A: I’m exhausted from reading this letter, so my first bit of advice is simple: Let’s stop. Stop the chronic and constant changing of routines, the manipulation, the rewards, the consequences — all of it. Not only is it not working, but it’s also causing more harm. And there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with anything you’re doing (please, no guilt), it’s just time to let go of these strategies.
And please know that many families have been dealing with serious sleep issues. Many children simply aren’t tired enough to fall asleep. They haven’t played enough outside or run around with their buddies; they haven’t moved their bodies at the park; and they have been in front of too many screens. You’re not alone, and the questions I always ask are: Has the child moved their body, and have we stopped screens a couple of hours before bed?
Let’s get back to basics. What do people need to rest and sleep? They need to feel safe, both physically and emotionally. Is your home a safe place? (I have to ask, because many homes are not.) Have there been any big or small transitions? Do you use punishments, the threat of punishments or harsh consequences throughout the day? Do you threaten to take your presence away from him? These threats, while common in parenting, can cause a great deal of upset for preschoolers. People need to feel safe, and they do that by staying close to the ones they’re connected to. If you’re threatening to remove yourself from your son, he is staying in a low- or even high-level panic. His nervous system is jumpy, and you’ll see behaviors such as jumping out of bed to follow you, clinginess and crying, just to name a few.
The best part of your note to me is that your heart knows exactly what to do: You want to make bedtime calm and loving. How do we do this? Well, if people need safety, and we get that feeling from belonging to a warm and loving attachment, we must first stop removing ourselves from our child as punishment or manipulation. Because you are both in a bit of a behavioral rut, this is not an overnight process (pun intended). It’s going to take a bit of time for him to trust that you aren’t going to go back to the old behavioral shenanigans from before, so you’ll see him testing and retesting the system to check. Please know this is not a sign of failure; it’s a sign of change. If you want calm and loving, change is required.
I would call a meeting with him and say: “Seth, let’s make a bedroom chart together! I’m going to take pictures of you doing the three things we need to do every night, and we’re going to hang it up to remember!” You go through the routine (bath, teeth, books) and make the chart, and remember: The power is not in the chart. The power is in smiling, laughing, being creative and enjoying each other. Your connection with him is outside of the bedtime routine, too.
Next, stop talking at night. I’m not saying to go as silent as they do in the movie “A Quiet Place,” but stop saying all the things you say at night. Try to give instructions once and let your body language do the talking. If he’s running around and won’t get in the tub, so be it, and move on. Same for teeth. You are modeling going through the actions of the evening; he will eventually catch on. You can either land in your bed or his, then begin reading his book aloud — in a normal volume. Just keep reading, and see if he starts to circle around you. When he does (and this is important), smile at him and make room for him. Why? This is loving and calming. It says to his brain: “I am welcome here.” Keep reading and snuggling until you feel his body relax and, yes, maybe fall asleep.
No matter how badly the night went, I ask you to smile at your son and celebrate his sleep the next morning. Clink your orange juices together and say: “Buddy, we are doing it! I love reading to you and snuggling. I am so proud of us.” This positivity is a balm for his panicked system. You are creating a loop of loving calm when you end the night and begin the morning with a calm voice and smiling eyes.
You may be thinking you are trading one problem for another (him falling asleep in a bed with you), but the three hours of fighting and upset are far more disruptive and bad for your relationship than what I instructed you to do. He will sleep on his own. The process will smooth out; you just need to trust that your connection with him is more powerful than the behavioral strategies you keep employing.
As always, please check with your pediatrician to be sure that there isn’t something else afoot: a food allergy or something that’s revving his little system. If you need support through this process, please reach out to a parent coach who specializes in connection. Also read Laura Markham’s books for positive discipline and Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s “The Whole-Brain Child” for clarity on understanding a child’s brain.
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