Some parents are blessed with children who just conk out or manage to drift off smoothly. Yet, many parents are not so fortunate.  How can they assist their child who may need extra help at sleep time?

Disconnecting from the world: In the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, a child says goodnight to one aspect of his world after another, including the comb, light and noises everywhere.

At bedtime, a child cuts, if only temporarily, all the connections that sustain him or her during the day. The most important connections are with loved ones, but there are other sustaining connections, such as with food or the day’s treasured Lego structure. A child depends upon two internal emotional capacities to master the disconnection: the capacity to bear being alone and to bear what is inside oneself. The following explores these two ideas:

Ability to bear being alone: Disconnecting stirs a keen sense of aloneness. An important childhood emotional achievement is the development of the capacity to be alone without being excessively lonely. Children who have mastered the challenge of separation, and can be on their own with confidence during the day, will be in a good position to face the day’s greatest separation challenge at bedtime.

Ability to bear thoughts: Children need to be able to bear their various thoughts and emotions, including memories and what they imagine. Like adults, when their head hits the pillow, children start thinking about worries that they have pushed aside during the day. Children will be likely to dread sleep if they cannot bear their worries.

Building the capacity to be alone: Many books advise parents about children’s sleep, often with conflicting advice. Let infants cry it out; never let infants cry. Wean yourself gradually from the room; don’t do that at all, but use sticker charts. These various recommendations sometimes are helpful, but all are likely to achieve a behavioral change rather than a growth in the capacities that underlie the ability to go to sleep. By emphasizing approaches that strengthen a child’s capacities, children will ultimately change behaviorally in a stable way that leaves them emotionally stronger and more capable.

Think of the entire day as preparation for going to sleep. Parents can help their child build the mental muscles necessary to tolerate being alone. Perhaps that means assisting a 3-year-old to play alone outside their parent’s direct sight for longer periods of time. If she goes to preschool, a parent can talk with her about her feelings when she leaves her parent, and spend extra time during the reunion so she can successfully reconnect. Parents can connect their 7-year-old to spend the night at a friend’s home or a weekend at the grandparents’ house or to engage in activities that do not involve parents on a regular basis.

Developing bedtime routines: Bedtime rituals are important to children. If parents have several young children, they should consider putting them to bed separately, if possible, because each will benefit from parental undivided attention and has individual needs for a particular ritual. The bedtime ritual is a time that children drink their parents in to prepare for the drought ahead and a time to participate in something with which they feel utterly familiar as they enter the unfamiliar land of their own inner life. Children feel most competent with the familiar, and the sense of competency and familiarity strengthens them for the task of being with themselves and encountering the unfamiliar, for we never know where thoughts will take us - especially when alone. The ritual is sacred to a child, and parents should protect it by keeping it as constant and reliable as possible.

Exploring thoughts: It is difficult to provide meaningful advice about helping a child with what is inside them. The possibilities of what children are thinking about at bedtime are endless and changing. Parents can inquire, gently and respectfully, whether their children have thoughts that bother them when they lie down. Parents might be surprised by their children’s responses, which may give parents a chance to provide support or reassurance. Beyond that, we would encourage parents to develop good communication and respectful relationships that would enable their children to come to them with what is on their minds.

Not a cry for attention: Parents should not misconstrue their children’s actions as efforts to get attention. Unless they are deprived of attention, and unless parents are greeting their delay tactics with endless and excessive patience, children know that their parents are somewhat frustrated. They are getting attention, but it is attention that does not carry their parents’ approval. Children don’t want this kind of attention just to get any attention. They are seeking parental help with emotional states that they have trouble bearing, even if a 7-year-old seems to be just sauntering down for a stroll and some conversation.

If parents try some of these suggestions, their efforts will be accompanied by an empathy that their children will sense.  Children will appreciate and grow from the quality of the understanding and support that they are being offered. 

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