The Problem:

So many parents struggle with bedtime, especially if your child is anxious and has trouble falling asleep on their own. But imagine having a child who is comfortable enough to sleep on their own or imagine some down time for yourself to relax after you put your kids to sleep. Sound like a dream? It’s not, you can spend time with your significant other, watch that show you’ve been waiting for, play on your phone, catch up on household chores or just… gasp…sleep if you had the time.

The Goal:

The goal of wanting kids to sleep on their own is not for selfish purposes of the parents, it is to encourage confidence in your children so that they can face their own fears and feel secure in knowing that they are safe. We want to find a balance between them feeling comfortable with themselves to deal with minor worries on a regular basis yet knowing they can come to you with more difficult problems on some occasions.

What Doesn’t Work:

Rational discussions, trying to distract by thinking of nice things, or your endless reassurances are likely not going to be effective with an anxious child. Comforting oneself is a skill children learn through experience not rational thought or reassurances. For example, if a child is scared but is able to wait it out and nothing bad happens then the anxiety subsides, and with practice, the child learns that waiting and relaxing are good strategies. If there is no opportunity to learn self-soothing, then the reliance on mom or dad to be able to relax is the only comfort.

What Will Work:

Here’s your survival guide to get your sanity back and get your kids on the right track for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Set expectations for sleep and talk about them as a family:

  • BEDTIME ROUTINE

  • STAY IN YOUR OWN BED THE WHOLE NIGHT

  • FALL ASLEEP ON YOUR OWN

  • CALM QUIET BODIES= CHECK INS

1) Bedtime Routine-

Establish a soothing routine. It not only trains you and your kids, it literally trains their brains that there is an order to things and the next thing in this order is sleep. For instance, take a bath, brush our teeth and hair, put on pajamas, read books or talk about pleasant things that happened that day, rub their back in bed and then you leave.

Avoid activities before bed which are stimulating such as tv or phones. Also attempt to avoid discussions of problems, parental conflict or exposure to scary movies etc. Bedtime is for relaxing! We can’t force sleep, but we can encourage relaxation and then sleep will come naturally.

2) Stay in Your Bed-

Discuss expectations ahead of time and how the family will problem solve any struggles together. Review staying calm and quiet so that you can offer comfort and sit with them or walk them back to bed. As parents it’s important to remain calm even when frustrated throughout the night because your increased irritability creates tension and we’re aiming for relaxation. Avoid engaging in discussion of the rules, your child feeling treated unfairly, or any other agitating topics. Bedtime is not a time for debate it’s a time for relaxation. Neutral and calm parents create calm kids.

3) Fall Asleep on Your Own-

The hard part is leaving so they can fall asleep on their own. The goal is to stay with them until they are relaxed but not asleep. Often times parents are concerned that their child will just pop up and then they’ll have to start the routine all over again, so they stay with them until they are asleep. However, this creates a situation where the children don’t know how to fall asleep on their own and rely on their parents to help sooth them off to dreamland.

If your child has been used to you staying with them until they are asleep, I’m not going to lie, you will have several rough nights/weeks of retraining and setting new expectations. However, several weeks for years of good sleep habits is a worthwhile trade off.

4) Check Ins-

So, here’s what to do, when you get up to leave, once your child is really relaxed but not asleep and they pop up to dispute you leaving: Remind them of the calm quiet expectation, offer check ins every few minutes until they are asleep at some point when you come back in. Again, remember that in order for you to offer comfort they should calm and quiet not hysterical and demanding. Start with a really small timeframe if they are struggling.  You can do 2 minutes or 5 minutes then extend to 10 minutes as they show successful progression over several nights. If they’re still upset when you come back for a check in, stay for just a few minutes to relax them then leave again. Keep this routine going until they are asleep when you come back to check in.

BONUS TIP FOR THE EXTRA ANXIOUS KIDS:

If your child very anxious and resistant to being alone at all or desperate to be touching you or have you touching them until they fall asleep? Try to do a more gradual approach instead of leaving and offering check-ins you can slowly increase the physical space between you and your child. For example, move from the trundle bed to a chair then slowly move the chair a bit further away after a couple of nights until you’re by the door, then right outside the door etc.

If they dispute or have meltdowns in response to any of the new expectations, you should try to remain calm and remind them of expectations. They have two choices which are “I can sit right here not touching you or I will go out of the room”. They may push the limit during which you may have to walk out until they’re ready to be calm and agree to you coming back and sitting next to them because it’s better than being alone.

By very purposefully increasing the physical distance, it decreases how rewarding your presence is very slowly so that they don’t become too overwhelmed by the loss of your reassurance.  Do your best to be consistent. Stick with it. Remember, it’s probably taken months or years for these problems to develop and it will likely take a while for the whole family to adjust.

Rewards:

The next morning, praise and encourage them endlessly for falling asleep on their own. View rewards as a fun way to celebrate your child’s accomplishment. It’s not bribery but rather a recognition of their effort.

Punishments:

Consequences don’t tend to work for this issue because the urge to protect themselves and alleviate intense fear is too strong.  Show disapproval if they break an expectation but focus on what you’d like to see instead of the negative behavior.

Dr. Angela Steranko