One of the sweet pleasures of parenting can be the nightly ritual of tucking a child into bed. It can also be a waking nightmare. It’s up to us. And, yes, it’s important. Children who feel loved, cared for and safe when they go to sleep at night are more likely to be rested, cooperative, resilient and caring kids during the daytime hours.
I know. I know. Parents who are stressed and overly busy often want to cut the whole getting to bed thing short. But doing so shortchanges both parent and child. There is something soothing and relaxing for both when bedtime is a time for winding down, for making space for conversation, and, above all, for reaffirming love.
Helpful Hints for Making Bedtime a Happy Time
- Allow time for it.
Bedtime routines usually take a good hour. That’s because bedtime is on kid time. There’s only so much you can hurry a 3-year-old without defeating yourself. Hurrying up is likely only to wake the child up. If you accept the reality that winding down takes time for the unwinding, you won’t resent it. A common routine is bath, into pajamas, brush teeth, a chat to review the good things of the day, cuddle and two stories, small drink of water, cuddle, goodnight. (No wonder it takes an hour!)
- Establish a routine.
Children count on us to provide structure until they can do it on their own. A bedtime routine provides that structure and safety. When a child knows what to expect, it makes a confusing world just a little more predictable. It makes being left in the dark a little less scary. Setting these routines early is worth it. It helps a child learn how to eventually do it for himself, both at bedtime and if he wakes up during the night.
- Shut down those screens!
Bedtime routines should not include watching TV, playing on a tablet or getting on Facebook. Research now shows that watching screens up to an hour before bedtime interferes with a child’s sleep. It’s thought that the blue light from a screen may affect circadian rhythms and make it hard for the child to get to sleep. This can lead to a decrease in the time when the child is actually asleep. As we all know, a child without enough sleep is likely to be cranky the next day. Not fun for parent or child.
- Be consistent.
Once you’ve decided on a routine, stick to it. If the routine is two stories, stick to two. Giving in to pleadings for “one more, one more” will set you up for a nightly argument. Be firm but loving and kind. Acknowledge that no one likes a good time to end but it’s time for sleep. Then tuck your child in, give her a kiss, and quietly leave the room.
- Lovies and blankies.
Young children often have a stuffed toy, a favorite blanket or sometimes a piece of clothing that they just just have to cuddle to feel secure. Formally called a “transitional object,” these cherished items do help young children transition from wake to sleep. If you don’t make an issue of it, chances are your child will eventually give it up. In the meantime, it’s helpful to you both. The child feels safe and you can leave the room.
- In two parent families, make sure the bedtime routine includes time with both.
Either alternate days or divvy up the tasks each night. Children need regular, happy contact with both adults who love them. Bedtime is a great time to make sure it happens.
- Make room for conversation.
There is something about cuddling in a dimmed room that invites kids to talk about the things that are most important to them. This is often the time when children ask the big questions, express their worries, and share things they find confusing. It’s reassuring to children when the big people take their concerns seriously and respond respectfully. The time when parents are seen as the authority on everything is short. Enjoy it while it lasts.
- Children and adults need loving physical contact.
Cuddle. Hug. Cuddle some more. Cuddling releases the hormone oxytocin. Known as the “feel good hormone,” it both feels good and bonds people together. It affirms the connection. It says the things that words can’t say. Scientists have even found that cuddling our kids when they are young is linked to making healthy emotional connections later on in life. Make story time into lap time or snuggle close on the bed. Kiss your little one good night.
- Bedtime rituals also are important for tweens and teens.
In fact, they are essential. Growing teens need to wind down, to get off the screens, and to get to bed so that they get a solid 8 hours of sleep. Quiet, supportive, undivided attention from parents before bed makes room for serious conversation and connection. And don’t forget hugs and a kiss goodnight. To respect boundaries, do ask first and keep it brief if they act uncomfortable. It’s not personal. It’s part of the age. But most tweens and teens are glad to have the affirmation that comes from even a brief bit of physical contact with a parent who loves them.