If you have a child who goes to bed easily and sleeps through the night, that is great. This article is not for you. Or, if you’re happy with your sleep situation and it’s working for you and your child, that’s also wonderful. You don’t need to read this.
If, however, you dread bedtime because it takes forever, you’re sick of the countless trips back and forth to your child’s room, you find yourself unhappily lying next to your child at night, and/or you’re being awoken in the middle of the night, then let me tell you two things. One: you’re not alone. I work with many families and about half of them are unhappy with bedtime or nighttime. And number two: it’s time.
It’s time you prioritize your sleep, your evenings, your relationships, and your child’s sleep, and it’s time you do something about it. Wanting some sleep is not selfish. Sleep is necessary for your health and wellbeing. You can’t give your child what you don’t have. Wanting some time for yourself or for you and your spouse in the evenings is also not selfish. It’s necessary. Parents aren’t robots; they’re human beings with needs of their own. A parent who is taking care of themselves and their relationships will be much better at taking care of their child. And if your child isn’t falling asleep well or is waking up in the night, he or she isn’t getting the sleep he or she needs. Good sleep is necessary for your child to be healthy, physically and emotionally.
Yes, the process can be challenging. You’ll probably have a few bad nights. You’ll likely have one super, awful, terrible night. But, if you stick with it and get through it, the next night won’t be as bad. The third night will be even less bad, and then things will already start to get better.
And you know what I often see, once the sleep gets better (both yours and your child’s) other things get better. When you’re well-rested, you can better handle some of the behaviors that were causing problems, and once your child gets better sleep, some of those behaviors actually happen less often.
So, are you ready to make the change? Here are the things you have to decide. How are you going to do it? When will you start? And how are you going to make sure you stick to it through those first couple of difficult nights?
Every child is different and every family’s situation is also different, of course, so you may want to consult a sleep expert or a parent coach. But, most likely, you’ll want to create a simple and consistent bedtime routine that ends with you leaving the child to fall asleep on his/ her own. It’s helpful to talk up the routine ahead of time, acting excited about the changes you’ll be making, and letting the child know what to expect. It can also be helpful to make a little poster of the routine to hang up with pictures of the steps.
Since your child won’t magically fall asleep, you have to decide what to do when your child cries, yells, or comes out of his/her bed and room. One solution is to continue to put him back in his bed over and over (and over and over) without any interaction. Simply say something like, “I love you. I’ll see you in the morning.” Or say nothing at all. Don’t give any extra attention, no additional good night hugs or kisses, no responding to anything, just put him back in bed.
And then what about the middle of the night? I usually break the bedtime and middle of the night into two separate goals, the first one being to get the child to fall asleep on his own at the beginning of the night. Most of the nighttime sleep disruption I see is the result of children’s dependence on a parent being with them when they fall asleep. While you first work on the bedtime, just keep doing the middle of the night as you used to. Usually, once the child falls asleep on his own at the beginning of the night, the middle of the night wakings drop significantly on their own. And the wakings that do still happen can then be tackled in a similar way.
It’s important to be “all in” when you do this. If you start the “putting back in bed routine” and you go for 45 minutes and then give in and lie next to him, then the next time you try, it’ll take even longer because you just accidentally taught him that he has to stick it out for a little longer and you’ll give in. So when you decide to do it, commit to it. And have a plan for what to do when you want to give in. I often sit with my clients and have them tell me all the reasons they have decided to do it. Then I write them down and email them to hang up and read when they want to give in. So think of why you’re doing it. You’re not just doing it because you’re tired of wasting every night on bedtime. (Although that might be part of it, and that’s okay.) Maybe you’re doing it because might want to have your child’s bedtime be special and enjoyable. Maybe you want time to relax. Or time with your partner. You’re probably also doing this because you know it’s best for your child to have a well-rested parent. And it’s also best for your child to also be well rested and you know if you can teach your child to fall asleep on his own, he’ll sleep better through the whole night. So, list your reasons, and be prepared to stick out a few bad nights.
I can tell you I have guided many families through this process, and I have never once had a family regret doing it… and nearly all of them say they wish they had done it sooner.