It’s not uncommon for babies and big kids to go to sleep easily at bedtime for one parent (or grandma, or the babysitter) and put up a major battle for the other. It may make you feel like your baby or child prefers the other parent over you. It’s more complicated than that! Let’s explore the reasons why your baby or big kid acts differently at bedtime or nap time with one caregiver over another.

Reason #1 Your baby or child feels safest with you

If you’re the parent who spends most of the time with your child, your child feels more secure with you. This emotional security means he feels safer letting out his big feelings in your company than he does with another caregiver. He knows that no matter what he throws at you, you’ll love him right back. When the parent (or other caregiver) who doesn’t normally do bedtime takes over for a night, your baby or child doesn’t feel as secure, and it less likely to push limits.  

Reason #2 Your guilt and other big feelings are getting in the way

Let’s face it. Parenting comes with guilt, and it’s not just for moms! Most parents work out of their homes and away from their children at least some of the time. Grandparents live in other states and don’t get to visit as often as they’d like. This separation might leave you, or grandma, feeling guilty or nostalgic for the time missed. If you do spend a lot of time with your child, you may feel guilty about wanting more time away form them! These big feelings play into our resolve to set limits at bedtime. You might give in to one more book, rock your toddler until he falls asleep, or let your big kid into your bed, because it feels like a way to make up for time lost.

Reason #3 You don’t use a consistent bedtime routine

A consistent bedtime routine prepares your baby or child physically and emotionally for bed. They begin to anticipate each step, and this consistency helps their brain and their bodies relax and accept sleep more readily. If your routine is inconsistent, too short, or varies from what your partner does too greatly, your baby or big kid will struggle more. I find the parent, or another caregiver, who doesn’t normally do bedtime is often less likely to be consistent.

Reason #4 You don’t stick to the bedtime rules

Bedtime rules help toddlers and big kids learn what is expected of them. If  you set rules but only stick with them willy-nilly, your child is going to push back when you do. They aren’t being “bad” or manipulative, you simply haven’t been clear about what the expectations are. For example, if your toddler asks for one more book to be read and you say no but then give in to the ensuing tantrum, he’s going to have an even bigger tantrum next time. If you sometimes let your toddler nurse in the middle of the night, but sometimes don’t, your going to have a confused toddler. Not only does he not know why he can nurse one night but not another, feeding him at night can make that a “mealtime” and when you don’t allow him to nurse at another time, he may actually feel hungry.

Reason #5 Your bucket is empty

When your bucket is empty, you don’t have the emotional reserves to respond with consistently, with patience and resolve. A baby or child will often push against the parent who has a less consistent emotional response. If your stress levels are high, your intuitive baby picks right up on that. Their mirror neurons are strong! Your emotional availability at bedtime can also cause problems in the middle of the night.  Studies have shown that when parents are more emotionally available, babies wake less.

You’ve got to take back bedtime.

There doesn’t have to be just one boss of bedtime. You, your partner, grandma, babysitters….your baby or big kid can grow comfortable going to bed for all the bedtime bosses.

  • Go into bedtime with a full bucket. Before starting the bedtime routine, pause and take 5 slow, deep breaths. Use that time to imagine something that brings you peace or joy and imagine each breath filling your bucket more. Then, take a few minutes to connect with your baby using your voice, eyes, and touch.
  • Take it as a compliment! If your baby or big kid pushes back at your more than your partner, don’t take it personally. It is actually a sign of a healthy attachment. 
  • Create consistent bedtime routines and rules. Model your routine and rules after what the caregiver with more success does, and stick with it.

If you are the parent who has bedtime down,  you might be tempted to make it easier on everyone by just doing bedtime every night. Or, you might try to swoop in and rescue the struggling parent. This will only send the other caregiver, and child, the message that only you can do bedtime “right”.  It also sends your child the message that if they push back long enough, they’ll get their favorite bedtime boss back. It will take some time for your child to pick up on the new routine and rules, so you might need to step aside and let the other person do bedtime more often, at least for a bit. 

With a little empathy, respect, and resolve, you can both be bedtime bosses!   

Jessica Begley

Author Jessica Begley

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