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Why is it so hard to get your kids to fall asleep at night?

It’s not just your imagination: bedtime is a conflict of interests that leaves parents frustrated and children latching on like barnacles. Here’s why, and what you can do to make it easier for everyone

If you were to ask most parents of young kids what time of day is consistently most difficult, it would be a pretty safe bet to assume most would answer with bedtime.

The reason is actually quite straightforward, when you think about it: bedtime is a conflict of interests between a parent’s needs and a child’s needs.

When bedtime rolls around, parents are spent – either from spending an entire day parenting, or from working, followed by cramming a few hours of parenting into the short window between the end of daycare/school and bedtime. Counting down the minutes until there is time to clean up, pack the next day’s lunches, and maybe catch up on the latest Netflix drama; the endless cries of ‘mommy mommy daddy mommy” can feel like nails on a chalkboard.

Conversely, kids approach bedtime knowing that they are entering the biggest separation of their day: 10-12 hours where they are expected to be on their own, in a dark room, without those they love most close by. It’s a lot to ask of them, even for the best of sleepers.

Realistically, we don’t even expect that from most adults.

Add in the fact that, if they are in any kind of childcare, they’ve had to cram all of their daily connection with you into just a few short hours, and we have a perfect storm for bedtime battles. We are pushing them away, anxiously awaiting a few child-free hours before we go to sleep, and our kids are simultaneously pulling us in, holding onto every last minute with us before they finally cave and drift off to sleep.

Some may ask why this battle still exists with children who are home all day with their parents, and I would argue that even children with the most secure of attachments find bedtime to be onerous, maybe more so than their ‘independent’ counterparts. Afterall, we miss the people we are closest to the most.

And, children who have been conditioned into ‘independence’ (i.e. those who have been sleep trained) will either fight tooth and nail because they anticipate the separation of bedtime and are fearful of having no connection until morning; or conversely won’t fight at all, because they know it is futile and have long since bothered to ask for support knowing it will not be answered (Gabor Maté and Gordon Neufeld speak about this at length in their many resources on separation and childhood trauma).

If you are finding that this is happening in your home, and you are looking for solutions to make bedtime more seamless and less stressful for everyone, here are two suggestions:

Look for opportunities for connection in the hours leading up to bedtime. Even if all you can find is 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted connection time, it will go a long way to filling your child’s connection cup, and then asking them to pour from it again in order to gain the separation of bedtime. This may mean snuggling with them and talking about all the parts of their day; it may mean having a bedtime bin of activities that offer a deeper level of connection; it could be simply playing with them or offering a massage (both great ways of adding sensory input if they are a sensory seeking child, who needs that added rough play before settling to sleep for the night).

Be as patient as you can during the bedtime routine. The more stressed and anxious you are to get them to sleep, the more they read that energy as a sign to hold on tight and keep you with them as long as possible. Podcasts and music through an in-ear pod are a great way to ensure your body is relaxed, even if your mind is screaming ‘go the hell to sleep’, allowing you to offer physical connection in a way that makes them feel safe enough to separate. If you don’t lie with your child to have them fall asleep, or if you do lie with them but would like to move away from it, offer small periods of separation that are tangible to your child and present the reliability of your return. For example, say something like, “I just realized I left the water running in the bathroom, I’m just going to go turn it off and come right back”. Over the course of days or weeks, continue to come up with reasons to leave for longer and longer periods, until your child eventually learns to fall asleep while you are gone, but with the safety of knowing you’re coming back to check on them.

Ultimately, this is a season that will pass and the more you can do to make your child feel secure in their dependence on you, the more they will learn that it is safe for them to be independent. While we have a societal expectation of independence from an exceptionally young age, it is often not developmentally appropriate to expect children to be able to manage independence. It cannot be taught, but rather comes with experience and maturity, and the more reliable the caregiver is, the more quickly the child will develop their confidence.

If you are struggling to find parenting solutions that meet your family’s needs, Let’s chat! I’m a certified sleep and well-being specialist and certified parent educator dedicated to helping you find sleep and parenting solutions through responsiveness.

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