In this blog I describe a methodology I used with my own children, and recommend in my practice. Before doing so, I would advise that this is a routine that I sustained across years. My children and I enjoyed this special time together, and in the context of the ongoing juggle of work and family commitments, it became a regular time for togetherness. Indeed, I maintained a consistent (though evolving over time) bedtime ritual with my youngest child until he reached his early teens. This is not to say that the methodology described below takes years to work! In fact, I anticipate that it will assist with getting your child off to sleep in their own bed within days. However, in order for there to be a lasting effect I would suggest that you be prepared to implement this methodology for at-least three months before gradually weaning the child from it (more on this below).
To the methodology! Once it is bed-time, I suggest that you put your child to bed and sit or lay alongside them for approximately twenty minutes. In that time, and depending on the age of your child, you might read and sing lullabies to them. When my own children were pre-school aged, I read two or three books before singing to them. As with other aspects of parenting and caregiving, consistency is important here. Consistency is soothing. I suggest rotating through a small number of books and a small number of lullabies across consecutive nights. Children draw comfort from the predictability of the bed-time routine, thus preparing them for the separation involved in going to sleep. After a while, the books lullabies are likely to become associated with feelings of comfort and sleepiness, with the result that the child begins to feel sleepy when the same books are read and lullabies are sung.
When my children reached school-age, we transitioned to longer books, reading approximately a chapter each night. I read books that they were interested in but not able (yet) to read themselves. I remember reading the Magic Faraway Tree to my older children. The last books I read to my youngest son were the Harry Potter series of novels. I stopped singing to them when it seemed developmentally-appropriate (for them) to do so. This was when they were four or five years of age.
If your child falls asleep during the above, you are free to leave the room. If they are still awake after you have read (and sung) to them, you move to the next stage of the methodology. This is more likely to be the case when you are implementing this methodology for the first time with a school-aged child. In such instances, and depending on their age, your child may still be awake after twenty minutes of reading. The next stage involves providing the profound reassurance children require to cope with separation and go to sleep. If it works, it will circumvent your child’s effort to engage in proximity-seeking behaviour, such as calling out, getting out of bed, searching for you, complaining of having a tummy ache, asking to go to the toilet, and so on.
After you have read (and sung) to your child, say to them something like “I am just going to put the light on in the next room and I will be right back. You can stay awake until I come back”. Then, you literally walk out of the room and walk back in almost straight away. You acknowledge that your child is okay and then say “I am just going to put the kettle on and I will be straight back. You can stay awake until I come back”. You then do this and when you return to your child you say something like “I am just going to the toilet and I will be straight back. You can stay awake until I come back”. You then do this and when you return to your child you say something like “I am just going to have my cup of tea and I will be straight back. You can stay awake until I come back”. With each separation, you tell your child that you are doing an activity that takes longer and longer to complete. You keep doing this until, when you return to your child, you find them to be asleep.
Speaking of activities that have temporal (i.e.time) meaning is more easily understood by your child than saying “I’ll be back in a minute”. Choosing longer and longer activities involves exposing children gradually to separations, such that they do not become overly anxious, call out or get out of bed. It is important to return to your child before they call out or get out of bed, because parent-initiated proximity is more reassuring than child-initiated proximity. So adjust the separation as required to ensure that you get back to them before they leave their bed to find you! Telling your child to stay awake is an important way to circumvent potential conflict and associated parental frustration, with the result that your child is calmer and more likely to fall asleep. Put in a different way, this is a helpful way of making use of “reverse-psychology”.
If your child is an infant and, therefore, pre-verbal, I suggest leaving the room for longer and longer intervals, and returning, though you need not use the words I recommend. Rather, try to return before they start crying or otherwise become unsettled. This is a gentle alternative to controlled crying and one that I also used effectively with my own children.
If you are looking to wean your child off an extended bedtime ritual, I suggest gradually reducing the amount of time spent reading (and singing) to them, and implementing the second stage of temporary separations and reunions. Eventually, you might only being doing the separations and reunions, before finally being able to put them to bed to go of to sleep themselves.
Playing relaxing classical music softly in your child’s bedroom is a useful adjunct to the above. Try starting the music when you first put your child to bed (i.e. while you are reading and singing). Set the volume so low that it can only just be heard in a quiet room. Set it to play all night. Relaxing classical music soothes the nervous system and can be expected to further assist your child to go to sleep, stay asleep, and sleep more deeply and restfully. It can also reduce the incidence of nightmares. Your child is likely to be happier during the day that follows as a benefit of a deeper and more peaceful sleep. I used the Dream Children Compilation by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, but there are many children’s sleep playlists on Spotify (and the like) these days. If you find that your (older) child is distracted by the device you are playing the music on, put the device in an adjacent room or in the hallway outside the child’s bedroom. If your child complains that the music is “keeping them awake” try putting it on after they are asleep. Remember, keep the music on all night, every night.
Finally, enjoy this special time spent with your child. I did, and experienced sadness when my youngest said “dad, I don’t need you to stay with me anymore”.
This methodology is also presented in my book about attachment and attachment trauma. Click the link here to find out more about my book.