Getting our children to go to sleep, and stay asleep, is frequently a source of frustration and is challenging for many parents. By that time of day, most us who are raising our children without a village to help us, are ready to collapse ourselves. So we are often not feeling very patient or resourced at bedtime and it can be hard to keep the stress and frustration from spilling out and making the whole process even harder for everyone.
Fortunately, Aware Parenting has a clear understanding about children’s needs in order to be able to sleep and some simple and very effective tools to support our children to fall asleep so we can relax and enjoy bedtimes without the stress and struggle.
Marion Rose, Ph.D. (Level 2 Aware Parenting Instructor) describes 3 things that children need, in order to fall asleep: they need to feel connected, they need to feel tired and they need to feel relaxed. So, if our kids are resisting falling asleep we can ask ourselves 3 questions;
- Is my child feeling connected? Are they showing signs of being disconnected? Am I treating them in a way that makes them feel connected?
- Is my child tired? Are they yawning and showing other signs of tiredness?
- Is my child feeling relaxed? Are they tense, agitated or hyperactive? Are they showing signs of having accumulated feelings to express? If so, these feelings will be causing them to feel tense and this can stop them being able to relax enough to fall asleep.
So how do we support our children best at bedtime?
Releasing feelings: Most babies need to cry in loving arms at bedtime in order to release the stress that has built up during the day. This is frequently true for older children too. Lovingly listening to feelings will support them to return to feeling relaxed and calm and ready to fall asleep. Staying close and giving them our loving presence while they cry is so helpful. When they are older, it is really helpful to lie down with our children and chat about their day, listening to them as they share their worries and thoughts with us. Supporting our children to release their stress and accumulated feelings will allow them to come back to balance and be relaxed and calm enough to slip gently and easily to sleep.
Play: Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive, engaging in play before bed is another way to help children get ready for sleep. When our children laugh, it releases stress and tension for them and the play also meets their needs for connection at the same time. Some great games to play before bed include a power-reversal pillow fight, where you allow your child to be the stronger one and knock you over; throwing the pyjamas game – where you have to throw the clothing towards your child and they only have to put them on if the clothes hit them; reading bedtime stories but getting it wrong – putting in nonsense words, reading it upside down. Chasing them around coz you have to give them 5000 kisses before they go to sleep and not quite catching them and getting very mock frustrated that you aren't catching them! Anything that brings laughter and fun and connection will help them feel relaxed and you feel less serious and stressed about bedtime too!
Broken cookie phenomenon: If you’re noticing that your child is getting upset over something that is seemingly small and “silly”, it is another sign that they need to release some feelings. We can see that they are bringing up something little and having a big reaction to it as a pretext in order to cry – maybe they have the wrong cup by the bed or their favourite pyjama top is dirty? In this case we can listen lovingly as they tell us how unfair it is and how upset they feel. We don’t need to fix it, we don’t tell them that it’s silly to get so upset about such a little thing. We just listen with empathy and love as they offload their feelings, knowing that they will soon feel relaxed and calm again and be able to fall asleep.
Loving Limits: Often our children become quite agitated, demanding or insistent at bedtime. Maybe they are demanding that you read yet another story? Maybe they are getting rough with their siblings or the dog? In this case, setting Loving limits with our child is really helpful for them to access the feelings that are underneath their behaviour. We say a loving but clear “No” to their behaviour and then welcome the release of the feelings. “I hear that you really want another story now, but I am not willing to read anymore tonight” and then, when they become upset, you remind them that you are there and listening to how they feel.
Closeness and Cuddles: Aware Parenting supports co-sleeping as the best way to meet our children’s very legitimate needs for closeness at night. It is natural and normal for children to want a loving care-giver to be with them whilst sleeping. If your child is experiencing a particularly stressful time, then their need for company while falling asleep will increase. So lots of cuddles and closeness at bedtime and throughout the night allows our children to feel connected, safe and loved.
Taking care of ourselves: Meeting our needs and getting support for ourselves is crucial too. This might be through sharing our frustrations in a journal or with a listening partner or having a session with an Aware Parenting Instructor. This might be taking time regularly to check in with ourselves to see what needs of ours are not being met and then taking steps to meet them better. This might be having a 5 minute break before bedtime to drink a cup of tea and give yourself some love. Anything that we do to support ourselves to feel more resourced and supported generally will make it easier for us to support our children with bedtimes.
So, if we want bedtime to be easier and more fun, we can remember to do what we can to help our children to feel relaxed, connected, heard and supported, close and loved, relaxed and laughing. We can take steps to support ourselves to feel resourced and relaxed so that we can then, in turn, help our children drift off to sleep without stress and frustration and battles at bedtime.