I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately and how important it is to get a lot of it and good quality with this current crisis going on. It’s good for our mental health as well as our immune systems. Well, I’m an empty-nester and not getting enough sleep so you parents of younger ones might be getting even less than I am so I’m dedicating this to all of you so that maybe a few of these ideas can get you and your family a few more minutes of sleep or at least set a calmer tone in your house at bed time.
This podcast is for parents of toddlers through elementary school, I have a separate podcast on dealing with issues of sleep and teens so please head there if you have older kids. In this podcast we’ll go through some ideas for moving toward bed, getting ready for bed, turning out the lights and finally ideas for those of you who have kids who wake up at night. With that said, let’s get started.
Heading toward bed – the transition
For many kids it’s really hard to transition from playful family time to the lonely and boring time of bedtime and night time. Kids might be hyped up playing and rough housing or they might be involved in a really interesting show or project that will take way longer than our bedtime goals allow. Transitions are really hard for many kids so we need to make the transitions as painless and battle free as possible. To do this there are two things we have at our disposal which will prevent many battles before they start – choices and boundaries.
Most of the time choices are really effective since kids just really want some control over their lives. We’re so used to bossing them around it makes some of them decide to say “no” no matter how reasonable we are. If we say “It’s bedtime.” They’re almost programmed to resist. Offering choices before you hear “no” is SUPER important. You have to use choices early, if you have resistance you’ve lost your battle so make your choices effective and as fun as possible.
So you’re going to use choices like this:
- Would you like to go to bed at 8 or 8:15? (knowing full well we want them to go to bed at 8:15!)
- Would you like to set the bedroom timer or me? (I love using timers especially for kids who can’t tell time yet on their own)
- Would you like to set the bedroom timer for 5 minutes or 15 minutes? (knowing you’re fine with 15 minutes)
…crawl on your tummy to bed or walk backwards?
… or Would you like to go blindfolded or have me carry you upside down?
… or Would you like to hop on one foot or skip to bed?
Fun is super helpful! Being creative and offering different choices every night is also super helpful.
Getting ready for bed – give them choices
Once we get them in the vicinity of their bedroom and the bathroom area to get ready we use
- Would you like to brush your teeth first or put your pjs on first?
- Brush your top teeth first or your bottom teeth?
- Would you like to take a bubble bath or a lights out bath with a candle?
- Would you like to dry off with a big towel or lots of little wash cloths?
- Would you like mint toothpaste or cinnamon toothpaste?
- Electric or hand brushing?
- Pajama top on first or pajama bottom?
- Would you like to sleep with your school clothes on or your pajamas?
The idea is that you constantly throw new choices at them so that they don’t have time to think that one of the choices is “No!”. Being creative with choices is key!
Another skill that is super useful at bedtime is setting boundaries so that your kids know ahead of time what to expect and they’re things that you can stick to. If your kids can have input as to what they are, especially as they get into older grades in elementary school, the more effective these will be. For any boundary to be effective there has to be a consequence if you don’t get the result you are looking for.
What am I talking about? A useful boundary for most families is setting which time kids are ready for bed. Let’s say that a family starts heading to bed at 7:15 and want lights out by 8:15. They need a bath, teeth brushing, getting pajamas on and reading books in that one hour of time. I’d suggest setting a boundary like: “I read books to kids who are ready by 8:00. “ It’s a simple statement that tells your kids that as long as they are ready they can have books for 15 minutes. This also means that you as a parent have to be willing to have a child having a tantrum at 8:05pm who wasn’t ready on time and will not be getting books tonight. You need to be ready to have this happen and to give love and empathy. “Wow, this is sooooo sad. I love reading books. I’m sad too. I can’t wait till tomorrow night.” You can give them hugs but you cannot read to them. You have to hold your ground especially when you know your child’s currency is book time. You have to realize that your child had a choice and they chose to not have book time, it wasn’t you.
But, Mary, you might say, my child can’t tell time yet. What do I do? Use timers again! Lots of timers if you need to. Cheap ones from Target or Amazon work great. Have your little one learn how to set them and get them maybe even to try “Beat the Clock” type contests. Set one timer for 30 minutes, another for 15, another for 5 and the last one for 2. Put them in different places to make it fun if you want but MAKE SURE they know there’s a limit and that they get to choose if they get books or not, it’s not up to you. You give LOVE and EMPATHY if they blow it. Some of you might want to try this on a weekend night if you’ve got to work on weekdays but you need to start and keep pulling it off for a few days for some kids to believe that your word is true, that there are no books if they’re not ready.
By the time bedtime comes around most of us have our eyes on the goal – some downtime without kids! Maybe a glass of wine with our spouse or to watch a show that’s not rated G. We say a prayer: “Please Lord, let them fall asleep quickly so I can have some ME TIME.” However, many of us find our ME TIME cut short by kids not wanting to fall asleep. Some of us fall asleep with them (that’s what would happen to my husband and I), some of us sit close by outside the bedroom door feeling chained there until we can peek in and see that our kid is finally, finally asleep then we tip toe away as quietly as possible hoping we don’t wake them up. Is that you? What can we do to get them to sleep?
