Bedtime Battles: When Saying Goodnight is Hard


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At the age of 4 my daughter looked at me and said, “Mama, we have a problem – I don’t like to sleep.” Shocked, I managed to stifle my horror and mutter, “well that’s unfortunate because I do.” In fact, I never appreciated sleep until I had children and got so little of it.

As my daughter and I faced off across the bedtime divide we couldn’t have been at more opposite ends of the spectrum. She wanted to hold onto me and I wanted her to let me go. It was only when I realized we could both get what we wanted that I was able to find my way through. First, I had to surrender to the idea that she was going to be the one to change. I realized it was me that needed to lead us through the sleep impasse but couldn’t do so without first understanding what was going on for her.bambino coricato

What alarms a child most of all is separation from their caretakers. The reason separation is so hard is because attachment is their greatest need. Children weren’t meant to take care of themselves and seek to be strongly tethered to adults who assume responsibility for them. As immature beings, children are highly dependent upon their caretakers to meet their hunger for contact and closeness, safety, and nourishment. When they are apart from us, their alarm system can be highly activated leading to clinging, protest, and crying in distress. The alarm can appear more subtly like needing to go to the bathroom, get a glass of water, more food, or have help in fluffing their pillow up!

The biggest separation a child faces in the day is bedtime – not school or even when we are at work. We think because we are all in the same house they feel connected but sleep represents a long separation – up to ten hours of unconsciousness where they can feel very far away from us. When you drop them off at preschool or daycare there is at least an adult to greet and take care of them. When they go to bed there is no one waiting saying, “Hello, welcome to your sleepy dream time! I will make sure the monsters don’t bother you tonight.” What children face when we put them to bed is the biggest disconnect of their entire day. It seems like such a cruel irony that when children need us the most, we typically have little energy left. The idea of being generous and giving, things that come so easy on a full parenting gas tank, can reduce us to tears.

When I started to listen to what my daughter’s behaviour was telling me I realized she was scared and lonely. It was actually a compliment to our relationship that she depended on me to keep her safe and wanted to be close. When I asked her why she didn’t like to sleep she told me, “Because the monsters come out of my eyes.” She then pointed to the ceiling and said, “That dream catcher is broken.”  She was telling me she needed more from me and to take the lead in helping her rest. I told her that monsters weren’t her problem nor broken dream catchers, I was there to care for her throughout the night. Before you start to panic, I didn’t give up sleep, but I did certainly made it appear to her that I did.

I started by finding the generosity in me that she needed and accepted some things would need to wait – like housework or emails. I found my tears about the ‘me-time’ I craved and surrendered to the sacrifices that come with being a parent. I worked hard at not rushing her, having warmth and delight as I put her to bed, sending her a genuine message that I loved being with her. When the desperation would sneak in on me again I would remind myself that I could sleep all I wanted when she eventually left home or when I was dead.

Instead of expecting her to say goodnight and ‘see you in the morning’, I moved to make our separations shorter. I told her I would check on her in 5 minutes and that she could listen for my footsteps in the kitchen or for the sound of my voice. I always returned as I had promised full of more kisses while reminding her of the plans for the following day. I would tie invisible strings between our beds and tell her she just had to tug on them if she needed me. I told her I visited her in the night and watched her sleep. I once kissed her cheek with lipstick when she was sleeping but she told me in the morning, “I don’t like it when you make my face all messy!”

I even experimented with putting things under her pillow to find in the morning like treasure. She enjoyed the picture books most of all, running to read them together in our cuddle time. However, she was not happy with me when I left a pair of her favourite princess underwear under her pillow to wear. I tried many things – some worked and some did not but the message slowly got through. I worked hard to build a bridge from bedtime to the morning, conveying I was holding onto her so that she could let go of me. Instead of saying goodnight I tried to point her face into the next hello. I aimed to sooth her alarm system that had become activated by separation. I created pit stops for her to anticipate, breaking the ten hours of separate space into bite size pieces she could manage. We both started to sleep better as a result.

As I took the lead in navigating us through the bedtime separation my daughter grew more confident that this was my job and not hers. While singing her to sleep one night she looked at me and said, “Mama, no offense, but I can’t sleep when you are singing to me. Can you go now?” I stifled my laughter and said, “I’m sorry honey, have I been keeping you awake all this time?”

Copyright Dr. Deborah MacNamara

Deborah MacNamara is a clinical counsellor and educator, on faculty at the Neufeld Institute and author of Rest, Play, Grow – Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). She has more than 20 years experience working with children young and adults, and speaks regularly about child and adolescent development to parents, childcare providers, educators, and mental health professionals. Please see www.macnamara.ca for more information.