Of the many parenting issues that I work with in my coaching practice, one that seems to come up all too often is that of sleep. More specifically, the “bedtime dance,” as I call it.
Perhaps you know the scene – you put your sweet child to bed only to have them come out of their room a thousand times for what feels like the most insignificant of reasons – “I need a glass of water.” “I need one more hug.” “I can’t sleep” “It’s too hot/cold in my room.” “I can’t sleep alone.” Sound familiar?
Guess what? The same dance has been happening in my house as well and boy, is it not fun!
My 6 year old daughter has always been a great sleeper. Well, actually, I take that back. As an infant, she did anything and everything she could to fight sleep. You could literally see her about to close her eyes and something would wake her. It’s as though she didn’t want to miss anything, yet she was miserable and exhausted! So were we!
Eventually that phase ended and she would go to bed like a champ. Until recently. The last several nights, we have witnessed our daughter come out of her room many times, as mentioned above, for one more hug, drinks of water, to use the restroom etc. The other night, however, was a bit different. She was truly upset and crying – not the “I’m stalling” cry, but the genuine, “I’m having a hard time” cry.
On this particular evening when I went in to see her, she said, “Mommy, I’m so sad. I am soooo tired and I can’t sleep. It’s so hard. My eyes want to close but they keep staying open. I want to sleep Mama, but I don’t want to be here alone. Please sleep here with me.” She was hysterical and it broke my heart. My little girl was really struggling and for the last several days, all I kept thinking was, “Oh my goodness, why can’t she just go to sleep already?!?”
For a moment, I was at a parenting crossroads. One road might lead to a long night of annoyance, frustration and irritation if I chose to focus on how she was impacting my time and my evening and would most likely mean many more trips up and down the stairs returning her to bed. The other road might lead to a night of connection, patience and empathy. In the end, I chose the latter. Here’s how it went down:
I took a few moments to center myself. I had to acknowledge the frustration inside of me, as I really did have a lot of work to do and was looking forward to having “me-time.” I took several deep breaths and told myself, “This isn’t about me; I can handle this.” With those breaths, I found my frustration slowly turning into empathy. I chose to attempt to better understand her experience by connecting with her; especially the part of her that really wanted to fall asleep.
I calmly and softly said to her, “It must be really hard to feel sooo tired and not be able to sleep.” Her cries softened and she nodded. “Yeah, that happens to me sometimes too,” I said. “It does?” she said, “What do you do when that happens?” “Well,” I said, “What helps me the most is taking my calming breaths (something we practice often).” “I can’t do it.” She said. The crying started up again. “I know it feels hard, especially right now” I said, “but I also know how capable you are and how much it’s helped you at other times. Would you like me to do it with you?” “Yes,” she said.
I suggested that she put her hand over her heart and I put my hand on top of hers. I then closed my eyes and began taking long, slow, deep breaths. She followed my lead. We did this for several minutes. I opened my eyes expecting her to be asleep (or at least that was my hope), but her eyes were wide open and she smiled. “Can we do more breathing?” she asked. “Of course.” I replied. She yawned. I could see it was helping. It was actually helping both of us. I needed those breaths as much as she did.
After another minute of breathing together, she asked if she could use the restroom. I wasn’t sure if that was legit, but she quickly came back and said, “I think I’m ready to sleep now, Mommy.” “Me too.” I said. We did three big hugs and kisses and said goodnight. Off to bed she went and slept the entire evening.
Some nights aren’t always this easy, but I truly know that when I’m able to set aside my own agenda in order to focus on her needs, magic happens. She feels connected and is much more open to my guidance.
If sleep has been a challenge in your home, here are seven other suggestions to try:
1.) Teach, model and practice relaxation/mindfulness exercises – Kids aren’t born knowing how to “calm down” or regulate their emotions. It’s a learned skill. Kids learn what they see. Model what calm looks like by regulating your own emotions and teach your kids how they can calm themselves using mindfulness, meditation and/or relaxation exercises. In so doing, you are giving them a life-long skill and a precious gift! There are many wonderful resources available. Two of my favorites are: http://www.mindfulschools.org/resources/materials/ and http://kidsrelaxation.com/?cat=17
2.) Establish a bedtime routine and start the routine earlier than you think – For more on how to establish a routine, click here.
3.) Encourage your child to journal or draw (especially before bedtime) – Adding this to your child’s bedtime routine can be very helpful. Help your child see journaling as a special time where she can write about her day, her feelings, and/or anything that may be bothering her. For younger kids, support them in drawing or using art as a way of expressing any pent up emotions they may be having around nighttime.
4.) Make sure you are getting plenty of 1:1/”special time” with your child – Often, when kids have been separated from parents all day, they may use bedtime as their time to re-connect and will do whatever is necessary to prolong their time with you. Having regularly scheduled time, where your child will get 100% of your full, undivided attention can do wonders for these bedtime battles. In addition to cuddles and quiet time, make sure to also add some fun, playful time that gets you and your child giggling – this is one way in which to help your child release any pent up anxieties he may be experiencing.
5.) Use stuffed animals to role play the bedtime scene – Let your child be the “parent” and you be the child. As the “child,” act out the usual scene (child refusing to go to sleep) and watch how the “parent” handles it. This is a wonderful way to gain some insight as to how your child might be perceiving you and/or evening time in general. First, playfully resist bedtime and then, eventually, cooperate with the “parents” request. After, switch roles. Let your child be the “child/baby” and you be the parent. Role-model a calm parent who patiently assists her “baby” in going to sleep. Repeat this as often as needed.
6.) At a calm time, during the day, brainstorm solutions to the “problem” of not sleeping – Explain to your child that at nighttime, it’s her job to sleep in her bed and that mommy/daddy sleep in their own bed. Next, discuss how difficult it’s been and ask if she has any solutions that might be helpful. Often, kids come up with some pretty interesting and useful suggestions when we take the time to engage them in the problem-solving process.
7.) Remain calm/keep your own emotions in check – Kids pick up on our anxiety, frustration, annoyance etc. and take on those very emotions (thanks to the specialized mirror neurons in our brains). We can’t expect our kids to “calm down” if we’re not demonstrating what calm looks and feels like. Take 5. Pause before responding and breathe through the frustration. Remind yourself that although irritating, “This is not an emergency.”
Ultimately, taking care of ourselves is key to being able to support our kids through their challenges. Kids learn what we model and there will be many parenting crossroads on our journey. When in doubt, choose the road leading to connection. The learning will follow.
It starts with us.
All the best,