It’s past bedtime and my 8-year old is weeping on my lap fearful of going to sleep. AGAIN. She’s been sleeping just fine for months, years even, and now, all of a sudden, she either won’t go to sleep in her bed or she falls asleep there only to wake up and crawl into my bed sometime in the middle of the night. She’s crabby during the day and we sport matching dark circles under our eyes since her refusal to sleep in her own, perfectly comfortable bed, is keeping me, a light sleeper, awake, too.
Bedtime fears have got to be a level of parental hell nestled right between lice picking and watching your kid get stitches.
Sleepless nights are the norm with babies, but big kids are supposed to sleep, right? I thought I was past all this!
When a week of my best efforts to threaten, cajole, and bribe Libby to sleep in her own bed all failed, I knew I had to up my mommy game. So, like every parent I know, I consulted my therapist, Dr. Google for how to help my anxious kiddo at bedtime and learned I’d been doing everything all wrong. What else is new, right?
Since I know I’m not the only parent desperate for a good night’s sleep, allow me to share our latest and greatest strategies for soothing bedtime fears.
Move Your Kiddo’s Bedtime Earlier
We’ve had the same bedtime rituals with Libby and her big sister, Nel forever. They consist of getting on their PJs, brushing their teeth, reading a story, and a hug and kiss goodnight. At least, that’s how bedtime is supposed to go, in theory. In reality, there’s all kinds of water collecting and stuffed animal hunting and song singing and requests for, “Five more minutes, please?!!” and, “One more hug!” and, “Leave that light on!”
Over the past six months, bedtime had begun to expand. I’d settle Libby down at her usual time but all the rituals and requests she began adding meant it was taking longer to actually get her to sleep. As much as I love to give Libby extra hugs and cuddles, dragging out bedtime meant that much less sleep for her each night. I did the math: if Libby loses a half hour a night, that’s 3.5 hours a week or 182 hours lost sleep in a year. There are serious health risks for kids who don’t get enough sleep, and I didn’t like ending each day with a bedtime battle.
How was I going to help Libby stick with her actual bedtime? I moved our start time up by an extra half hour. Sure, not a lot changed in terms of our rituals, but I was less annoyed looking at the clock and Libby was getting that half hour of sleep back each night.
Listen to Your Kiddo’s Fears
With a little more time on the clock, I was more willing to sit with Libby and listen to what was bothering her. She gave me more details about her classmate who was bothering her during the day, and I was able to focus more without the distractions of the supper table or her sister running around.
Fact Check the Fear
We literally “fact check” Libby’s fear with her now. “So you think Biff Tannen (not his real name) is going to tear your head off? Fact check, do you have evidence that he’s done this before?” Libby tells me that Biff has actually knocked some kids down on the playground before and we discuss what happened next. Did the teachers respond? Was there a consequence? What did the other kids do?
I don’t soft-pedal the fact that Biff might actually physically hurt someone at school. We discuss how she can avoid him and when to talk to a teacher. I also tell Libby that if she ever actually feels physically unsafe around this student, that she has my permission to walk out of the classroom to the office and ask them to call me. I tell her she has the right to feel safe and this kid does not have the right to hurt her.
We have great conversations about dealing with tough kids and feeling safe at school and I would have missed this entirely if I’d discounted her bedtime fears entirely by telling her, “A kid won’t be able to rip your head off. That won’t happen.”
Ask Something to Hold the Fear for Your Kiddo
This is a great Guatemalan tradition that I highly recommend adopting for your own kids. Traditionally, when a worry is keeping a person awake, Guatemalan children tell their worry to a worry doll. The doll will hold the worry under the child’s pillow allowing them to sleep peacefully all night long.
I hit upon this ritual when I found a worry doll at the bottom of the girls’ toy basket. Where it came from, or how it got there, I can’t say. All I know is that this worry doll has worked like a charm to help Libby get to sleep at night.
Recent fears Libby has given to her doll include:
- “This scratch won’t stop hurting.”
- “Mom will get hurt when she’s away for the weekend.”
- “I won’t be able to find my stuffed lamb in the morning.”
A month ago, I would have rolled my eyes at some of these and tried to explain or ignore Libby’s fears depending how many tears there were. Now, after fact-checking each fear, I direct her to, “Tell it to the doll,” and we move on with bedtime.
Name a Hope
After losing our worry doll one night (they are awfully tiny!) in desperation I offered Libby a substitute: a small silver horse to hold her worries at night. Libby decided to instead ask the horse to hold a hope for her for the next day. When the worry doll found its way back to us the next night, Libby decided to continue tucking the horse under the pillow, dubbing it, “Hope Horse.” Each night, she now designates one worry for the doll and one hope for the horse. I love how balanced this bedtime ritual has become now for us. Libby’s hopes are sometimes related to her fear directly: “I hope Biff doesn’t yell at me tomorrow.” Sometimes they’re a mom nudge: “I hope Mama remembers to sign me up for art classes.” But sometimes they’re something I haven’t heard before: “I hope I get a good book at the library tomorrow.”
Whatever it is, Hope Horse carries it diligently into Libby’s dreams when she finally lays her head down to sleep.