Avoiding Evening Challenges with the Bedtime Pass
Angela O’Brien BCBA, COBA - Vice President of Educational Services, New Story Management
Are you struggling at bedtime with your preschool or elementary-aged child? Does your child leave their room after the bedtime routine is finished? Do they need one more sip of water, extra snuggles, or the fifteenth read-through of Goodnight Gorilla?
There is a cheap and highly effective solution to this issue: the bedtime pass. Based on the principles of behavior science, validated by researchers, and recommended by parents/guardians and pediatricians, the bedtime pass is a gentle sleep intervention that can get you on the path to sleep-filled nights, without sharing your bed with a wiggly child or using the cry-it-out method. Follow the steps below for success!
Get a 5x7 notecard. You or your child can decorate the card and write their name on it.
Put your child to bed at roughly the same time each night. In the 15-30 minutes leading up to bedtime, dim the lights, swap the TV or iPad for a book or toy, and spend some quality time with your child.
At bedtime, give the card to your child. Explain that the card can be exchanged for one quick visit outside of their bedroom (ex. get a drink, a hug, or tell a quick story).
When your child chooses to use their bedtime pass, if they appropriately call for you instead of leaving their room, bring the drink of water or snuggles to them. It prevents you from having to transition them back into their room.
After the pass is exchanged, your child goes back to bed, and is not to leave their room for the remainder of the night.
You might be asking, “Won’t she just come out of her bedroom again in two minutes anyway? What then?”
That just might happen. If your child walks out of their bedroom and comes to find you after already exchanging the pass, try the following steps:
Do not talk or make eye contact (yes, this may be difficult).
Do not offer your child anything (this includes snacks, snuggles, books, etc.).
Gently guide your child back to bed. Try gesturing in the direction of their bedroom. Remember, no talking. You can do this!
Shut the bedroom door and go back to Netflix, work emails or washing the dishes.
Repeat, if necessary.
Despite years of training and experience in behavior change at New Story Schools, I questioned whether the bedtime pass would work with my strong-willed, sassy, up-all-night, almost-three-year-old. Would she be old enough to understand? Could I really commit to the steps? Since she screamed and cried for at least a half-hour each night at bedtime, what did I have to lose?! Here’s a peek into my experience.
Night #1: My daughter immediately exchanged the pass for a drink of water. Once she was back in bed, she cried and called out for 18 minutes before falling asleep. We’re getting somewhere, I thought. That’s 12 minutes shorter than her best night in the last year.
Night #2: She exchanged the pass three minutes after being tucked in for a few minutes in the rocking chair. She went straight to bed with no crying. I could get used to this.
Night #3: She did not exchange the pass. No crying or calling out. Winning.
Night #4: (Curve ball: I’m out of town) She exchanged the pass for extra snuggles. Afterwards, she went straight to bed with no crying. We call this skill generalization…it worked for Dad, too!
Night #5: Bedtime routine was ROUGH. I’m back and leading the bedtime routine. She yelled for Dad then calmly exchanged pass for a back rub. Cried for one minute. Not our best, but not our worst.
Nights #6-8: One pass exchange across three nights. No crying or calling out. We did it! After about two weeks of no exchanges, the pass went into a drawer.
But wait! About three months later, our sleep-trained threenager forgot all she’d learned and gave us a night of crying and yelling at bedtime. The fix: bring back the bedtime pass. Worked like a charm in just two days!
Remember, make your plan, stick it out, and stay the course. You got this!
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