Children’s bedtime – that time of the day filled with high expectations, hopes and dreams. After a warm bath and a cuddle, your child will drift happily off to sleep, having listened attentively to the latest beautifully-illustrated story book you bought for them, while you slip quietly out of their room and down to a glass of something nicely chilled.
However in a real home bedtime usually goes a little differently. We’re often in a bit of a rush, our child-free time is calling, we’re exhausted and need it badly. Our kids, on the other hand, are enjoying being awake, no matter how tired they are. Toys they weren’t interested in all day suddenly become fascinating. We become their favourite person in the world and our company crucial to their survival. Toothbrushes become enemy number one. And the battle commences.
Bedtime at your house may not be as dramatic as this, but at mine this supposedly loving time of day has regularly deteriorated into something not very pleasant.
So how do we do bedtimes well?
There are lots of creative techniques and approaches, routines and rituals to help bedtime go smoothly. Many of them work brilliantly for some children. The underlying themes of most are lots of calm and lots of repetition. Calm helps your child feel safe and relaxed and repetition means your child knows what will happen every night. From a brain science point of view both repetition and calm help a child grow accustomed to something they might not initially be a fan of.
But if you’ve read this far I’m guessing you may have tried staying calm and tried following a routine and it’s still not working. From a mindful parenting point of view I always back up from any specific parenting challenge and look at three things – connection, empathy and boundaries. When we understand these three at a deeper level we often get clues as to how to handle different problems our children throw at us. With bedtime all three are significant elements of the process.
We know from research that the most significant ingredient in a child’s development is the quality of their connection with their parent or primary caregiver. It can feel like a huge responsibility at one level, but it simplifies parenting too.
When a child feels well connected they are more likely to do lots of other things better, like things they don’t want to do, like bedtime. So a good bedtime routine starts at the beginning of the day and carries on with every interaction throughout the day. It’s not a given that a well-connected child will go to bed easily, but it’s a great place to start.
So start with seeing if there are any shifts you can make in connection during the day. It doesn’t always mean more time, just more eye contact, focus, listening and being curious about their world. Whether you see them 12 hours a day, or just before and after work, there is usually opportunity for slowing down and doing life at their pace for a little bit more of the day than we usually do.
Once we’ve prioritised our connection with them while they are awake, we still have to get them to bed! And with this empathy and boundaries are our two greatest allies. Empathy is for their emotions and boundaries are for their behaviour.
So at bedtime the empathy part might sound a bit like this – “Of course you don’t want to get your PJs on, that makes sense. You really want to stay up and play.” “I know – it feels so unfair doesn’t it, to have to go to bed.”
Please insert your words here and not mine. Empathy is a unique blend of your personality and your child’s, but at its heart is an attempt to make sense of what the other person is trying to tell you about their reality.
Then the boundaries come into play. At every bedtime there are a few things that have to happen – PJs, teeth, nappy, lying down in bed, staying in bed. There’s not much else. Even pyjamas are probably non-essential, as are bath and books, although they can be a really helpful part of the routine.
Bedtime boundaries might sound a bit like this – “Seeing as it’s bedtime, do you need any help to get ready?” “Shall I brush your teeth or you want to do it together?” “It’s time to hop into bed now – here we go.” “I know it’s hard to stay in your bed (empathy), so each time you come out I will pop you straight back (boundary).”
The boundary doesn’t sound cross or dominant, frustrated or disappointed, just factual. The boundary itself (bedtime) isn’t under discussion, only the process to get there. The faster we move from whether a thing will happen, with statements like, “Oh yes you are going to bed,” to how it will happen, the faster our children get there too.
So for me bedtime goes like this –
- Great connection during the day.
- Empathise with how disappointing it is that it’s bedtime (dig into your own childhood here – it’s not that far away).
- Stick to the essential boundaries and offer help.
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