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The gentle way to deal with a child who won’t go to sleep

Children not listening and refusing to do what you have asked are universal parenting problems. Gentle parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith is often contacted by parents who tell her that they have asked their child to do something until they were ‘blue in the face’. They have tried asking nicely, they have tried punishment, they have tried rewards and nothing works. They describe feeling powerless and hopeless, demotivated and disconnected from their children. The irony is, in most cases their children feel exactly the same.

child who won't go to sleep

In The Gentle Discipline Book, Sarah Ockwell-Smith debunks many commonly held beliefs about punishment and motivation, and provides an alternative approach that will empower you to discipline your child in an effective way and with respect. Gentle discipline is not about mollycoddling your child or being a pushover – it means understanding your child, having realistic expectations of them, and responding to their misbehaviour appropriately. It focuses on teaching and learning, not punishment or rewarding.


Here is some advice for how to deal with a common scenario that parents often struggle with – the gentle way:

Refusal to go to sleep

Bedtime struggles are commonly perceived to belong firmly in the baby and toddler years. What most parents of young children don’t realise, however, is that they can continue for many years. The teenage years, in particular, can often bring about many bedtime issues, with children often refusing to go to bed at a time that the parent deems suitable.


Let’s start by thinking about why your child behaving in this way? One of the biggest problems when it comes to sleep is that children are not always biologically ready to go to bed when their parents expect them to. From the age of two to nine or ten years of age a realistic bedtime is around 8 or 9 p.m. Before this it is quite likely that their bodies have not secreted sufficient melatonin (the hormone of sleep), and sleep will be tricky for them.


Younger children can also really struggle with reconnecting with their parents after day care or school and are often resistant to going to bed until they have spent enough time at home in the evening reconnecting after a day away. For those parents who work, children need to spend at least two hours doing this before the bedtime routine starts.


Teens often need significantly later bedtimes than their parents believe appropriate. From age eleven onwards bedtime starts to slowly creep backwards. For ten- , eleven- and twelve- year- olds a bedtime of around nine o’clock is appropriate and from thirteen onwards ten o’clock is most in sync with what is happening with their circadian rhythm or body clock. This does, of course, mean that many are tired in the morning and would prefer to sleep in later. They are not being lazy, however; this is simply a result of biology.


Now, let’s think about how the child is feeling. As a parent, you probably relish an early night to relax and catch up on sleep. As a child, however, being sent to bed before they are tired is not a recipe for success. In fact, going to bed when they’re not tired can often mean ending up stressed and full of cortisol as a result. Cortisol inhibits melatonin, which is why insomniacs are recommended to stop trying to get to sleep.


Bedtime also usually involves the child being in a room alone, away from their parents. For many this is a scary concept and they will try as hard as they can to stay with their parents for as long as possible, resisting bedtime. In most cases, bedtime refusal isn’t an act of defiance, but a way of asking for more time with you and not to be alone.


Next, think about what you hope to achieve when it comes to sleep and discipline. Of course your primary goal is probably that your child gets the amount of sleep that they need, to keep them healthy and happy. Sometimes, parents want their children to go to bed so that they can have more of an evening to themselves, which is not a great reason. Teaching your child good sleep hygiene and helping them to relax and have good sleep associations is really important. Most parents don’t speak to their children about sleep and the effects on their body, but this really should be the starting point: explaining how sleep heals the body and the mind and helps them to have energy for the next day, as well as an explanation of what happens when they don’t get enough sleep. Next comes making the sleep environment a place where they feel comfortable and calm; and working on an excellent bedtime routine, especially if they are younger. A routine helps the child to know that bedtime is approaching and to feel in control, knowing what to expect and when.


Lastly, boundaries are important, especially when they are enforced consistently. Letting your child stay up one night and not the next does not work. Setting a bedtime that is adhered to as much as possible is key. If your child is reluctant to go to bed, always start by empathising with them (‘I understand you don’t want to go to bed right now . . .’) and then explain why it is necessary (‘but do you remember when we talked about how important sleep is?’). Lastly, allow them to have some control over the process: ‘Would you like to read for ten minutes in bed? Or would you like me to put some music on for you to listen to as you go to sleep?’


So keeping to a regular bedtime, helping the child to understand the importance of sleep and a biologically appropriate bedtime, and implementing a good, solid, predictable routine are crucial in solving problems around going to sleep.