Bedtimes with Young Children: How We Skip the Battle and Encourage Sleep
Why is bedtime a battle?
Other moms tell me about their children arguing and yelling about bedtimes. The shouted phrase "No! I don't want to go to bed!" echoes down the hallway. One mother relayed that she and her kids battle every night about going to bed (exceptions for a couple very busy days, during which the kids are outside all the time). Weirdly, many of these parents also sing the praises of bedtime routines, as if getting the routine just right will dissolve all their slumbertime stress.
As Michaleeen Doucleff asked in her book Hunt, Gather, Parent (read my review!):
"If bedtime routines work so well, then why does my home sound like a war zone at eight p.m. each night?"
Yes, let's sleep, I'm tired now
I can't imagine what that's like. My kids are 6, 3, and 1. So far, we've never had a child refuse to go to bed. I can't recall a single time any of them has said, "No, I don't want to go to bed."
They've certainly said things like, I want to play with Legos more first, or, can we read more books first, or, I want to finish listening to this chapter first. Like adults, kids want to wrap up their activities before moving on. Sometimes we allow the extra activity—which may mean a child goes and plays with Legos for two minutes before announcing he's tired and ready to sleep. Sometimes we say no, I can see you are tired, let's lay down and sleep now. At which point we head to bed. Occasionally, there are tears about it, but then the kids realize they're tired and snuggle in.
They sleep when they're tired. Makes sense, right?! I certainly want to sleep when I'm tired.
I'm not saying we don't ever have difficult bedtimes. But the difficulties aren't because a child doesn't want to go to bed. It can be difficult when the youngest child has a late nap, isn't ready to sleep at the same time as his siblings, and doesn't understand what being quiet means. (In that case, having my husband around to entertain him in another room helps immensely.) It can be difficult if I don't notice how tired a child is early enough, so they're overtired through teeth brushing and everything else. But the battle of wills that other moms describe is completely different from a child who needs help learning how to slow down at the end of the day.
We're still mammals
Look at other mammals. How do they sleep? Any warzones?
No, because they sleep when they are tired. Baby animals climb on their moms, trail after them, snuggle them, sleep on them… and generally seem pretty content about that state of affairs.
We're not so far removed from all that. Sure, we have words, complex thought, complicated social lives, societies with laws and skyscrapers….. but we're only a couple hundred thousand years into the "rational animal" adventure, and research shows, we're just like our nearest animal neighbors when it comes to nursing, attaching to our mothers, needing physical affection, and so on.
Sleep makes you vulnerable
I am convinced that many—most—maybe even all—of the children who protest bedtimes are protesting being left alone. They argue and fight because they are scared. Young children, even young babies, are given their own rooms, which makes bedtime like being put in solitary confinement. "Go to bed, kids!" is interpreted as "Go be alone!"
For a young child, being alone is scary. The dark is scary. Being alone in the dark is scary. No wonder children cling to stuffed animals, night lights, and comforting rituals. They're being deprived of what ought to naturally comfort them, the things that, evolutionarily speaking, ought to comfort them most, like the sounds of their parents and their family, also there, also sleeping, protecting, safe.
Sleep makes you vulnerable. It makes sense to postpone sleeping until you feel safe (or until you get so tired you can't help but fall asleep). People, adults and children alike, fall asleep most easily when warm, safe, and relaxed. And that's the crux of it.
Paul Tough explained in his book How Children Succeed (read my review!) that improving infant attachment is recognized by many infant specialists, psychotherapists, and other therapists as one of the most significant and powerful levers for improving child outcomes. How do you improve infant attachment? By being physically present and responsive. When your baby cries, respond: feed them, cuddle them, change them, play with them. Don't leave them alone; don't ignore their calls for help. Crying is a signal. Respond to that signal.
Tough related the story of a successful intervention program that, in effect, promoted stronger relationships and secure attachment between parents and their children. The program led to all kinds of improved outcomes, not the least of which was lower stress.
If promoting attachment is amazing, then why is it so common in modern society to mess with attachment mechanisms by putting babies in separate rooms and leaving them to cry? The baby doesn't know it's in a safe place (mommy is the safe place). For all the baby knows, being put in that room alone is the same as being abandoned on the floor of the jungle.
The role of comfort objects
I have an untested theory about comfort objects, such as stuffed animals (stuffies, loveys, whatever cutesy name you want to give them).
None of my kids have stuffed animals or blankets that they must have. Often one child wants a particular blanket (I suspect because it's the softest, warmest blanket we have). Or another will go through a stuffed bunny phase for a week or two, but it doesn't stick. My theory, which I would love to formally survey someday, is that children attach to these stand-ins when the comfort they need isn't available. (The wikipedia article on comfort objects cites some cross-cultural studies that lend credence to my theory…)
I suspect that if kids are never deprived of the comfort and reassurance they need—e.g., if their parents are available when children want to feel safe before or during sleeping—then children won't develop the need to attach to inanimate objects. They won't need rituals like lining up all their baby dolls on their beds, or saying good night to everything in the room, or a special protective stuffed object, or whatever that child has developed.
All that said, my children have a strong preference for my presence when they're falling asleep. Am I their teddy bear? Probably. When they're older, they won't need it anymore.
Children's bedtime books
These common cultural attitudes about children's sleep and bedtimes are reflected in nearly every children's goodnight bedtime book that I've read. (And I've read a lot.)
I recently came across a paper analyzing some of these books. The paper pointed out that in most, the pattern is your classic 20th century bedtime routine: the child is tucked into bed, the parent leaves, and the child is expected to fall asleep quietly and peacefully. But, conyrary to that pattern, so many of these books feature young characters who then go on to climb out of bed, ask for drinks of water, say good night to everything in the room, and otherwise enact elaborate rituals and routines, all in the name of feeling comfortable and safe enough to finally drop off to sleep.
