There was a long stretch of time when no one in my house seemed to get a good night’s sleep. Bedtime was a stressful nightmare—an exhausting game of Whack-a-Mole in which one kid swung open her bedroom door, and then the next.
Everyone needed something: a back tickle, another story, or company until she fell asleep. It felt like a futile effort, and on more than one occasion, my husband or I would snap, sending a “would! you! just! go! to! sleep!” reverberating through the house.
I couldn’t figure out what the trouble was either; we had a consistent, calming bedtime routine, and our girls had plenty of active play during the day to tire them out. We added relaxing techniques. We tested different bedtimes. But still, like clockwork, every night our kids would rebel against sleep—riding a wave of crazy energy that had me wondering if they were secretly guzzling coffee at dinner.
The harder it was for them to fall asleep, the grumpier they were the next day. And with little rainclouds for children, I couldn’t wait to put them to bed. The cycle was a vicious one. They couldn’t sleep and my response was to try to force them to sleep even earlier.
The Simplest Solution
One night, in a fit of dual frustration, I handed my toddler a stack of board books and invited her to read on her own. Where once I was rocking her until her eyes grew heavy, I plopped her in her crib seemingly wide awake. I had one rule: you lay in bed, quiet as can be, and you can read for as long as you’d like. Twenty minutes later and my 2-year-old was fast asleep, her body sprawled across several open books. Days later, the same plan worked for my 6-year-old.
As it turns out, putting the pressure on at bedtime was enough to keep my kids from drifting off to dreamland. Without the stress of falling asleep on command, they settled in peacefully, even welcoming a little alone time at the end of their day. Sure, there have been nights when I catch one or the other up paging through a book way later than I’d like, but this routine feels far gentler and easier on everyone.
Granting them this say into how they fall asleep has also reminded me of the value of choosing our battles. Like everything in parenthood, we can’t force our kids to obey commands. They’re not toy soldiers sent marching by our demands. All we can do—whether it’s during mealtimes or bedtime—is set our expectations, give them what they need, and let go.