There is a huge amount of myth and mysticism surrounding bedtime and children’s sleep. For eight long months I kept up a rigid set of bedtime routines with my first daughter Ramona based on other people’s opinions dressed up as sleep science. They were depressing and anxious times. Then I had a set of revelations – mostly involving the idea that it is actually not my job to make my children sleep. (Read more about the changes in my approach that led to happier sleep for my daughter.)
From a pretty cursory look this morning it seems as if an enormous amount of the information we have on children’s bedtime is based on studies done with people who are experiencing serious sleep disorders. This is pretty sad news for our children. It is a mistake to take tips on life from those experiencing the very sharp edge of it.
An example of this is the idea that if we get bedtime wrong, ie, wait until the child is sleepy, this will then make them overtired, which will then release cortisol into their system, making it impossible for them to go to sleep.
Is this fact or myth? I know that sometimes my older child does seem to get a bit wired before bedtime, and then takes a while to go to sleep. It may happen a couple of times a month. I could interpret this as us “failing” because we let her choose her own bedtime. Or I could just see it as part of her learning about her body, her body’s cues and her body’s response.
Many children around the world are given freedom around their bedtime and they get it right, for themselves, 90% of the time. Recognising their sleepiness and asking to go to bed. They do not head into cortisol zone (as even the most gentle of parenting advocates suggest they will).
If we are so concerned about the release of stress hormones at bedtime, why isn’t there more talk of making bedtime a pleasant, connecting time, when children can trust that their parents will continue to meet their needs? As opposed to suggesting that once in their bed there shall be no play, no talk, no more drinks or food (basic needs!) – all of this could release cortisol and adrenalin, every single night. (I love Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s work most of the time, but beleive she has disregarded the importance of child rights in the home in these articles on sleep.)
What if the “playing up” so commonly spoken of at bedtime is because our children are not tired enough for bed? Or because they feel worked up because they are heading into the one time in the day where their parent’s stop meeting their needs? Where their fears are not validated, their worries not given chance to be worked out?
What is our aim at bedtime? To make sure our child gets enough sleep? Or to stay connected to our child, to nurture our relationship with them?
In an ideal world it would be both, of course. If any part of your bedtime routine is causing a disconnect with your child, then it needs to be tackled. And I see so often, in conversation, in magazine articles, in gentle parenting forums, that bedtime is always a battle of wills.
This post absolutely isn’t about making anyone feel guilty, and there’s absolutely no judgement. I recognise that everybody’s bedtime is different and each family has unique needs that i could never possibly understand. This is no “my way is the way” kind of post! I
I simply want to advocate that bedtime becomes a place of connection, rather than power struggles.
As I tried to pull my thoughts together about children’s sleep I realised that bedtime is one area where we don’t trust our instincts. We don’t apply the same respectful or gentle principles to bedtime as we do to the rest of the day/ our child’s behaviour.
I guess that is because we are afraid. We’ve heard so much about the cortisol and overtired thing. We’ve heard that all childhood problems come down to a lack of sleep (or screentime! Hehe.) and that not getting bedtime right leads to a life long set of troubles.
Considering there are *so* many sleep issues with my generation, and the older generations, who likely had VERY strict boundaries around bedtime, I think this is a load of BS.
Now I don’t have the answers. We live in an unschooling bubble where our kids can fully yield to their own natural sleep rhythms because we don’t have a schedule to stick to. In many ways this counts me out of having advice for all parents!
*IE. NEW VIDEO ON WHY WE GAVE UP BEDTIME*
This way may not work for you, I totally get that!
But I do want to start a conversation on it, where people from a range of situations can ask themselves, and answer (here, in the comments, if you can) these questions. These are four questions that I beleive if they were asked by parents and parenting gurus, would help make bedtime better for children:
What does bedtime look like for children where:
1- keeping the connection between parent and child is an utmost priority
2- letting our children tune in to their body’s needs and respond to it is a priority
3- a child’s rights are observed (i.e – not coerced to do something with their body that they don’t want to do)
4- a child’s needs are met (i.e – they aren’t forced to go without connection, to face fears of the dark alone, forced to forgo food and drink)
I’m going to share my ideas on that, in the hope that you will share yours, particularly if you come from a very different place.
So what does it look like? I think there is a lot of talking and playing in the hour before sleep. It is one of the key moments in the day, an hour where children get to process the days events and get to connect with mum and dad / mum/ mum and mum/ dad and dad (you get me.) There is plenty of discussion around a child’s feelings of tiredness and the parent’s opinion of how much sleep they need. The child gets to taste the freedom of choosing a later bedtime, and possibly suffering the consequences – say having to get up when they are not ready. They are encouraged to do something nice in their bed, so they want to be there rather than forced to be there, such as audio books. They have supper before bed and a water bottle by their bed. Their parent stays with them, reading a novel or listening to podcasts until they feel safe.
