Every mom has a “thorn in her side” when it comes to raising kids. For me, it has always been bedtime. From sleep regressions to middle-of-the-night wake-ups, it’s never been smooth sailing. I can still remember staring at a wall while endlessly bouncing on a yoga ball in the middle of the night, humming “Hey Jude” until my head buzzed like a Beatle on a psychedelic trip. But when my daughter settled into a pretty regular sleep schedule at four years old, I was convinced I was in the clear.
Until last month, that is.
Seemingly out of the blue, our peaceful bedtime routine became an elaborate performance involving three different kinds of hugs, four songs, and then, even then, a tearful monologue that destroys me a little every time. “But I want you to stay with me forever.” Nothing tugs at my mama-heart more than that trembling lower lip, those hands stretched out for one last hug.
The truth of the matter is, even with all the empathy in the world, I want my daughter to be able to recognize boundaries and exercise independence in her sleep routine. And, frankly, for my own mental health, I needed a bit of space at bedtime too. I wondered: was this an age-appropriate step in her development? Or was it something more contextual, due to the pandemic, my new job, her beloved nanny leaving, and all the adjustments that come with these huge life changes?
The truth of the matter is, even with all the empathy in the world, I want my daughter to be able to recognize boundaries and exercise independence in her sleep routine.
Nicole Johnson, President and Owner of The Baby Sleep Site, reassures us that this is normal behavior, particularly with little kids. “We find that 3-4-year-olds do start to drag out bedtime near when they drop their nap,” Johnson said. “Another thing we see is nighttime fears come into play. Around this age, they learn they are mortal and not everyone in the world is nice.”
Additionally, Johnson pinpointed a pandemic-related factor, acknowledging that kids are seeing so much more of their parents than usual. “You might think it would decrease separation anxiety since they are around you so much, but we sometimes see the opposite phenomena. More time together sometimes means more anxiety when you’re apart.” Nina Kaiser, a child and family psychologist, agreed. “Kids generally tend to thrive on predictable routines and structure, and the pandemic has upended daily life as many families knew it. Consequently, kids may be looking for a greater degree of connection or a higher level of reassurance from the adults in their lives.”
More time together sometimes means more anxiety when you’re apart.
There are many reasons why your little one could be experiencing some bedtime anxiety, and many of them are likely environmental as much as biological. For example, dreaming and nightmares can start as early as 3 years old and can often lead to some unwillingness to be alone in the dark. For others, life changes like the ones I mentioned above can lead to new feelings they haven’t experienced before. Pinpointing those core factors then working through them with your child will lead to more productive steps forward.
Here are the four steps we’re talking in our household for a more peaceful sleep routine.
1. Communicate and set expectations
My mom superpower is usually my ability to see things from my daughter’s perspective and empathize on her level. But truthfully, that empathy can falter in the heat of the moment. Instead of having conversations about your child’s big feelings at bedtime when she’s tired and you’re frustrated, talk about them during the day, when everyone is calm and rested. Ask your child what she’s worried about and see if you can help alleviate some of those fears. For example, my daughter mentioned she wants the hallway light on, in addition to her nightlight. I suspect it gives her a sense of security she needs, and it’s not hard to accommodate.
Then walk through what you want the bedtime routine to look like. Perhaps your child has some suggestions to help create her ideal routine too. This may not be one simple conversation. It may actually be a series of talks. Allow yourselves the space to discuss those big feelings.
(A note: if those fears are persistent and don’t ease after a few weeks, please consider reaching out to your doctor or family therapist for a professional opinion.)
2. Give reassurance before you leave
It’s important to let your child know that the separation is temporary and that you’ll be there with them in the morning. Every night, I tell my daughter, “This is goodnight for now, but Mommy and Daddy will be here in the morning, like always.” I can almost see her face relaxing at those words.
Kaiser added, “It’s helpful to add opportunities for focused one-on-one connection with your child during the day to build their baseline sense of security. Even in small doses, we have a lot of power as parents if we can set down our phones, step away from our other demands, and really meet our kids where they are with attention, curiosity, and engagement.”
Even in small doses, we have a lot of power as parents if we can set down our phones, step away from our other demands, and really meet our kids where they are with attention, curiosity, and engagement.
There are so many distractions even at bedtime, with chores and other kids and work emails calling, but try to stay present for those precious few minutes. I promise you, it’ll make a true impact on your child. And it may also center you as a parent too!
3. Gently guide your child back to their room
Inevitably, your child will call for you or try to leave their room to find you. It’s OK for them to be testing these boundaries, especially if there’s been an established pattern. My advice to you is to be patient and firm in your communication. It’s hard to recognize this in the moment, but bringing your own frustrations to the table can truly hinder your child’s ability to hear you.
I keep my communication brief yet loving, telling my daughter, “I understand that you want us, but it is time to go to sleep. Please snuggle up with your stuffies, and we will see you in the morning.”
I won’t lie: there are whimpers at first and sometimes, more escapes. Consistency is what helps us most. I almost look at it as a kind of script, one in which routine becomes reassurance for both parent and child.
Kaiser offered this piece of caution, “It is tempting to be flexible and allow temporary accommodations (e.g. repeatedly agreeing to say just one more goodnight or give one last hug, staying with your child until he/she falls asleep, or letting your child sleep in your bed), particularly under such extenuating circumstances—but it is better to establish and adhere to a consistent routine.”
4. Consider rewarding independence
In order to create patterns of independence, Johnson suggested setting expectations during the daytime. “You should encourage independent play, sometimes in another room, and focus on increasing self-confidence in being alone.”
Johnson and Kaiser both suggested a reward system, such as a sticker chart to help reinforce desirable behavior. My husband or I will often let our daughter know that she’s earned a privilege for being such a big girl with her sleep routine. (Peppa Pig episodes are her favorite reward!)
If you choose not to do rewards, you can use positive affirmations such as, “I was so proud of you for staying in your bed last night” or “It’s neat to see what a big girl you’re growing up to be.” Children crave guidance, and knowing what they are doing right does wonders for their confidence.
We’re only a week into our new four-step strategy, but so far, I’m already seeing a lot of improvement. The sleep routine is still a bit drawn out, but my daughter is settling into her room in a calmer state—which, of course, means that our overall evening is much more peaceful. After checking on the video monitor to see that she’s truly sleeping, I can curl up on the couch with my mug of tea and an episode of Bridgerton, knowing that everything is okay in our little household.
What tips do you have to offer? Let us know in the comments below or over on Instagram @theeverymom.