Who’s (really) in control at bedtime?


If you feel like you’ve ‘lost control’ at bedtime, or around sleep in general, you’re not alone!

Just like so many other parents, you might be on the struggle bus right now. You might be thinking, ‘what the heck … it never used to be this hard’. You might be wondering, ‘what am doing wrong?’ or ‘ why won’t my kid just SLEEP?’

Our thoughts create our reality.

It’s all about perception. How you see your situation will determine your reaction and how you react has everything to do with the outcome. Our thoughts and beliefs are the lens through which we interpret and then react to things. The tricky thing for parents is that the way they feel about nighttime issues often leads to unintended outcomes that do not solve the problem but can actually exasperate it. Parents can actually (unintentionally) make things worse. This is where a mindset shift comes in. If we can change our thinking and beliefs, we have the power to change the outcome of a situation.

Get comfortable with your child struggling.

The tricky thing for many parents when it comes to dealing with their children’s behaviour is that they see behaviour around bedtime differently than they do during the day. Of course, some nocturnal behaviours can stem from things like a genuine fear of the dark or separation anxiety. Separating from parents at bedtime isn’t easy for some children and they will naturally express feelings of discomfort. Parents need to be empathetic and allow their child’s feelings but still hold firm boundaries around sleep. It’s okay for a child to struggle. Children need to work through stressful situations within their parent’s boundaries and with their loving support. This is what helps children feel confident. It’s what helps children learn and grow. It’s also what helps children sleep well.

Do you believe that tantrums and tears are harmful to your child?

Having consistent boundaries around sleep is essential for your child to feel safe. Boundaries might ‘look like’ not giving your toddler a bottle of milk overnight or putting up a baby gate to stop your child coming out of his room after lights out. Do you fear your child’s potential tantrum or protest and the inevitable screaming and tears that come with pushing boundaries? If you believe in your heart that your child’s crying and upset is harmful, you are likely to ‘cave’ on limits that your child doesn’t like. Your child’s crying isn’t harmful. It’s simply an expression of the uncomfortable feelings he is experiencing. Your job is not to quash your child’s feelings or to keep your child happy all the time. Your job is to be your child’s loving buffer as he moves through discomfort whilst maintaining clear and consistent boundaries.

Do you feel your child is being manipulative?

You might feel that your child has you ‘under the thumb’. This is a belief that will inevitably amplify the power struggle around bedtime and cause undue stress and upset for all. When your child calls you back into his room and cries out, “I just need one more story and then I promise I will go to sleep” and this becomes a habit, you can end up feeling frustrated and manipulated. You might give in to your child’s demands and even end up reacting harshly when the behavior continues. In reality, manipulative behaviour requires a higher level thinking skill that your child simply does not (developmentally) possess. There’s no manipulation or coercion involved here. No underlying strategic planning. Your child’s thought processes and actions are way simpler than this but are still very effective I.e:  If I do so and so, this happens. I like that, so I will do it again!

Do you feel you are depriving your child of basic needs? (be honest, now)

This often happens when a child stalls at bedtime. Does your child plead with you and say such things as, “I need just one more drink”, “I’m starving” or “I have to wee (again)”? Your child might cry and beg for “just one more cuddle” or “I need you to lie with me or I won’t be able to sleep”. An older child might even yell out, “you’re so mean”, “you don’t love me” or “I want a different mum!” Such scenarios can be understandably hard, especially when you’ve been busy and you may not have spent a lot of time with your child that day. It naturally pulls on the heartstrings and guilt can creep in. Don’t take it personally. Think logically. Your child does not need food, the toilet or for you to lie with him. In the context of a loving family relationship, your child does not need more attention, more cuddles or assistance to go to sleep. You have met your child’s basic needs during the day and what your child needs most of all at night is sleep.


What’s the missing link?

The missing link is your mindset!

The first step to making changes is to have awareness.

As parents, we are (mostly) sensible and educated adults. We know that having boundaries and consequences is essential for our kids to feel safe and happy. We know that it’s important to help our kids learn to do things independently. As parents, underneath it all, we know what we should do. However, despite our best parenting intentions, it can be tricky to put what we know into practice.

You need to accept when things aren’t working for your family and be willing to work towards a solution. Start by having a good think about what you truly believe and why. Think about what you know to be essentially true. Challenge yourself. Put on your logical hat and remove your emotive one just for a while and see what comes.

Logically thinking, we know that learning to sleep independently is a skill.

Independent sleep simply means your child can self-settle and resettle back to sleep when waking in the night, without your assistance. If your child has always relied on you to help with sleep, learning how to sleep independently will be a new skill to learn and just like with any skill, it will take some time. It’s logical that learning any new skill will entail a period of discomfort before a child masters it. Just like taking floaties off in the pool is scary and taking trainer wheels off a bike is scary for a child. Doing a wee in the toilet, as opposed to the potty, can also be scary. The way for your child to master new things is to firstly be given the opportunity. Then, your child needs time to practice and work through these ‘positive stress’ situations, with you as a loving buffer. Trust your child, allow your child some space and you might be pleasantly surprised. Kids are capable little creatures, after all!

It’s important to have a basic understanding of child development.

Children don’t have the complex cognitive skills that we do as adults. A child’s brain is immature and under construction. Your child will experiment and try things out until he finds something that works to get what he wants. This is not being manipulative but strategic. Sometimes he will find things out by accident. For example, if he cries loud enough and for long enough, he learns that mum will come and pick him up and put him in her bed. He would much rather be in mum’s bed than in his own, thank you very much! If he throws his pacifier out of the cot and makes a fuss, he learns that dad will come in and give it back to him, again and again. He’s getting attention and it becomes a game. He loves attention and games are fun! If he leaves his bed and comes out to the lounge room enough times, he learns that mum will let him sit with her for a cuddle in front of the TV. Oh, so nice! These things are pleasant for him so he will naturally repeat the behaviours that lead to the outcome he desires.

What feels kind and loving is often not what your child actually needs.

This is one of the hardest and most confusing things for parents to grasp. You are not depriving your child by not giving in to his every demand. The tantrum and tears that come when your child protests a limit will not harm him, whether that’s during the day or at night. It’s okay for your child to express negative feelings of anger, frustration or sadness. Just like happiness and joy, these are emotions that you cannot and should not try to stop or suppress. Your child needs to feel and express them. You need to acknowledge your child’s feelings whilst maintaining your boundaries.

It can help to think of the big picture.

What is your ‘why’? Why are you thinking of making changes and how important is it to you and your family? Of course your child needs hugs and kisses but the fact is, what your child needs most of all at night, is sleep. Knowing all these things, it’s completely possible to change things around so that you are ‘in charge’ at bedtime. It might require changing the voice in your head … the one that tells you it’s harmful for your child to be unhappy or to struggle. It always starts with perspective and it might require a mindset shift. Then, it’s about finding the confidence and conviction to be the leader your child needs you to be.


Need more help with sleep?