Bedlam is defined as a “scene of uproar and confusion.” Some synonyms are chaos, anarchy, pandemonium.
Does it ever feel like chaos or pandemonium in your house when it’s time for your kids to go to bed? Does your child have panic attacks accompanied by fitful sobbing and desperate pleas to NOT be left alone? Do they refuse to sleep in their own bed? Or refuse to go to sleep unless you are there, in the room, or in the bed with them? Or maybe they go to sleep reluctantly, only to make their way into your bedroom at some point in the night? Is this a silent, sneaky invasion? Or is it a loud, tearful, panicked, whole-house-waking event?
From conversations I’ve had with other parents, we are all in this boat at some point in our children’s young lives, usually for much longer than we would like – months and even years.
Sleep is very important for all of us, and especially our growing children. During childhood, sleep directly impacts physical and mental development. Sleep is also prime healing time for our bodies, which pump out growth hormones to assist in restoring our bodies and repairing any damage done during the day, like scraped knees, bumped heads and other boo-boos. More noticeably, if we don’t get enough sleep, we are grumpier, out of sorts, and our ability to make good choices and control impulses is compromised. This is a recipe for disaster for parents!
How do we tame the bedtime beasts so we are all getting enough sleep?
There are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions to this problem. And a certain degree of trial and error should be expected.
Our kids are Casey, 5, and Austin, 10. Austin, in general, has always been a champion sleeper who never argues when it’s bedtime. He is asleep within minutes of his head hitting the pillow, and doesn’t wake up until he’s logged his 10-12 hours of ZZZ’s. When he was little, Austin even napped 1-2 hours per day until he was in kindergarten! Nice!!
Casey, on the other hand, has always resisted going to sleep. My earliest memory of Casey's bedtime anxiety was when she was a baby, still in her infant car seat, and we were leaving a restaurant after dinner. It was dark outside and dark in the car. She cried all the way home. There was no other explanation for why she was crying. We even turned on the overhead light in the car to test our theory. When the light was on, she was calm. When it was dark, she cried. On normal nights at home, she would cry whenever I put her in her crib at bedtime. So I chose to cuddle and rock her to sleep. No big deal, I thought! A little extra snuggle time couldn’t hurt! But I wonder: did I help create the bedtime beast Casey is today?
Honestly, the point is moot. Here we are, with a 5-year-old who cannot go to sleep by herself, in her own bed.
20 months ago we moved into a new house. Sleeping arrangements for the kids were very similar between the old house and the new house: each kid has their own room, with a connecting "Jack & Jill" bathroom between. The main difference in sleeping arrangements is that the master bedroom in the new house is downstairs. In the old house it was upstairs, just down the hall from our kid's rooms. Both kids were having a bit of trouble adjusting to sleeping in the new house. So we suggested Casey sleep in Austin's room, on his bottom trundle bed. Both kids liked the idea, gave us no problems at bedtime, and we parents had many blissful nights of peaceful, uninterrupted sleep.
Ahhh! Problem solved! Until.....
... about a year later Austin decided he was too old to have his little sister sleeping in his room with him. Plus, she would often wake him up in the middle of the night, talking in her sleep. We decided it was not fair to compromise Austin's sleep to accommodate Casey.
We knew Casey would not go back to her old room without some kind of incentive. So we found a really awesome deal on Craigslist for a "princess castle bed," with a slide - wow! Casey was thrilled!! I made sure Casey understood that if we got her this bed, she needed to sleep in it, on her own, no arguments. "Oh! I promise, mommy!"
Well, Casey was able to keep her promise for about 2 weeks. Then her bedtime fear started to get the best of her and she started crying when we tucked her in, and also coming down to our room in the middle of the night. We threatened to get rid of the bed. She didn't care. We installed multiple nightlights, and offered to leave the bathroom lights on. Nothing helped. And all professional advice warns that bright lights are not conducive to restful sleep. So, we were not headed in the right direction.
But there is a happy ending to this bedtime story! Several weeks, and lots of trials and errors later, I can pretty confidently say we are all getting better sleep than we were after moving Casey out of Austin's room, earlier this year. The best news is that Casey has been logging 10 hours of sleep consistently, for 3 weeks! The primary reason for this is that we moved up her bedtime, from 8:30 to 8. The secondary reason is our "every 10 minutes" strategy.
Here is how this works....We tuck her in, kiss her good night, and make a deal: we will promise to come check on her in 10 minutes if she promises to close her eyes and try to go to sleep. We read about this idea in a couple of different articles. And while the strategy has the potential of requiring parents to visit their kid's rooms many times before the kid finally falls asleep, Casey always falls asleep right away. Admittedly, Casey does not really know how long 10 minutes is, we don't set a timer, and it's usually closer to 15 minutes before we check on her the first time.
