Have you ever had a recurring nightmare?
For years mine was of Tony the Tiger hunting me down and trying to kill me. I laugh about it now, but back then that cartoon tiger had me weeping in the middle of the night. Bless my parents for keeping a straight face as they comforted me on more than one occasion.
Fast-forward twenty years and I am putting my own kids to bed. Both struggle with sleep and dread bedtime.
I went into parenting with what I would call a traditional bedtime philosophy.
I followed a routine of bath, book, bed.
I made sure bellies were filled and bladders were emptied.
I hugged and kissed and cuddled.
I said good night and made sure it was understood there could be a consequence for getting out of bed.
In theory the formula worked.But what do you do when it’s not working? What do you do when your kids are scared or restless or overtired? What if you have no idea why they struggle with bedtime?
If your kids don’t struggle with sleep, keep doing what you’re doing. I would dare say you can consider yourself the lucky few! For most of us, our kids will struggle. Whether it’s chronic or a short season, this post is meant to provide encouragement and insight to help you.
Let me walk you through three bedtime blunders I’m guilty of and what I’ve learned to do instead.
Blunder #1 We Rush the Routine
The problem with bedtime is that it’s at the end of the day. You’re typically running on fumes at this point. You’re eager for alone time or anxious to get to the myriad of projects that await.
The only thing standing in the way between you and freedom is tuck-in time. It often feels more like something to get through rather than revel in.
But, your kids can smell it from a mile away when you begin to check-out. You want to get the job done and your kids want more of you. Trying to leave only escalates the situation and soon you have a bedtime meltdown on your hands.
Solution: Be willing to connect
My husband and I have had to completely reframe what bedtime means in our home. We both agreed that in order to help our kids settle, this routine can’t be rushed. We plan for bedtime to take 30-45 minutes. That’s not including the bath or night snack. That’s just time we spend in their rooms with them.
I’ve had to work really hard to enjoy this time. I used to feel bored or anxious to leave, but now I can honestly say I look forward to bedtime with my kids.
What do we do in that 30-45 minutes? Here are a few tips that may help:
- We alternate kids so that each night they get quality time with just mom or dad (obviously this will look different if you have more than 2 kids!)
- We talk about their day: things to be thankful for, what they did, problems that arose.
- We make things right. If we need to debrief about a conflict that day, we talk it through, share our perspective and apologize.
- We read a few books.
- We pray.
Blunder #2 We Die on the Wrong Hill
There was a hill that I was willing to die on that caused a lot of grief in our home. It was that I expected our kids to stay in their beds all night after we said good night.
I did my job, checked all the boxes. My kids were loved, fed, cozy… they had everything they needed! Now they just had to do their job and stay in their room.
Feeling restless? Come get a hug and go back to your room.
Feeling scared? Come get a hug and go back to your room.
Feeling lonely? Come get a hug and go back to your room.
When my daughter’s sleep struggles were at their worst I realized we were spending more of the night awake than asleep because I wanted to send a consistent message of what our expectations were. I didn’t acknowledge that she needed something more from me.
I felt like it would be lenient to allow her to stay with us. I was worried it would set a bad precedent to not expect her to sleep in her own bed. I wondered if other parents would see it as a pushover move.
Solution: Be willing to compromise
Our current system wasn’t working and it needed to change. Without rest we were all feeling exhausted and disconnected. We decided we were ready to make a compromise.
By the way…did you know that it’s okay to make compromises with your kids? Allowing choice and voice in your home shows that you value the relationship. It indicates flexibility rather than rigidity.
What was the compromise we made?
- Our end goal was still the same: for our kids to fall asleep on their own and stay in their beds all night. We agreed that the path to get them there would look different than we envisioned.
- We decided we were willing to open up our bedroom to our kids.
- We made a little bed on the floor beside ours and taught our kids that they were welcome to come at any point in the night so long as they were quiet and went to sleep.
And guess what? The amount of sleep we got in the night went up ten-fold. We got rest and our kids got the felt safety they needed.
Fun fact: My kids will not still be sleeping on the floor in my bedroom when they’re eighteen. If they are, I will start charging rent! Until then, we are good with the compromise we made.
Blunder #3 We Forget About Rewards
This blunder is my most recent one. It’s not so much of a mistake as it is a great idea I’d never thought of before.
In an ideal world, our kids would be internally motivated. They would do what they’re asked because deep inside they understand it is ultimately valuable for them. In reality, our kids are motivated by stickers and M&M’s.
As a middle school teacher, I can tell you that it’s amazing how productive kids are at the prospect of being the winner of a single candy!
The solution: Be willing to incentivize
I believe in helping our kids develop autonomy and in their ability to be intrinsically motivated. I am also okay to offer rewards and incentives to help my kids.
What does the reward system look like in our home? Our friend gave us the following idea and it’s been so helpful in getting our kids to stay in their beds all night:
- We went to Dollarama and made a bin full of cheap prizes.
- We told our kids that they are more than welcome to come to the little bed if they need, but if they stay in their rooms all night they would be allowed to choose a prize from the bin in the morning.
- Slowly, we create longer stretches before choosing a reward from the bin (If you can go 2 nights, then 3 nights etc.)
What I love about this is that our kids are making decisions for themselves. We still give them a space in our room if they need it. More often than not though they try to stay in their rooms for the night.
A Final Word
Sleep is important. And being tired sucks.
My hope is that you feel empowered to make changes that work for your family.
So, finish your last gulp of morning coffee and be encouraged that your sleep woes won’t last forever.
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Jerrah-Lee is a middle school teacher with two young kids. She’s been married for nearly 12 years to her husband, Kevin. She loves learning and in recent years has focused her attention on brain science and healthy family relationships. She also enjoys learning about how to organize her family life in a way that is practical and balanced.