From the moment my daughter arrived home from the hospital as a newborn, sleep was a struggle. First, it was colic; then separation anxiety; then fear of the dark; and then eventually, general, all-consuming anxiety. This is to say that for six years now, my husband and I have been in a sleep experiment—testing one method after another in attempt to settle our kid in for the night.
If you sense your child is struggling with anxiety that keeps a good night’s sleep at bay, finding a therapist who is trained in working with children is a smart step to take. In the meantime, adjusting your bedtime routine and allowing for plenty of time to wind down may help everyone get the rest they need. No anxiety? No problem (and lucky you). Reworking your approach and adding a few calming techniques may be just the thing you need to streamline bedtime.
Here’s the bedtime routine that works for our family.
Start in the Morning
In our house, working toward a good night’s sleep starts long before bedtime. On the days when my husband and I are consumed by work, my daughter has more screen time than I care to admit. On those nights, getting her off to dreamland is consistently a struggle. And it’s no coincidence: The National Sleep Foundation reports that every hour kids spend on a screen robs them of roughly 15-26 minutes of sleep.
But let’s be realistic: in this season of life, we can’t do away with screen time altogether. What we can do, however, is try to offset it with healthful habits that make for a more restful night’s sleep. On the days when I spend one-on-one time with my oldest (even for 15 minutes at a time!) and ensure she’s packing in as much fun movement as she can, I notice bedtime goes much more smoothly. We also try to start the day with some time outside, as science says exposure to morning sun can help bring on a better night’s rest.
Dance It Out
On most nights—especially those that have been riddled with tantrums—we dim the lights, blast the joyful music, and have a family dance party. It lasts only about 10-15 minutes, but it’s enough shaking and wiggling to release pent up energy and close out the day on a happy note. The trick is to do this early on, with enough time for kids to wind down for sleep. A dance party followed by immediately climbing into bed is a recipe for a bedtime struggle.
After she’s done the sundry nighttime stuff (brush and floss teeth and change into pajamas), focusing on some deep belly breathing is a soothing way to transition into sleep. We don’t always use this step, but on particularly high-tension days, it can be useful. Instructing little kids to breathe deeply can be a confusing request, so we often rely on a trick we picked up from my child’s therapist: I draw a square on a sheet of paper and my kiddo traces it with her finger, breathing in for one line, out for the next, and so on. We do this 4-5 times together.
Store the Worries Away
There are nights when my daughter is consumed by, what seems to me, minor worries. “What is this bump on my hand?” She’ll ask me. “What if I can’t find my stuffed kangaroo?” She’ll wonder. And while I do the usual reassuring parents can do, sometimes it helps to encourage her to get the anxieties out of her head by putting them down on paper. Just the act of writing them down together ensures her of two things: 1. We won’t forget them, and 2. We can problem-solve them in the morning.
There are so many wonderful books, videos, and apps to inspire kids to hop on a yoga mat. I love Good Night Yoga: A Pose-by-Pose Bedtime Story that combines story with movement for a gentle and relaxing flow. It even ends with a short guided meditation that sends kids on a soothing cloud-ride to their favorite place on Earth. If you’re short on time, a few yoga poses connecting breath to movement might be enough to calm a little one’s nervous system. If we’re in a time crunch, we pick and choose our relaxing favorites: tree pose, legs up the wall, and child’s pose are a few we love.
Bring in Soothers
When it comes to soothing nighttime fears, I have had plenty of practice. A few tricks I’ve relied on over the years include setting up a Himalayan salt lamp and creating a bedtime basket. I’ll admit, I’m skeptical of the pseudo-science behind the salt lamp, but the pink light it emits is cozy and pretty, and honestly, sometimes that’s enough for me.
I also keep a small basket at her bedside and fill it with a few items that she can grab if she has trouble in the night. Currently, she has a lavender sachet she likes to sniff, a story torch (it’s a small flashlight that projects images on the ceiling), and a book that has my recorded voice reading as she turns each page.
Know When to Let Go
As a lifelong insomniac, I know this much to be true: no matter how much soothing and calming you do, you can’t force anyone to fall asleep. All you can do is create a relaxing environment and then step back and let them be. If my daughter is tossing and turning despite my best efforts, I’ll hand her a small reading light and a stack of books and tell her to have at it. If I remove the pressure to fall asleep, she can usually relax on her own much faster. Can’t get your child to read on their own? Reach for a bedtime app that will read them a mellowing nighttime story. Our favorite is the Calm app.