. You are done engaging at this time.

*Follow through

*Celebrate and praise “progress”

You can also, give in.

When my daughter was 3 1/2 years old, I was working full time and very busy. She would fight bedtime and beg, "SLEEEEP WITH ME!". So, I did. This battle was not worth it for me. At the end of our bedtime routine, I would sing her two songs and then lay next to her for 5-20 minutes. This ended up being a wonderful time to bond right before she drifted off to sleep. Our nights went better, and so did our days. This was a choice I made, after considering my busy schedule and lack of connection time during the day. It also made our mornings smoother. When she was 4, I fazed these out with almost no struggle.

"Winning" the war is your choice, and it looks very different ways depending on who you are and your situation. MY winning was to connect and rest together, to use that time to build a connection and spend time together, yours might be different. The end goal? Less battles, more connection, and more sleep for all of us - so we can all thrive. Together.

Remember, your greatest power lies in the choices. The more of these you do, the less battles you will encounter.

  • Model calm and quiet

  • Observe and log your child’s patterns

  • Monitor stress and fatigue cues

  • Establish a calming bedtime routine

  • Limit screen time to <60 minutes a day

  • Avoid high activity and screen time in the evening

  • Plan exercise for the child every day

  • Teach the child about importance of sleep and all the great benefits of getting more sleep

  • Model healthy sleep

  • Keep regular naptime and bedtime

  • Avoid naps after 4pm

  • Spend time connecting at other times of day

At the end of the day, children need to connect. Remember that bedtime battles will fill the child's need for attention when the need for love and connection with you has not been met. So, always take a moment to consider, have I connected lately? If not, the battle might just disappear with a 1-2 minute hug time and a bit of empathy. These years will pass. The child will learn to sleep independently. And, some day you may just miss this time. Take care and keep loving up those kiddos!


Mary Sheedy Kurcinka BLOG, author of Sleepless in America. Check it out!

Zero to three has excellent articles!

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