Bedtime can be rough, and not just for the kids. Folks get cranky, it’s hard to get motivated, and kids rarely fall asleep as quickly as we want them to. (In their defense, many of us adults also struggle with that same issue.)
The reality is that bedtime is easier for some families than others, for lots of different reasons. If your kids have to share a room and one of them is a grunty sleeper, that can make things harder. If one of your children is on a medication that screws up their sleep, that’s going to make it harder. And if your kids are night owls, they might have a harder time going to sleep or waking up on the schedule you would prefer. (And yes, in case you were wondering, night owls and early birds are actually a real thing, and if you’re one and your kid is the other, well, that just stinks. I’m super sorry because it’s really damn hard to re-adjust your internal clock.)
The reason I mention all of this is not because you should be fixing it, but because it’s a good reminder to cut yourself a whole lotta slack. This parenting gig ain’t easy, especially when we’re exhausted.
Fortunately, there are choices you can make and habits you can develop that will make bedtime easier. Here are a few tips, all of which are relevant for parents and kids:
The calmer and more present you are, the smoother it will go. This is the ultimate truth of parenting, and it can be way hard to do at bedtime because tired brains are easily distracted and super bitchy. But you’re the adult here with the fully-formed pre-frontal cortex, and the last thing you want to do is lose your sh*t and get your kid all jacked up and freaked out right when you’re trying to get them to calm down and fall asleep. So suck it up, buttercup. Put down your phone, keep taking those deep breaths, and remember that your couch and clicker await.
Routine. Routine. Routine. As much as you can, do it the same way every night. Same order of events, same songs, same kisses, same way you turn off the light and click the door shut. This predictability is soothing to children, and can help reduce anxiety and get their bodies and brains into sleep mode. (Side note: the routine is your child’s rock at bedtime, the solid ground that helps them feel safe and steady as they drift off to sleep. When the routine gets disrupted, due to travel or illness or whatever, that’s ok, but you may need to be your child’s rock more than usual.)
Put your kids to bed the same time every night. This is one of the first piece of advice given to adults struggling with insomnia, and it’s the same for kids. Get on a schedule that works for your family, and stick to it. It can feel super inconvenient at times, but if it makes bedtime easier, it’s worth it.
Put away the screens and dim the lights around the house about 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Our brains were evolutionarily wired to respond to light as a wake-up cue, and those brains can’t tell the difference between sunlight and Minecraft light. Letting them stare at phones and tablets in the evening is basically like shooting WAKE UP NOW lasers directly into your kids’ eyes, and you wouldn’t do that (and if for some reason you are doing that, well, you should stop), so put away the screens. If the thoughts of getting through the end of the evening without some sort of electronic babysitter makes you want to rip your hair out, then let them watch a TV show from across the room as opposed to staring at a tablet in their laps.
No screens in the bedroom. None. Nope. Nada. Not that one either. Just stop it. (Now if you’re going to come at me with some story about how your kids just can’t live without a little Toca City before they drift off to sleep, and they sleep just fine, well, that’s cool. If it’s working, then don’t mess with it. But if it’s not working, then you need to switch things up, and you should probably start by ripping off this particularly sticky band-aid.)
Get ready for bed well before bedtime. This one was a game changer for us. It’s so much harder to put on jammies and brush teeth when you’re tired, which is why my kids often end up rolling around on the floor with a plastic sword when they’re supposed to be brushing their hair. So, don’t wait until everyone is too exhausted to function. The minute we’re done with dinner, we get ready for bed – pajamas, hair, teeth, and clothes picked out for the next day. After that, we can do homework or play games or watch a TV show or whatever. By the time bedtime rolls around and my kids are even more tired, all we have to do is go upstairs, read a book, and get into bed. Done and done.
Don’t let your kids get overtired. Hopefully you learned this lesson when your kids were babies, but it’s always good to be reminded. Remember, exhausted brains are crazypants, which means overtired kids are more likely to think that creak in the house is a spider (because spiders are so damn creaky, of course) which leads to an epic freak out just as you were finally settling into your beloved couch. You don’t want that. Nobody wants that. So get them in bed before they get too damn tired.
Bring on the lovies. The fancy pants phrase for lovies is “transitional object,” and the whole point is to help kids feel connected to their parents when we have the nerve to leave them alone in the dark. If your kiddo is connected to a special stuffed animal, you can include it in the bedroom routine. And remember, loveys are special and important, so please don’t threaten to take them away for any reason. That’s what screen time is for. (HA!)
Don’t tell them they need to fall asleep. Honestly, folks, when was the last time that advice worked for you? Never. It never worked, so don’t dump it on your kids. Don’t remind them that they’re going to be too tired the next day if they don’t fall asleep; that’s going to make them even more stressed out. When your kids say they can’t fall asleep, tell them they don’t need to worry about it. Tell them that resting quietly in bed is almost as good as sleep, and all they need to do is relax and notice how good it feels to be cozy warm in bed.
Teach someone else to put them to sleep. I know, I know, I just got all up in your face about routine and being your kid’s rock at bedtime and here I am telling you to mix up that routine. Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, one of the super “fun” parts of parenting is that the opposite of most truths are also true, which makes it even harder to know what to do at any given point. YAY! The truth here is that every parent needs a break from bedtime, and if you’re not already getting one from a grandparent, au pair, or occasional babysitter, well, get on it if you can. (And it’s not just good for you; the more practice kids get at being flexible, well, the more flexible they’ll be. And that’s not nothing.)
Remember it will get better. Even if your kids never become great sleepers , eventually they’ll be able to get through the night without waking you up every 5 minutes. I promise. Hang in there.
What would you add to this list? What has made bedtime easier for you and your family?
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