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We’ve lost control of the bedtime routine. How can we get back on track?

Your children's routines can be calmly managed back in place following the disruption of lockdown

We have two energetic boys, aged seven and nine. Over the last few months during the lockdown, bedtime has gone awry in our house. The bedtime routine has got later and later and now we spend several hours trying to get them to settle and go their rooms.

We have a two-bed apartment so the two boys share a room. Once they are in there they can talk and squabble for hours. It is all exhausting for myself and my wife.

Each evening we hope to get some time to ourselves to relax, but this is always eaten up by the boys’ extended bedtime. During lockdown, we had a reasonable routine of some school work during the morning, but now heading into this summer, this routine is disappearing Their sports training is starting back this week, which is a great help. I think if we got bedtime a bit better, everything would be better.

Any suggestions?


Good routines are usually the key to a happy family life. Establishing good habits and routines around eating, sleeping, school work and fun times allow you get all the important things done in seamless, non-conflictual ways. Of all the daily routines that are important in families, bedtime is the most important. Early, relaxed bedtime routines help everyone unwind, get the rest they need and set the tone for the next day.

Conversely, late, protracted and conflictual routines cause great stress and increase ongoing problems the next day. The ideal bedtime routine includes nice connecting times between parents and children (such as story time with small children or a bedside chat with a teenager) as well as a time for parents to relax alone and to get a much-needed break before they sleep (this is important for your own well-being and your relationship with your partner). Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown has greatly disrupted family routines. Many parents, like yourself, have seen the bedtime get later or become a more protracted, stressful affair.

Though it takes time and patience there is a lot you can do to get your family bedtime routine back on track.

Visualise the ideal routine

The first step is to visualise the ideal bedtime routine for your family. The time of bedtime can vary from family to family and is determined by how much sleep your children need and what time children they have to get up the next day. This may be earlier for the school term and later during the summer. A later bedtime is okay, but a long, drawn-out, stressful routine before this is not – it is this stress that you need to eliminate. In visualising your routine, make sure to include physical exercise, limits on screen time and a relaxing wind-down which are all crucial to good sleep. An ideal routine could be as follows:

6pm: Walk/exercise/playing outside

7pm: Family TV watching

7:30: Supper/snack

7:45: Get ready for bed ( pyjamas, brush teeth, etc)

8:pm: Chatting time in room

8:30: Story time with parent

9pm: Quiet time in bedroom

9:30: Lights out/curtains closed

9:30-11pm: Relaxing time for parents

In setting a routine be mindful of rising times and the morning routine to follow. Assuming your children need 10 hours’ sleep (a rough average for their age), a falling-asleep time of 9.30pm would mean they rise at about 7.30 am. You can make this work for you, if you set a morning routine of quiet play time between 7.30 and 9am, when they get up and entertain themselves which gives you and your wife a potential sleep on.

Get your children’s agreement about the new routine

Sit down with your children and go through the new routine with them. Get them to draw out a colourful chart which outlines all the steps and be prepared to use a rewards to motivate them (eg they get a star for each step completed which can be converted into weekend treats).

Explain the limits and expectations clearly – they can have 15 minutes chatting/ play time in their rooms before story time but no chatting once quiet time starts. Explore options that can help them settle in the bedroom together such as having blackout curtains, individual reading lights and earphones if listening to music, etc.

Think through how you can calmly manage challenges 

Have a plan of action for evenings when they are disruptive which allows you to remain calm. For example, they are being too are noisy in their rooms, you might remind them – “Shhh, you need to be quiet now . . . If you relax now you get your star.” If they continue, you might warn: “If you continue to be noisy, you will lose some of your screen time tomorrow.” On a bad night you might remove one child from the room for 15 mins to let the other settle, etc. Be calm, gentle and persistent

Move gradually towards your ideal routine

Often I recommend that families don’t suddenly impose a new routine but instead move gradually towards it. For example, suppose your children are going to sleep at 11pm and you want to have a lights-out time of 9.30pm, you might start by aiming for 10.50pm the first night and then taking 10 minutes off each night. You can explain this gradual approach to your children with a colourful reward chart.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist, founder of the Parents Plus Charityand an adjunct professor at the UCD school of psychology. See