That paper mentioned exactly one book that was an exception, Bedtime for Bear. I bought it based on the lines quoted in the paper: "What a bear really needs is another bear, one who will never gonna we say, especially in the night.". It was only sort of an exception.
Like the other bedtime books, it features a young animal character who is expected to go to bed by himself. But the bear wants to come downstairs, he wants a drink, he wants a snack, and especially he doesn't like scratchy pajamas, and in this book, eventually, the mother bear gives in and lets the baby bear fall asleep on her lap in the rocking chair. That ending is unusual in the genre. But the book still includes a paragraph just before the mother bear gives in where she calls her baby "the worst" because he can't sleep by himself (we skip this paragraph every time we read the book).
Check your expectations about sleep
Sometimes, I'm tired and I expect all the kids to be tired too … forgetting that they all napped in the car on the way home from wherever we were, so they're pumped to bounce off the walls for another half hour before bed. I'm the only one who didn't nap.
You can't project your ideal sleeping habits onto your kids. They'll sleep when they're ready to sleep. If you expect them to sleep when you want them to sleep, you'll frequently be disappointed; your expectations won't match reality.
What our sleeping patterns look like
If we don't have battles, what do our bedtimes look like? First, we don't have a strict time that is "bedtime". We switch into our evening routines when the kids seem like they're getting tired. It varies by day. It means you have to be a responsive parent; you have to pay attention to your children's energy levels and behavioral cues. Of course, sometimes your kids will tell you directly: even when my oldest was 4, he'd tell me when he was tired, and suggest we go to bed. So we would.
After getting ready for bed (teeth brushing, diapers, etc), we read books. Sometimes we're reading at 6:30; sometimes we're still finishing our dinner cleanup after 7. How many books depends on the day; on average, at least one book selected by each kid. Sometimes we read for half an hour, or an hour; if it's late and they're all tired, we may stop after 5-10 minutes.
Beyond that, it has varied by the number and ages of our kids. We modify our bedtime patterns to suit their needs. We've always co-slept, sometimes with the youngest in a basket or bassinet beside the bed, sometimes with everyone on the same mattress, or adjacent mattresses.
As babies: they nurse to sleep at night. It's the most natural thing: the baby nuzzles, drapes a chubby arm over me, tucks in his toes. For naps, they nurse to sleep in a carrier or in my lap: sleep in the car or the stroller; sometimes sleep on my back or on daddy's shoulder. Sometimes, I set the baby down, but I can't leave right away. His little arm shoots out, reaching, checking to ensure mommy is still there. He has to touch me, otherwise his eyes pop open, his mouth opens, and out comes a wail of concern. But once asleep deeply enough, I can sneak away.
I babywear frequently for naps (I have an Ergo 350 carrier, a wonderful woven wrap, and a ring sling I made). When out and about with the kids, other moms frequently wonder how my babies can be such great sleepers. How can the baby be asleep at this loud of an event?! How can the baby fall asleep so fast when we're at the beach, or hiking? Well, the baby's used to it. And the baby is on mommy—the happy safe place!—and that's all they need.
After weaning: They mostly snuggle to sleep, in bed or being carried. I get a lot of reading done this way; I check out ebooks from the library on my phone, and read in dark mode (black screen, white text) while the kids snuggle and fall asleep beside me. Naps are in the car or the stroller, or snuggling on the couch reading. As they get older, they still have a preference for my presence, but post-weaning it's not required.
We go through phases. For a while, one child, fascinated by music, got to fall asleep listening to classical music on the tablet while I dealt with the baby. We had a phase where we read a child to sleep. I distinctly remember reading Mike Mulligan five times in a row. Some phases are trickier to manage, like when we have a new baby, or when someone's losing a nap, since both mean at least one child's sleep schedule doesn't quite align with the others.
Lately, our oldest son often doesn't feel tired when the younger two are tired, so he gets to listen to an audiobook on the couch after family storytime. I'll put the younger ones to bed, then when the oldest feels sleepy, he'll pause the book and head to bed, too. (Though sometimes he needs reminding during exciting book chapters.) Sometimes he's tired before I've finished setting the other two down; sometimes I come back to the living room and read a book on the couch beside him, write, or work on a rug.
The biggest benefit of us all sleeping in the same room is I get more sleep. It cuts down on time I have to spend out of bed at night - if a child wakes up, sometimes a quick mom hug is all that's needed for them to settle back down, or, occasionally, I may have to pick someone up for a few minutes. But I intervene sooner than I would if a child had to fully wake, get out of bed, and come to my room, so we all get back to sleep faster. Which means they get more sleep and, importantly, I get more sleep.
As an aside, I only feel like the classic sleep-deprived parent when (a) I have an infant who hasn't learned when night is and is babbling adorably at 2am; (b) I stay up too late, my own fault; (c ) someone is sick or teething and needs extra help sleeping (in which case if I go to bed earlier, I can usually still get enough hours).
But… that sounds so time-consuming!
Is it? I don't know. That's an empirical question. I'd have to time it every night for a few weeks, get an average, and poll other parents.
But even if it is more time spent, it's time well-spent: time helping my kids feel safe and loved so they can sleep happily. (No one likes going to sleep sad or scared!) Plus, I can read during a large chunk of it, which I'd probably be doing anyway.
But it still sounds harder!
I don't think it's harder. Bedtime warzones sound harder. In my version of bedtime, I spend most of my time reading books and snuggling adorable children. What do you spend your time doing?