For some children, saying good night is easy. They may negotiate an extra book at bedtime or hop out of bed once or twice, but in the end, a tuck in and a kiss is all they need to drift happily off to sleep.
For others, bedtime isn’t that simple. Disconnecting from the parents they rely on to keep them safe and protected is hard. When you think about it, it’s not surprising that some children find it difficult to say goodnight. Those 10 or 11 hours of sleep are the biggest separation of a child’s day.
For children that struggle, bridging the gap between bedtime and morning – helping them to feel connected to the us even when we’re apart – is the key to a happy bedtime. Here are some things you can try to cultivate the connection.
Reinforce the emotional connection with your child before the lights go out. Reconnecting with parents at the end of the day is important for all children, but it’s especially important for those that have trouble separating at night. Make sure that your child’s bedtime routine includes focused time for snuggling, reading together, or chatting about the day. Ultimately, what you do isn’t all that important. The specific activity doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make the time to be together and that your child knows that you enjoy being with them. Resist the urge to rush through these important moments, even though you may be feeling pressure to get on with the rest of your night. Remind yourself that the dishes and laundry can wait. The time you invest now will pay off for you and your child over time.
Read stories that reinforce the idea of connection. There are a number of wonderful books that reinforce the idea that we’re connected even when we’re apart, but there are two in particular that I always recommend – The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. Many families I’ve worked with over the years swear by the impact these books have had on their children’s ability to relax and settle for the night, and I used the ideas in both books successfully with my son when he had periods of difficulty saying goodnight.
Promote connection with sight, sound, touch and smell. For some children, checking back in on them after leaving the room can help to ease the transition to sleep. Start by checking every 5 minutes or so. Remind them that you’re nearby, gives hugs and kisses if necessary, and let them know that you’ll be back to check on them again very soon. In the morning, tell them that you continued checking throughout the night and that they looked warm and cozy in their bed. Most children take comfort knowing that you’re doing your job and keeping them safe all night long.
For children that don’t need quite as much physical reassurance, small gestures like placing a favorite family photo next to their bed or tucking a piece of your clothing under their pillow can be comforting and effective. For other children, hearing activity around the house is soothing. A sweet little 4 year old in my practice was inconsolable at bedtime until we discovered that he needed a clearer picture of what mom was doing after she left his room for the night. Telling him what she was doing wasn’t enough – so we reversed the baby monitor, gave him the screen, put the camera in the kitchen – and he now falls asleep happily watching her do the dishes every night.
Focus on the reunion – not the separation. Guiding your child’s thoughts toward what will happen in the morning when you reunite can also keep you present for your child. Be specific when you talk about what will happen when you see each other again. “In the morning after breakfast we can work your new puzzle together” – or “ I can’t wait to go to the park with you tomorrow when we get up.” Knowing that you’re excited to see them in the morning reinforces how important they are to you, which cultivates the connection as well.
Alison Bevan – Sleepytime Coach
Pediatric Sleep Consultant – The Center For Advanced Pediatrics