Bedtime struggles plagued our home night after night to the point that I began to dread the sun going down. That seems a little dramatic, I know, but hand to the sky, I did.
I couldn’t understand how my child was able to turn the bedtime process into an hour or two, and on really exasperating nights, three hours of crying, melting, and doing everything but going to sleep.
One more book, mama.
One more sip of water, mama.
One more snuggle, mama.
Meeting all needs and fulfilling all requests still wasn’t enough to get my child to close his eyes. I started to wonder: Am I being too permissive? Do I need to do some reward charts? Would it help to give a consequence? Maybe if I give a lecture my son will drown me out and fall asleep from boredom. I felt nearly desperate to try anything that would give us more peace and better sleep.
But I felt stuck. None of those solutions seemed like true solutions. Were my only choices to battle my child or force him to surrender by way of tricks and gimmicks?
I decided to head back to the drawing board. Parenting is a relationship, so I took time to evaluate not only my goals but my child’s.
What is my goal?
Well, I wanted my son to get to sleep so that I could have a few moments of the day to myself. Maybe that 30 minutes would allow me to get some much-needed house chores done. There is no better feeling than knocking something off the ol’ incessant “to-do” list. Or maybe I could do something small for myself like catching up on “This Is Us” (I’m only three seasons behind) or taking a shower (I haven’t washed my hair in four days) before collapsing in bed. Was that too much to ask? Just 30 minutes to myself in a 24-hour day?
I found myself totally dug in, entirely focused on his bedroom door, knowing that on the other side was my freedom. And every time my son opened his eyes to ask for something or wanted to get up or fussed when I left, I felt my freedom slipping away.
What is my son’s goal?
My son’s goal was for me to stay, and developmentally, it makes sense. Children are wired to be in close proximity to their caregivers. This is how they’re designed to ensure survival. While I view bedtime as an opportunity to have some alone time, my son’s system associates bedtime with his primary attachment leaving him to do something else. He doesn’t care if it’s to do laundry or veg out. His nervous system just registers my intent to leave as a threat and so he will pull out all of the tricks to get me to stay. One more book. One more sip of water. One more snuggle. He will cry, power struggle and mimic my shadow as I leave.
Now, I know what you may be thinking, because I have thought it too. My child is manipulating me. They are being defiant. I must get this behavior to stop. The truth is, in order for your child to manipulate you, they must have executive functioning, which is an advanced function of the prefrontal cortex, a brain region highly immature at the ages of two, three, four, five…up to the age of around 25.
The bedtime frustration cycle
I have realized that when I am more invested in the outcome of something than my son, I become frustrated. The more frustrated I become, the more my son clings to me. The more he clings to me, the more focused I become on my goal. And the more he senses my desire to leave, the more he bids for me to stay. Round and round we go.
To break the cycle, I knew I had to reclaim my power, not take his.
This required me to understand my circle of control.
I was completely invested in commanding my son which, of course, led to my frustration because I was attempting to control that which was not mine to control. His thoughts, feelings, words, and actions are his. I can influence them, not control them.
Any time we attempt to take on someone else’s experiences as our own, we generally will find ourselves in a state of frustration and resentment. Control moves you away from connection, and based on my son’s bedtime goal, it was the one thing he actually wanted.
I realized that my son wasn’t making me upset. That wasn’t in his circle of control. How I felt and responded was my responsibility. So, I focused on the power of my words, thoughts, feelings, and actions. I found myself shifting from, “How can I get my son to __” to “What action can I take here?”
This allowed me to:
- Reframe my perception of my child’s willful defiance as his need for close proximity
- Readjust my expectations for my child
- Release goals I have set for my son like falling asleep by a certain time
- Set goals for myself about how I will respond when the bedtime blues begin
There is much peace that comes from accepting what is happening. We can’t control it, but we can reflect and adjust our reactions to it.
6 ways to ease bedtime struggles
With both of our goals in mind, and focusing on those things within my circle of control, I was able to implement some tools for our bedtime experience. My new goal became us winning, not just me.
1. Set boundaries
Our boundaries are not about what our kids can’t do but what we will do. This moves us from control to connection. Ask yourself: What are you willing to do?
- Are you willing to lay with your child until they fall asleep?
- Are you willing to lay with your child for five minutes?
- Are you willing to sit outside the door?
- Are you willing to postpone the “to-do” list in the name of this parenting season?
- Are you willing to alternate bedtime routines with your partner to give yourself some freedom?
- Are you willing to hire a babysitter one night a week so you can have some “you” time?
I often find myself telling my child, “I am willing to lay here while you close your eyes” instead of “Close your eyes or I am leaving.” See the difference there? One is an effective boundary, and one is focused on control.
Regardless, find what you are willing to do—instead of telling your child what you are not willing to do— communicate it, and then hold yourself accountable for following through with those boundaries.
2. Consistent routines
Consistent routines help children feel safe and connected because their brain knows what to expect, and can better process the sequence of events from a less primitive place. Involve your child in deciding what your bedtime ritual may look like. For example, perhaps every night at seven, you get into jammies, brush teeth, share about your day, read a book and then hop into bed.
To make this ritual more concrete for your young learner, use something like a visual aid or encourage them to set a timer to move from one activity to the next. Announcing transitions is also useful in helping your child shift. Something like, “Do your one last thing, and then we are going to put on our jammies.” Or “When we put on our jammies, we will read a book.” Or “It is time for a book. Which will you choose?”
3. Make bedtime interesting
My son loves when I get creative for bedtime. Sometimes it is something as simple as doing a few yoga moves as we wind down or sitting in bed for a round of finger breathing.
I like to up the connection with something silly, too. For example, if your child likes lots of snuggles, snuggle her with the deepest, most loving snuggles, pretending that you can’t get enough of them. Or switch up the roles, asking your kiddo for some. “Oh, please give me one more hug. I love them so much!” Cling to your child as they have often done to you!
Additionally, focus on activities with desired results. Invite your child to close their eyes while you rub their back, do a body scan or another easy meditation strategy, or tell them a story. These connection-based activities help your child relax and it primes their brain for bed. They become intrinsically motivated to close their eyes and still their bodies because they want what comes next. I find this is much more effective than power struggles and it helps my child fall asleep much more timely.
4. Focus on the return
If you find that you are unwilling to lay with your child until they fall asleep, focus on the next connection moment. This is an attachment-based strategy developed by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, which reduces a child’s anxiety and resistance and respects their developmental and emotional ability to separate.
The premise is that by focusing on reconnecting, rather than your leaving, you help your child relax and fall asleep on their own as they begin to trust that you will return before they need you again. As a result, they feel less of a need to chase your attachment.
Tell your child you are going to step out of the room and describe to your child what you will say when you come back.
- “I am going to come back, and when I do, I will tuck you in again.”
- “I am going to come back in two minutes. I will give you another hug when I return.”
Leave for as short of an interval as needed (like 30 seconds), then a whole minute. The goal is to return before your child worries and build from there. You may find that in time you are able to say something like, “I will see you in the morning. I am so excited for our morning snuggles.”
5. Give a token
Another simple tool is to give a token of yourself to your child that they can sleep with. This may include a picture of the two of you, one of your t-shirts, or something else that you and your child decide on together. This helps your child feel closer to you even when you are not in the room.
6. Practice the meltdown
This is a preventative tool to be done outside of the moment of dysregulation, outside of bedtime. Role play: You be your child. Encourage your child to be you. Then switch where you play yourselves.
Role play how it has been going. Bring in the silly and play and even practice the meltdown. Then, role play again with what you want the bedtime ritual to look like moving forward.