One of the most common mistakes parents make when trying to help their baby or young child sleep more independently at night is not looking at the relationship between daytime parenting and your child’s nighttime behaviors. We know that children who feel more connected, respected, and listened to are better able to navigate big changes and even bigger feelings–including those that come up at bedtime and throughout the night. Here are 4 daytime parenting tools that can help ease nighttime struggles.
Tool #1: Stay Listening
It’s not uncommon for babies, toddlers, and even big kids to have some pretty big feelings about life. They are constantly learning how they relate to the world around them, adjusting to their increasing independence, discovering what they have control over, and practicing how to regulate their emotions. This sounds overwhelming even for an adult! Sometimes children don’t have the opportunity to process these big feelings during the day which leads them into bedtime with some pent up emotion.
Allowing them to cry in your arms or in your presence, often called stay listening (coined by Patty Wipfler from Hand in Hand Parenting) allows them to process these big feels and even builds a stronger emotional connection with you. Remember that not all cries are ones that you will be able to, or even need to, quiet. If your child is not hungry, soiled, hurt, or scared, his unmet need may be just to let it all out with the trust that you will be by his side no matter what those feelings are. Be present, empathetic, and warm.
Author and parent coach, Sarah MacLaughlin, noted about Stay Listening:
“You actually have to BE calm and relaxed while attending or “being with” a child’s strong feelings. If you’re feeling tense but smiling on top of your stress and worry, your child will know. Offer listening and support for only as long as you can authentically muster it. It’s OK to redirect your child once you’re worn out by simply saying, “Let’s do something else now, I need a break from listening.””
You can also use this approach at bedtime if your child is struggling falling asleep. It’s much more effective at establishing healthy limit setting at night than picking your child up and redoing the whole bedtime routine over and over again!
Tool #2: Special Time
Special time, sometimes called play listening or “wants nothing time”, builds your baby’s trust in and emotional connection with you. To do special time, put your household chores or work on hold, get down on your child’s level, and allow them to guide you (not the other way around) in play. The key is to not make suggestions, correct, or direct your child in any way. Instead, reflect on and acknowledge what you see or hear him or her doing. This reflection and acknowledgement will build your child’s confidence, which spills over into bedtime confidence and an easier time separating at night.
It is also very important to be emotionally present during these times. Your child is intuitive and skilled at picking up when your mind is elsewhere. This is especially important during the bedtime routine. Studies have shown that the more emotionally available parents are during the bedtime routine, the less their children wake at night. I know it’s hard not to think about the dishes in the sink and the unanswered emails. It is for me too. But I notice that when I am stressing internally about my unfinished chores, my kids are stressing externally about separating for the night and it leads to whiny pleads for more books, tuck ins and bathroom breaks.
Tool #3: Independent Play
Allowing your child to play independently (with a caregiver close by) for even a few minutes during the day will help him become comfortable with being alone and self-entertaining. He also learns much more by exploring his space on his own, then by you constantly putting toys in his hands or directing play. Independent play gives him some practice self-entertaining at a time that is less threatening than bedtime. Allow him to try to roll over, practice stacking blocks, or grab a toy from his play mat. If he fusses in frustration as he tries to figure something new out, sit back with curiosity for a minute or two to see if he overcomes this struggle on his own. If not, then you can step in and help. Remember, new neuron pathways (learning) are laid through the struggle!
Tool #4: Family Meeting
Family meetings are a great tool for reconnecting as a family and can be helpful when implementing a new bedtime routine for children 3 years or older. Use the family meeting as a way to share success and concerns. During the family meeting, invite your child to share the benefits of getting enough sleep (it’s OK to start him off with some examples). This builds that intrinsic desire to sleep well and works better than any sticker chart or reward system. Then, use collaborative problem solving to identify ways you can all sleep better together. It builds buy-in from your kiddo if they are part of the solution!
Parenting is tough–day or night. We are so fortunate to have wonderful experts here in Maine to help parents stay confident and connected during what is a joyous yet trying time! For more tips and tools for daytime parenting, check out:
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Check out more of Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW‘s tips, tools, and resources. Sarah offers coaching, skills and support to moms and dads who want to reduce stress and enjoy their kids more.
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