If you have a child who really, really won’t go to sleep without controlling where you are then during daytime you need to spend Special Time with them to brainstorm what they need at bedtime so that they stay in bed. Special Time is where one parent schedules some time with just them and the child, no siblings or distractions, just the two of you.
During this time you think about ideas for what they need at bedtime since your new boundary is that once books are done mom and dad are done too. You will let them know that they are welcome to have bedroom time for as long as they want but they must be quiet and stay in their room. You really can’t force your child to sleep on command but you can allow them to be quiet and in their room and allow them to be in control of their environment. During the Special Time I’d offer more creative choices than I might have offered in the past:
- Would you like to sleep in your bed or on the floor?
- Would you like to sleep in your sleeping bag or with a different blanket?
- Would you like to be buried by a pile of stuffed animals so that I can’t see you?
- Would you like the light on or off?
The idea is that your child chooses all these things that really don’t matter since what matters to you is that you get your ME TIME and they are quiet and in their room.
If your child won’t stay in their room and you have to constantly put them back or they have tantrums then you need to deal with those then I’d highly recommend that you go and listen to my 5th podcast which tells you what to do with tantrums.
In brief though, for some kids you might wind up going ahead and cuddling them and falling asleep that night but then the next day you’re going to have them restore all that sleep and free time you lost in dealing with them by doing a few chores around the house. Yes, even if they are only 3 or 4 you do this. They need to know that their choice to take away your free time has a cost. You love them and will help them get to sleep but you need to let them know you need their help to restore that time lost. You do it lovingly and with empathy.
In the morning you’ll say something like: “Wow, that sure was a late night last night. I’m so sorry you had trouble getting to sleep and that mommy didn’t have time to finish what I had planned. It would be great if you helped out today by vacuuming the living room and sweeping the porch.” I would also take a bit of time to brainstorm again to see what adjustments need to be made when you head to bed again that night. Checking in with your child and making adjustments is really helpful. They need to know that problems often take time and many adjustments to solve and that you’ll love them and work with them as long as it takes to solve this one.
Difficult Night Time Issues
In working with parents over the years I have offered this advice and for many it works wonders. The choices and boundaries and knowing your child’s nighttime currency is super helpful. However, there are a few situations I’d like to offer further advice.
Kids waking in the middle of the night with siblings in the room that might wake up
One family I worked with has a small house and 3 kids, two who slept in the same room. Their 4-year-old would wake up every night and scream so dad had to get him to calm down or his son would wake up the whole house and the new baby. Oh my… definitely a problem. We decided that getting his child to calm down during the night was really imperative so he’d need to use the Special Time solution to brainstorm ideas about what they could do to remedy the situation. He would also need to work with his son to give him some jobs to help repair the sleep that dad had lost by getting woken up at night.
As we mentioned before, this will be with love and empathy, the chores given won’t be a punishment for his behavior that he can’t control yet, just a recognition that he caused distress to someone else and has to help even the waters a bit during awake time. Another dad of a 4-year-old used Special Time to brainstorm with his son what books and stuffed animals he needed at bedtime but he also let his son know that he was too tired to play basketball with him when he’s woken up at night since he’d lost so much sleep. It took about a week for the two of them to brainstorm enough to figure out their nighttime solution. It was awesome to hear! Go dads!
Kids wanting to climb into your bed in the middle of the night
Some of you might fall into the category that I did. My son went to sleep ok but he’d wake up every night and didn’t wake anyone else up but me. He’d come quietly to my side of the bed and want to climb in and sleep with us. He was so cute at first so of course I’d let him sleep with us. Sometimes, once he got back to sleep my husband or I would carry him back to his room but sometimes he was there the rest of the night. Ugh… I was so tired and not getting good sleep with a little one kicking and turning and taking space I enjoyed in our bed.
So, what I wound up doing is setting up a little bed next to ours that was just one of those tiny futons and put a crib sheet, a blanket and pillow on it. My son got to choose what else he’d like on the little bed but it was small and fairly out of the way so I could still get in my bed. Then, I let him know if he woke up in the middle of the night he was welcome to sleep there and that sleeping with mommy and daddy was not an option. He was happy with that solution so for about a year from maybe 4 to 5 he slept probably ½ the nights on that little bed.
I was talking to another family and they actually have a small teepee set up in their room that they actually let their daughter whose about 6 just go ahead and sleep in all night. Another family put a sleeping bag outside their master bedroom door for their daughter to sleep in if she awoke at night. If you don’t mind and have the space, go for it. It really won’t be happening when they’re teens, believe me. Bottomline, if your child is waking you and you’re losing sleep feel free to be creative but don’t feel like you have to let them sleep with you. Sometimes just being near you will be just fine.
Early Morning Wake Ups
The last topic is what to do with kids who wake up earlier than mom or dad. Actually, I’m going to tackle that topic hopefully in next one of my next podcasts but to give you a hint if you have this issue, use Special Time to brainstorm some ideas with your kid. If your kids are really little go online and look for one of those kiddie wake-up clocks that go from red to green to signal when they can get out of bed. More later though but feel free to email me if you need help right now.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast! Getting kids to bed is a lot of work some nights but I hope you can use fun choices and set some good boundaries for getting to bed and getting ready for bed. I pray for all of you to have a bit more sleep especially when some of us our not sleeping well right now for other reasons.