Children who resist bedtime are noted for their determinedly open eyes and, usually, loud protests at being put to bed, often at the hour when the caregiver is most desperate to have the child fall asleep. Unfortunately, such bedtime struggles are not something that occurs once and then is outgrown forever but is a stage that can appear at several different ages and for different reasons: in infancy, in toddlerhood, and quite possibly at regular intervals after that. Some children, for no reason that anyone has been able to determine, always sleep well; others appear to be born requiring little sleep. All parents seem to need sleep, however, so stubborn wakefulness on the child’s part can be troubling indeed.
Where the Child is Headed
What parents hope is that after the appropriate bedtime rituals, the child will be able to go to bed and fall asleep, without undue objection, in her own bed, and to remain there sleeping without summoning a parent except in the case of an emergency, until a reasonable wake up time. The parents role is not to put the child to sleep but to encourage the child to learn to do this for herself.
The wakeful infant has learned to associate sleep and rocking, or sleep and feeding, or sleep and sucking. When the child wakes up to discover that he’s alone in his crib, not being rocked or fed any more, or that the pacifier has fallen out of his mouth, he can’t go back to sleep unless someone feeds him or rocks him or replaces the pacifier.
The wakeful toddler has separation anxiety. He wants you by his side by night as much as he does by day – even more so, because he feels a loss of control and vulnerability at bedtime, much as you do when responsibilities and concerns that you can easily handle at 3PM have you staring at the ceiling in the dark at 3AM. So he tries to lure you back with requests for a drink, a kiss, one more story.
Wakeful children of all ages may be afraid: of the dark; of monsters under the bed; of very real monster-like behaviors that he’s witnessed during the day at home, school, or on television; of his own angry feelings that haunt him with terrifying thoughts when awake and nightmares when asleep. Additionally, children often show their feelings about daytime separations when it’s time for the night time separation.
How You Feel
Depending on when your bedtime is, you are either irritated that the child is interrupting your adult time with your spouse, a book, or a hobby you enjoy, or you are somewhere between tired and exhausted. Your patience with these bedtime struggles is short, and you have difficulty being sympathetic with your infant’s wails or your older child’s insistence that he’s thirsty or that there’s a dragon in his closet. At the same time, you are feeling guilty at your very own irritation, not to mention at having left him all day in the day care center or with a sitter. So you are tempted to invite him to stay up another hour or to sleep in your bed where at least you’ll be together and he’ll be quiet and you can both get some sleep.
What to Understand
You are absolutely right: you both need your sleep, and you also need your child-free hours. Most children who are having trouble sleeping just need reassurance that you are there, that you will keep them safe, and that bedtime is a good and necessary thing. They do not need to get into bed with you because then you will have another problem: getting them out.
What to do
Make bedtime as pleasant as possible. Do not rush it, no matter how much of a hurry you are in. Whatever the child’s age, take time for relaxing and comforting routines such as tucking in a favorite doll, singing a special bedtime song, reading a story or two. A beloved stuffed animal or special blanket is often helpful in keeping a child content through the night. Recorded music, perhaps the same familiar tunes each night, can become intuitive signals for sleep. Nightlights can be comforting to children who express a fear of the dark; older children can be permitted to read to themselves and turn out their own lights when they are ready. But whatever the bedtime props, when it becomes time to say goodnight, say it with conviction. If the child fusses for a while, let him fuss. If he continues to fuss, go to him with reassuring words and pats, but not with an invitation to join the grown-ups either in front of the TV or in bed. If necessary, sit beside the child’s own bed for a while until she is calmed.
Start perfecting your bedtime routine to head off the bedtime struggles. Prepare your child with a half hour warning, and if possible devote that half hour to an activity the child particularly enjoys – a quiet and calming one, of course – giving him your full attention. Then make actual bedtime a pleasurable time of conversation, cuddles, songs and stories. Assure him that you will keep him safe through the night, and express confidence that soon, possibly tonight, he will be able to fall asleep right away, and sleep until morning.
Trust your own sense of whether your child is protesting bedtime only in the hopes of squeezing a little more activity into his day, or he is truly distressed, sincerely frightened. Remember your own childhood fears at bedtime, and how vivid they were. If, after your best bedtime routine performances and your repeated reassurances that all is well, your child is still unable to sleep, consider consultation with a child development specialist. You and your child both may need help in understanding the causes of his persistent wakefulness.