We all want to offer our children a peaceful and love-filled transition to sleep each night. It’s a natural time in the day to cultivate connection and in the best case scenario, it’s a “sweet spot” of parenting.
But in real life, it’s way more likely that bedtime is a rush of power struggles (sometimes accompanied by begging) that leave your entire household feeling frustrated and disconnected.
It is possible to shift this dynamic, and make the time before sleep a highlight of the day for your family, but it takes some intentional effort, mindful reflection, and a bit of time to adjust.
Remember, there’s no one way forward that’s perfect for every family. Check out the considerations below, and experiment with what’s right for you and your kids. Keep what serves you, adapt or let go of what doesn’t, and most of all, go easy on yourself and your children. A healthy dose of self-compassion is the only way to move through our complicated human lives at peace.
- Shift Your Bedtime Goal to Prioritize Connection: At the end of a busy day, it’s 100% normal to want to get your kids in bed and asleep as fast as humanly possible. I’ve been there. And yet, the paradox of peaceful sleep is that the stronger our “go to sleep” message is, the more desperately our kids work to stay awake! Consider that what your children want most in the world is time with you. When they go to bed, they are entering a period of disconnection. In order to feel good about that, they need their love well filled up. In fact, you may want to start referring to the end of the day as family time, snuggle time, connection time….anything other than bedtime. Sleep is not the goal, it’s just the natural outcome of a peaceful evening.
- Make a List! Yes I Really Mean It: Every parent has experienced the many needs kids have as soon as the lights go out. Take a pro-active approach and make an actual list of every single thing your kid needs before bed: pj’s on, teeth brushed, potty, water, closet monster check, stuffy, hug, and anything else you can think of. Put two columns of check boxes after each item – one for done and another for no thank you. The no thank you column is great if one night your kid doesn’t need a monster check, or isn’t in the mood for hugs and kisses. Laminate your list, tie a crayon to it, and hang it up near your kids bed. Use it playfully like a scavenger hunt each night, and teach your kids the valuable lesson of prior preparation.
- Create a Pajama Song, a Get Some Water Song, a Do You Really See a Monster Song: Bring playfulness into your evening, and use the power of singing together to foster connection. Simple songs that everyone in the family can learn make everyday tasks more fun, and help bring the family into a shared rhythm. You can make up your own words, or source them from books. My family has been singing the Pajama Time song from Sandra Boynton’s board book for a solid 7 years!
- Have a Portable Routine: Sleep has to happen in many places, so don’t set yourself and your kids up for stress with a routine that can only happen at home. Since you’re rethinking the process anyway, now’s a good time to consider if there are aspects of what you do at bedtime that won’t travel well. If so, how can you shift them to accommodate nights you’re not at home.
- Honor Fears and Work to Create Safety: Sleep is a vulnerable state. Kids naturally have fears around bedtime, especially if they are sleeping in a room by themselves. Often our tendency is to minimize these fears in an attempt to assuage them, but it doesn’t really work. After all, how can someone who doesn’t see the problem possible help solve it! It’s more effective to listen, ask questions, and honor your child’s concerns. Then work together to create solutions. When my daughter started sleeping in her own room, she was really afraid of the house catching fire. Saying “that’s not going to happen” was dismissive and she knew it. Working together to create a fire safety map of our house, letting her help check the smoke detectors, and practicing setting them off and going through the emergency plan made her feel powerful and prepared instead.
- Read For Engagement: I love reading. I love kids books. And yet at a certain point with my kids I noticed myself trying to make the books I was reading them at night as boring as possible. Seriously! I was trying to lull them to sleep like a bad hypnotist, and it sucked all the enjoyment out of one of our favorite activities. A much better strategy is to read for engagement and connection. Read with curiosity, ask questions, encourage dialogue. Go all in, and make reading it’s own joyful experience. The transition to sleep stuff can come after.
- Cultivate Gratitude: The human brain has a negativity bias. It’s great for surviving, but not so good for thriving. The end of the day is the perfect time to reflect with our kids on what good is happening in their world. Ask them to linger over a good experience, describe what it felt like, hold it in their memory for a few moments. This practice of “taking in the good” as Rick Hanson describes in his book Hardwiring Happiness, can help our brain re-orient to the world and counteract the negativity bias we are all born with.
- Use a Body Scan to Move Into Rest: A body scan is a simple way to check in with our needs, recognize our capacity, and invite the body to rest. When kids practice a body scan each night, it naturally builds self-awareness, and helps them relate to their body in a healthy way. To try, start with the feet, thank each part of the body for the work it did that day, and invite it to rest. Along the way, if they notice any parts of the body are tense or uncomfortable, they can move around to make them feel better. This is a great practice for adults too!
- Reinforce Love with My Favorite Bedtime Practice: When my oldest was a newborn I was obsessed with making sure she knew she was loved unconditionally. Out of that came what is my hands down favorite way to help my girls transition to sleep. We call it The Love Yous. Basically, what I want them to know is that they are worthy of love exactly as they are, that they are surrounded by people who love them, and that that love will never go away. So I say those things out loud. I say their full names and tell them they deserve love, that nothing they can do will ever make me love them less, or love them more, because I love them for who they are not what they do. Then I say out loud all the people in their lives who love them. Mama loves you, Daddy love you, Nana loves you, Aunt Laureli loves you, etc. It’s a long list, but I’m pretty picky about who goes on it. Even if they fall asleep, I finish it up. After 7 years, my oldest still asks for it. About 6 months ago, in what was maybe the highest point of my parenting life, I overhead her asking her two year old sister if she wanted to do the Love You’s. She used her own words for the intro, and then made her way through the list. I just stood there and cried.
- Consider Staying a While: The idea that we need to teach our kids how to sleep on their own makes a lot of parents feel guilty about staying in the room (or the bed) as their kids fall asleep. We don’t want our kids to need us so much that they can’t ever sleep without us. But there’s another way to think about this. What would it feel like for you to consider staying with your kids as they fall asleep, not because they need you, but because you want to be with them. This doesn’t create a trap, or lock you in to doing it every night forever, or send them a message that they can’t go to sleep on their own. It just shows them that you like them, and want to be near them when you can. Being wanted for who they are may be the deepest longing of your child’s heart. In the quiet time, when we have so many other things to do, choosing our kids over and over again, night after night, gives them an extraordinary gift. One that just may shape how they see themselves for a lifetime.