Question: My kids’ usual bedtime is at 8. That’s when it all starts. They pop out of bed multiple times before they actually fall asleep. Then during the night after we’ve gone to bed, it starts up again. It’s not to go to the bathroom or because they are thirsty. Sometimes they just wake up and either stand next to me until I wake up or crawl into bed with us. Sometimes my 5-year-old runs in and says she is scared. But they usually don’t give a reason. I’ve been trying a mantra of “stay in your room until it’s light out,” but I don’t know what else to do.
Answer: When I was growing up, I lived in a house where you could sense who was where at all times. Privacy was simply not part of my life. And when I was smaller, that worked great for us. Every night, my younger brother and I would eat dinner and get ready for bed. If I remember correctly, my dad did the dishes and my mother would help us into bed. I don’t recollect books or nighttime snuggles, although I am sure they occurred.
This is what I truly remember: Almost every night, my mother got into bed at the same time as my brother and me. She would get us settled and then, in the dark, I would listen to her get into her nightgown and get into bed. And then she would get on the phone, usually with her sister. My mom was in her late 20s then; of course, she got on the phone and giggled. I would watch the shadows of the headlights on my bedroom wall and listen to my mom quietly whisper-giggle.
I felt safe. She was right there. I could hear her do her wrap-up conversation, “Yeah, yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah, talk to ya tomorrah.”
If I ever got nervous, I called from bed, “Mom?”
“Okay, go to sleep, Meghan.”
Fast-forward 30 years; I have three girls who pop out of bed, too. All I want to do is watch some bad reality TV. All I want to do is sit, to be alone. You know the feeling, right?
I complained about this to my mom, naturally.
“Oh, Meg. Just be near ’em. You know it’s what they want, right? G’ahead. It’s okay.” I laugh because she knows.
So, why do your children pursue you? Why are they are getting up and stalking you, looming over you while you sleep?
Even if young children know you are near when the lights go out, their brains say, “Whoa! I am alone! Where is the most important person in my life?”
Young brains do this. It is normal. The younger the child, the more normal it is for that child to feel insecure. The younger the child, the more closeness the child needs. This is how young children live. Literally. Their brains need to feel and sense the caretakers to connect and grow. Sound, sight, touch, smell and taste are the primary ways young children feel safe.
You cannot talk a young child into feeling safe. (Trust me, I’ve tried.)
So there’s a chasm: You want sleep, rest and alone time. Your children want more of you. How do we bridge this divide? I am not going to suggest you stay in their bed all night. (But if you want to, go ahead, it will probably work nicely.) You need to find a way to make your children feel safe.
I mentioned all of the senses, so begin there. Are there sounds that would relax the children? Could you frame a picture of the two of you and place it next to the bed? Really show it off, giggle, and delight in it before kissing good night? Is there something that the child can hold, of yours, that would bring them meaning? Can you make that happen in another, more creative way? Can you have your child sleep with your nightshirt or pajamas? (The clothing must have your smell, no washing.)
What I am doing is pointing you toward the senses, trying to help you give your child a sense of safety. A sense of relaxation. As developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says, “In order for anything to mature to its fullest potential, it must be able to relax.” Plants, mammals, little kids, you, and me — we all need rest to mature to our greatest potential. I know you are tired. I know you are doing your best. I know your eyes fly open in the middle of the night, see your child, and you think, “Oh, my . . . .”
So be proactive. Go for all of those beautiful, easy and sensory connections before the kids get into bed. Will there be tears? Yes. Will they get out of bed? Yes. It’s okay. You can make it a little easier by supplying more safety upfront.
Give it time, and those kids will be cozy and comfy in their own beds, hovering over yours less.
Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy here, where you can also find past columns.