Those are some ideas of mine. Dashed out as a quick response to my questions. (Our own home is actually far more liberal than this. We tend to all rock into bed within an hour of each other, quite late, my husband is out like a light and Ramona pokes him awake to keep reading her story and I breastfeed Juno and then I read for another couple of hours. And, don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a bed of roses. Sometimes we have grumpy evenings but by and large it is a time of connection.)
I would love to hear your ideas. I beleive we can carve out a new vision of bedtime for our children.
I do actually want to be helpful though, rather than giving a list of questions! So here are some of the ways I think we can build a better sleep environment at bedtime.
Many of these are based on the idea that, rather than bedtime needing to be a somber affair, laughter and active play are actually vital for helping a child move through the day’s anxiety. What if daddy’s instinct to wrestle with the kids on the bed before storytime is actually a sound one? There is evidence to suggest it is really important.
Processing anxiety before bedtime through play
Roughhousing or wrestling on the bed is a great way of helping kids work through feelings of powerless leftover from the day. (Can’t recommend the book The Art of Roughhousing enough!)
A game of freeplay, where your children direct who you are, what your role is, what happens. Just go with the flow and observe what they might be trying to work through. This is another way that children process what has gone on for them. (Read more about this in the book Playful Parenting.)
Processing anxiety before bedtime through talking
Have a sharing circle. Light a candle and each family member answers the questions
What was your worst part of the day?
Favourite part of the day?
Something you are thankful for.
Play something one to one – in my experience my six year old opens up far more when we are playing something together, either a card game or one of her ipad games.
Meditation at bedtime
One beautiful way Ramona and I have discovered is using a meditation. It was suggested by Tim’s Uncle and Ramona loves it. She lies down and closes here eyes. I describe a butterfly landing on her nose and waiting there a while, and then it moved onto all the different points of her body and each time it lands she feels warmth and joy and heaviness spread through. We go real slow, with big pauses, and by the time I am at her toes her whole body has sunk in to the mattress and she is fast asleep.
If you aren’t confident to lead a meditation yourself check out the many available online.
Unpacking the day rituals
We all know the bedtime stories and the bedtime bath and they are great for some kids. But other’s might enjoy something more hands on, or something different from day to day.
We try and keep up a nature table for each of the seasons. How about placing the treasures you’ve found from the day onto the table and talking about how they make you feel? (We would do this if we were more on to it!)
How about using some worry dolls together? To pass on to each tiny figure some of the problems of the day?
Creative rituals for bedtime
One reason I enjoy my children’s later bedtimes (between 8:30 – 9:45pm) is because there seems to be some sort of magical creative zone that happens after dinner. They begin crafting up and making these wonderful worlds with their colouring pens or lego or whatever. Something feels different about it.
Sing songs together – ask the kids to make up the lyrics
Work on a watercolour painting together
Make some paper dolls and treat them like worry dolls, ask the kids to colour or draw in each of their worries on a doll.
A lovely way for children to transition to sleep is using music. You possibly already have a cd that gets them sleepy – utilise it! Or have a look for some music especially made to help children relax. (Ideas welcome, please!)
Dream Talk Bedtime
I used to absolutely hate going to bed. I’m sure it is because my natural rhythm is a late one. My ideal sleeping hours are 11pm to 8am. And I think even when I was a kid I was a night owl. But my favourite bedtime was the one where my mum used to lay with me and describe the dreams I could have. She’d depict me doing something awesome, like going to the funfair, and I would go to sleep with these images in my mind.
Letting go of the bad parts of the evening/ bedtime
Kid’s don’t need a daily bath. My children love them so it’s all good. But so many parents cling to the nightly bath even though their children hate it.
Forget the homework. If it is making a kid anxious don’t force it. There is an emerging body of evidence against it.
Sometimes bedtime has become such a battle of wills that even just starting the bedtime routine causes a kid to be thrown into anxiety. Press the rest button. Go for a long walk together in the evening and then come back and do one of the above little rituals.
Making sure the body gets what it needs at bedtime
Magnesium helps us sleep. That’s pretty much a fact. Do your kids have enough of it? Take either through food, an epsom salts bath or a supplement.
It’s also suggested that a spoon of honey helps us sleep. The jury is more out on that one, but why not? So much other good shizz in a spoon of honey too!
Even wackier is the idea of banana water. Ha. Hard to write that without a little giggle, but *so* many people reckon that boiling a banana and drinking the potassium and magnesium filled tea helps you drop like a stone.
As ever would LOVE to hear your suggestions for alternative ways to make bedtime easier. I will add them in to the post so it can become a truly helpful resource.