Q: Bedtime is a struggle in our family. The younger won’t stay in bed without me, and by the time she falls asleep I do too. The older one thinks that bed time means running and screaming time. How can I put my children to bed and have some time to myself or with my partner?
A: If a child asked for my counselling, she would say, “Every night just before I go to sleep I need to run, bounce and laugh. How can I get my parents to cooperate, play, and then come to bed with me?” How would you feel if in the middle of an enjoyable party you were asked to leave the room and go to sleep while others are staying up?
Much of the struggle around bedtime comes from going against the flow of nature, based on “fairy tales” passed on to us through the generations. Here are some of them:
1) Children have to be “put” to bed or they will not go to sleep.
2) The couple’s connection must take place in the evening.
3) Children should prepare for sleep by calming down with a story, or soft music.
4) Bed time shouldn’t take so long.
5) Children don’t recognise their own tiredness.
6) A cranky child is a tired child.
7) A tired child can get a “second wind” and be difficult.
8) Children should go to sleep when we tell them to.
Find which of these and other beliefs hold you back from celebrating your children’s ways of falling asleep and put these beliefs to sleep:
1) Children have to be “put” to bed:
In one of the family intensive counselling retreats in my home, a mother was astonished when my, then, three-year-old fell asleep on the floor of the living room as the rest of us were still visiting and the older children running around.
My husband then remarked, “it is simple; our children eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired.” A year or two later, the same child who was known to come to me and say, “mum, I am tired. I want to go to sleep now,” even when the rest of us were still active.
Babies are born knowing to go to sleep. If we follow the baby and child’s inner guide for sleep, she learns to trust her own signals. When free of a sense that she is missing something, or that bed time is a struggle, the child welcomes sleep right on time and becomes a healthy self-regulating sleeper. On the other hand, children can develop sleep problems because they associate bedtime with being taken away from the fun, or being left without you once asleep.
2) Couple time:
In most families, you couldn’t choose a worse time for yourselves than bedtime. It is like ordering the sun to set at noon. The transition from being awake to “falling” asleep resembles death. This is when your child needs your physical closeness the most. Good sleep habits develop in the absence of struggle or anxiety about sleep. When our children were young we made special arrangements to make our time together possible during the day on weekends, and, we let it go if it wasn’t possible. This was peaceful and rewarding; it allowed us to have a family bedtime which was the best part of the day.
Children join our lives and want to participate at all times. They don’t want to miss a moment. They even hold their pee to avoid missing the fun. When we insist on separating the child’s daily rhythm from ours, she will resist, or drag us to bed with her as your daughter does. Being pushed away and excluded from being with us, the child is determined to fight for his autonomous desire to be included. If she is tired, she will resist sleep as long as she can. She would rather fall asleep in the midst of the activity with you than isolated in another room. It is so much more fun to respond to her natural need.
It is not true that a good marriage depends on daily time spent without the children. Your experience of raising your children together builds your marriage. A happy family bedtime nurtures your marriage and leaves your children emotionally content.
3) The calming down fairy tale:
Although some children may enjoy calming down with a story or a song, most often, when a child is generating his own bedtime process he will jump, run away from putting his pajamas on, giggle, throw pillows and invite us for a wonder filled bedtime high energy play. Erroneously, parents think that the child is “over tired” or having “a second wind.” He is not. He is preparing himself for sleep. Play the game with him and when he is done, then you can cuddle and sing or read.
In addition to unleashing energy, some of the rambunctious behaviours of bed time lead to tears, helping the child shed away whatever upsets linger inside him from the day. In this way he is actually calming himself down. Life is easy when we ride the waves rather than attempt to push them.
Most importantly, wait till your child calls the game off. If you take the power away from him by saying, “Ok now we must stop and go to bed,” he loses all that he gained emotionally and will tend to be crabby and take even longer to go to sleep.
4) The time it takes to go to bed:
The only reason we want to rush the bedtime ritual is because our mind is planning the “future” moment without the children. If you embrace the moment, why would you want to rush? You have paid a lot in money and work to have these children; this is when it pays off! Pick up the flowers and smell them.
The fastest way to bring most children to the family bed is by being there yourselves, ready to laugh and to snuggle. I have rarely seen this approach fail. The joy of the slumber party is incredible. Giggles, hugs, climbing on Dad, snuggling, joking, singing; it is so so sweet. Or, if you have children who are happy in their own room, join them for a while and enjoy the treat. When they experience bedtime as a joyful family experience, they will always go to sleep with ease.
Initially, a child directed bedtime ritual could take an hour or even two. If you have not allowed your children to lead the way to bed, they will initially not trust that this miracle will ever happen again. Thinking it is the only time they can freely play at bedtime, they will want to have as much of it as possible. If you stop them, they will keep trying to lengthen the game every night. Once they know for sure that you won’t stop them, they will shorten the game. Eventually bedtime takes no time at all because everyone has a peaceful attitude about sleep and they just go to bed, not dependent on anyone to help them detect tiredness or “put” them to sleep.
5) The child knows when she is tired:
Trying to teach children to know when they are tired is like teaching them to breath or to know when they are hungry. As with every human skill, children are masterful at putting themselves to sleep on their own. When you orchestrate their sleep, it takes more time because you are struggling rather than joining a slumber party. Going to bed together may take no time at all; everyone just comes to bed. You talk, cuddle and fall asleep.
6) The cranky child fairy tale:
When your child is cranky let her crank. When she is sleeping let her sleep. Adding meaning to the child’s behaviour is often unhelpful even if the analysis may be correct. He will be cranky, whether you try to change it or not. And, if you flow with his crankiness you won’t confuse him. Validate his feelings and let him “crank”. When he is done, he will either go to sleep (if truly tired) or he won’t .
7) The Second Wind fairy tale:
Don’t you love it when you have energy after you thought you were tired? Why label it? Why fight it? A “second wind” (if you want a label) is a party. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, why not ride the wave. When they are tired they sleep. I don’t analyse their path, I only marvel it. Without fear that the schedule will get messed up, life keeps flowing just fine.
8) Parents’ control:
In Exupery’s book “The Little Prince,” on one of the planets lives a king who tells the little prince that all the planets and suns obey him. When the astonished child asks him to order the sun to set, the king says, “You shall have your sunset. I shall command it. But, according to my science of government, I shall wait until conditions are favorable…hum! …That will be…this evening…”
If your child is resistant to going to sleep, the time is not favourable. I personally found that the more I respect my children, the more convenient my life is. The less I cling to my old ideas about life and embrace what comes my way, the more I experience joy with the way it is.