How can I help my toddler or preschooler follow directions at bedtime?
Toddlers and preschoolers can have a tough time listening and following directions at bedtime – regardless of how easy it is for them to do those things during the day. This is often because everyone is tired at bedtime. Plus, when young children become overtired they become more active and agitated instead of how adults act when they are overtired – which is often sleepy and lethargic.
One thing to think about is making bedtime and the bedtime routine as consistent as possible. To do that, you can create a bedtime routine chart. This is simply a visual chart with the steps of the bedtime routine. You can create the chart with printed pictures of your own child doing the steps, pictures you and your little one draw together, or something like magazine cutouts or printed pictures from the internet.
Another thing to think about is that for bedtime routines, there is only one opportunity to practice per day. That said, help your little one practice following simple directions throughout the day by giving simple, direct instructions and following up with some specific verbal praise and encouragement when he listens the first or second time you give him the instruction. When you give a direct instruction, make sure you have his attention and politely say something like “please go get the teddy bear,” instead of indirectly asking by saying something like “can you go get the teddy bear?” When you ask, you can’t necessarily expect him to listen the first or second time. But – when you give him the instruction directly, it helps him to understand that is time to listen. If he does listen the first or second time you give him a simple instruction, be sure to give him lots of excited, positive verbal attention (verbal praise) specifically about being a good listener or following directions – something like “great job listening the first time,” particularly if he likes getting attention from you! Be sure to do it right after he follows the direction – that way he can start associating following an instruction with getting good feedback from you! Use this kind of praise as he goes through the steps of the bedtime routine, too. If the verbal praise and encouragement is not enough, you can add a small reward to the bedtime routine mix if he follows the steps of the bedtime routine. He can earn a small reward at the very end of the bedtime routine or the next morning – depending on what the reward is and how long he can typically wait.
If your little one has trouble with following directions in general, check with your health care provider to see if he or she can provide you with a referral to someone like a behavioral psychologist to help if necessary.About Dr. Erin Leichman