Bedtime is a trigger for many kids. Unlike the rest of the day, bedtime is a time in which children are expected to be alone. In addition, bedtime is often when children slow down and tune into themselves and reflect on their day; as a result, this may be when they express concerns and worries or exhibit separation anxiety. Fears about going to bed, worries that seem only to appear at bedtime, attempts to sleep with parents, and pleas for a parent to stay until they fall asleep are common.
Having a predictable routine and being available most nights at bedtime is necessary for your child’s well-being; however, it is also important for children to learn how to self-soothe. The good news is that children can learn to cope with bedtime fears and fall asleep on their own.
Bedtime struggles often result in lost sleep for children and their parents. Sleep deprivation has profound effects on attention, memory, school performance, mood, and even how glucose is absorbed in the body. Luckily, there are ways to teach your child to self-soothe and go to bed on their own. The following are some suggestions for helping children learn these important strategies:
Validate your child’s feelings.
Your child will benefit from knowing that you truly understand their fears. Try saying something like, “I know this is hard for you,” or “I’m sorry it feels so scary at night.” Comments like these will help to mirror, or reflect, your child’s feelings, which will help them feel understood. Then you can explain that the goal is for them to learn how to cope with their fears and not let their fears influence them or the family’s behavior. Say, “In our family, the kids need to be able to go to bed on their own,” and that this is something all kids can learn. Emphasize that fears at bedtime are common, and they need to learn how to cope with them.
Try relaxation strategies.
The following are relaxation strategies that you could try.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Tensing and releasing each muscle group in the body is another form of relaxation. Going through each part of the body, starting with the hands, and moving to the arms, shoulders, back, stomach, legs, feet, and face, have your child tighten and hold, then release and relax each muscle group one at a time, until eventually your child’s whole body is relaxed. Ask your child to notice how their muscles feel when they are tense and how they feel when they are relaxed. This promotes more awareness of muscle tension in the body.
- Imagery. Ask your child, “What kind of relaxing scene can you imagine?” If your child doesn’t readily come up with a relaxing scene, you can offer one, such as being at the beach, lying in a hammock, or resting under a tree in a forest. Ask your child to use all five senses to imagine being there. The goal is to create the same relaxed thoughts and feelings that one would experience if one were actually there.
- Calm Breathing. Practice lower diaphragmatic breathing: have your child breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth, very slowly, allowing the air to slowly travel down all the way to their lower belly, below their belly button, while their chest remains still.
- You can also teach one-nostril breathing by repeatedly breathing in and out through only one nostril while closing the mouth and other nostril, again very slowly in and very slowly out.
In addition to learning relaxation techniques, children can use distraction to take their mind off of their fears. For example, you may read to your child or do puzzles with them. You can ask your child to make lists—for example, of fruits and vegetables, or girls’ names and boys’ names. Once your child has practiced with you, they can use these techniques on their own.
Teach your child positive self-talk.
Your child can also try using coping self-talk to reduce their anxiety. Teach your child to send themselves positive messages such as, “I am scared but I can do this,” “What would someone who is not scared right now do?” and “I must face my fears.” This allows your child to develop an internal sense of control in a scary situation and promotes a sense of confidence that they can handle it! Before bed, remind your child to use these skills and tell them that if they feel scared, they can practice being brave. Reassure your child that they can do it!
Practice alone time.
It is also recommended that your child practice being in their room alone during the day, and that they can be comfortable playing alone. This can be practiced gradually, starting with 10 minutes and moving up to 30-40 minutes.
Consider sleep training.
The research on “sleep training”—which aims to get your child to fall asleep in their own bed, on their own without a parent present—indicates that it not only leads to better quality sleep but makes your child a better sleeper (falling asleep easily, sleeping longer) in the long run. In addition, sleep training does not harm the child, nor does it interfere with attachment. And if that’s not enough, research has found positive effects on maternal mental health!
When sleep training, you need to gradually remove yourself from your child’s room, allowing them to learn how to fall to sleep on their own. If they are sleeping with you in your bed, a good first step is to get them back in their bed and their room, even if you need to sleep with them there for a temporary period. Explain that they are going to start sleeping on their own and falling asleep by themselves. Be confident and say, “I know you can do it.”
Once you start the training, they will likely come out of bed and try to go into your room. Each time, you should direct them back to their room. After putting them to bed during your typical bedtime routine (e.g., story, lullaby, brief cuddle), the first time they come out of their room, you can walk them back and quickly tuck them back in. The second time is different: you don’t go with them, but you stand in the doorway of your room until they return to their room and tuck themselves back in. Ask them to call out to you once they are back in bed to let you know they did it. If they refuse to do this, in a calm, firm voice explain that they have a choice: they can either go back and tuck themselves in by themselves or you will go in your room and close and lock the door. The third time is a bit more challenging, as you won’t open your door but instead will say something like, “You can do this. I know it’s hard, but you can face your fears. I love you.” You can make two or three comments like this before you stop responding, and your child will eventually go to bed by themselves (albeit after crying or screaming).
In the beginning, your child can put up quite a fight to not make this change; this is normal and expected. Being 100% consistent is key; if you open the door sometimes, it teaches your child that if they scream and cry, you will eventually come out. Rather, you need to teach them that you are predictably going to stay in your room, and that they need to fall asleep by themselves. By doing this, you are also endorsing their ability to do it themselves. While it usually takes four to five challenging nights before they go to bed seamlessly; once they learn it, the bedtime process will become a breeze. It requires a lot of strength on your part, but you are creating the conditions for your child to fall asleep on their own, and for you to be able to have a better bedtime yourself. This will be a gift for your child and whole family.
Mindfulness can also help kids fall asleep. Learn some mindfulness activities at Magination Press Family: Mindfulness.
Finally, if your child continues to experience difficulty at bedtime, including excessive worries that interfere with falling asleep, it may be useful to meet with a psychologist or therapist to provide additional help to you and your child.
Related Books from Magination Press
Emily Grace and the What-Ifs: A Story for Children About Nighttime Fears
What if a big rhinoceros charges out through my closet door and pulls all my covers off and I get cold and catch pneumonia?
What if I wake up tomorrow and I am a princess far, far away from home, all by myself?
Emily Grace faces her fears and calms herself…and eventually thinks, “What if I close my eyes now and go to sleep?”
Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers with more information and strategies for coping with bedtime struggles. (picture book, ages 4-8)