We repeat this process if/when Casey wakes up in the middle of the night and comes to our room. Without speaking, we take her hand, walk her back to her bed, tuck her in, and tell her "we'll see you in 10 minutes." It's worth noting that Casey is not usually upset when she wakes up in the middle of the night. She just wants reassurance. On these nights she goes back to sleep within 10-15 minutes. On nights where she wakes up from a bad dream or nightmare (and is upset), she does not fall back to sleep as quickly. It can take multiple visits for her to fall back to sleep. On these nights we will increase the time incrementally between each visit: 10 minutes for the first visit, then 15 minutes, then 20 minutes. It has never taken more than 4 visits, and this has only happened 2 or 3 nights.
In the past week, she has even gone 2-3 nights in a row without coming down at all! Yay! Progress!!
Here are some do's and don't's we learned during this journey that we feel are important to share.
DO make concessions. The real game-changer for us with Casey was promising that we would come and check on her "every 10 minutes" until we went to bed. AND agreeing to do the same thing when she woke us up in the middle of the night, without getting annoyed. Do we enjoy being woken out of sound sleep at 3 am? No! But we are keeping our eyes on the prize.
DON'T deviate from the plan. I can't stress this enough. Kids need routine and structure, and SLEEP! Commit to the plan and do not miss a night. I promise your hard work and patience will pay off.
DO use facts, logic and reason. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. Tell them what you are doing and why, in terms they can grasp. It feels better when we can be honest with them about why we do or do not do certain things. We explained to Casey that having too much light on in her room at bedtime is not good for her, and the doctor told us that it's ok to only have on a small night light and/or a bathroom light. She argued. But we were firm. And to set the mood for bedtime, we turn off bright lights while we are getting on PJ's, brushing teeth and reading stories. We also explained the importance of sleep to her when discussing why she is going to bed earlier than her brother - sleep makes you grow taller, stronger, faster! What kid doesn't want those things?!
DON'T punish or threaten. Trying to force your child to overcome his or her fear or intense anxiety by punishing or threatening them will only make a bad situation worse. I could share some lofty psychology-speak about why this is. But please, just take it from parents who tried - it does NOT work! And you feel like a schmuck for making your child feel worse than they did before you threatened or punished them.
DO try and figure out WHY this is happening. Are they stressed about a change? Did they have a fight with a friend? Did they just start a new school? If you have more than 1 child, you have probably already realized they are very different. But it bears repeating – what caused a bedtime problem for one child is probably not causing the bedtime problem for the other child. Sometime during the day, ask them if something is bothering them. Try to get them to share what is making them afraid or worried at night, during bedtime. If a traumatic event is causing the bedtime problems, you may consider consulting a care provider to get additional support.
DON’T over-analyze. If your child doesn’t know or can’t explain the source of their fear, it’s ok. Sometimes kids are just afraid of the dark, or being alone at night. Often, the process in helping your child overcome their fears will be then same, regardless of the “why.” We found this was true for us.
DO listen to and validate your child’s fears. Everyone has fears, even adults. Try asking “What did you dream about?” Or “What are you afraid of?” if the anxiety is happening while you’re getting them ready for bed. And then after they share their scary dream or fear/worry, “Yikes! That’s sounds scary!” Or, “I have had scary dreams like that before! It’s no fun!”
DON’T get angry or make fun of their fears – they are very real to your child! Also, don’t prompt them or put ideas in their heads (Did you dream about a monster? A zombie? The scary show you watched earlier?) It may be tempting to THINK you know the fear, and understandable to try and get to the root of the matter as soon as possible. But trying to name their fear before they have a chance puts words in their mouths, and may make them start worrying about something they were not worrying about before.
DO reassure them – “You are safe!” Let them know you will keep them safe, your house is safe and their bed is safe. And DO tell them monsters, zombies or any other creature they think are under their bed, in their closet or otherwise waiting for the lights to go out to attack are NOT real.
DON’T tell them you will beat up, kill or slay any monsters, dragons or creatures under the bed or in the closet. Saying such things reinforces for your child that these creature DO in fact exist, and therefore must be lurking in dark places, ready to eat up small children as soon as the lights go out.
DO create a happy bedtime routine that is conducive for peaceful sleep. Make your child’s room comfortable, with dim light, favorite stuffed animals or blankets. If you find that soothing music helps your child – go for it! Read one or two bedtime books, ask your child what was the best thing they did that day. Or if you know something great they accomplished, remind them of it. “You learned a new sight word!” “You learned how to tie your shoe….how to pour the milk…your street name…whatever!” This builds their confidence which will help them conquer their fears. Some friends have had success with using guardian angels or dream catchers to help their kids overcome their bedtime fears.
DON’T …give up! To tame the bedtime beasts you may have to devise a plan A, plan B and plan C. Then, months later, you may have to go back to the drawing board and start over again.
In conclusion, every bedtime beast is different. What works for taming one beast may not work for taming another beast. Hopefully my story will give you reassurance and hope that with lots of love, creativity and patience, you too can tame your bedtime beast!