parenting q&A: Falling asleep is a task of its own
Dear Kerry, We're currently having a huge problem at home. How do you get your child to stay in bed at night? We put our 3-year-old daughter to bed at 8, but she's up anywhere from 3 to 15 times, requesting snacks, extra hugs, trips to the bathroom, or more often just to share stories. We let her read in bed with a nightlight as a trick to let her settle on her own, and she already has an extensive bedtime ritual. She won't actually fall asleep until 9:30, and it just seems a little ridiculous, especially when I have to wake her up for preschool in the morning. Any ideas? Thanks! AC, Ann Arbor Dear AC, This is a challenge many parents face when their toddlers first have a “big-kid bed.” Suddenly the little one isn’t confined to a crib and can really become enthusiastic about the new freedom of movement. Of course they are also still dealing with the regular issues that are part of this stage of their development, like owning their bodies, testing limits, curiosity and involvement in their parents’ activities - all things that fall under the broad categories of where do I end and the world begins, and who is in charge of what?
But I don’t think this is actually a “sleep problem.” It’s more like a “letting go of the day and relaxing controls” problem. Many little ones, who have, after all, just recently developed a clear inside sense of being their own person, struggle with falling asleep. This seems to be related to how falling asleep feels like giving up consciousness, almost feeling like she is losing herself. That can even seem a little bit scary, sort of like thinking, “Where is ME if I am asleep? What happens to me then? Will I be me when I wake up?” Even if these aren’t worries for your child, she is still being asked to let go into the mysterious territory of sleep when she is full of feelings, thoughts and excitements about her day. She may want to stay with those instead of face the unknown of the night.
The other new development for 3- and 4-year-olds is the physical and emotional changes that increase their pleasure from touching their own bodies. Masturbation is a normal part of childhood that reinforces the link between good feelings and a sense of being in charge of themselves. Feeling that you own your own body is an important protection for children. A child who is in charge of herself is less likely to let anyone else do things to her.
But your daughter may not feel sure of whether that excitement and pleasure is all right and may be delaying sleep to avoid the moment of cozy comfort that might tempt her to masturbate. This is a good time in her life to gently and casually give her permission to enjoy her body. You can say “Everybody’s body feels good to them. It’s okay for you to enjoy touching yourself. It’s a private pleasure that people get when they are by themselves in their room.”
At the same time, however, that you are giving her permission to own and enjoy her own body, you are the one asking of her that she go to sleep. And she doesn’t always want to do what you want her to. Even if she actually does, it may be a loss of dignity for her to do it when you ask, rather than it being her own idea. Therein lies the challenge! But there are ways to address these different aspects of the situation. Your 3-year-old is at an ideal age to begin to play the “3 Buckets Game.”
The 3 Buckets is a game we devised at Allen Creek Preschool to help toddlers and their parents sort out a central developmental challenge, that is, WHO IS IN CHARGE OF WHAT? You can have a conversation about this idea or you can play it as an actual game.
All you need are three buckets or bowls or baskets. One is designated “What Children Are In Charge Of,” one is “What Parents and Teachers Are In Charge Of,” and the third is “What No One Is In Charge Of.” You can write on a piece of paper, for instance, “riding a trike” and ask who is in charge of that. When your 3-year-old says, “me!” then she wads the paper up and throws it into the first bucket. When you say “cooking dinner,” and write that on a paper, it will get thrown into the adults’ bucket. “The weather” goes into the bucket of things no one is in charge of and so forth. This game can be played repeatedly over time, with some items moving from the adult bucket to the kids’ bucket as new skills are mastered.
A big differentiation is between “deciding bedtime,” which goes into the adult bucket, and “going to sleep,” which goes into the child’s bucket. Once you have established that your little girl is in charge of when she falls asleep, you can talk about what a big growing-up job it is to learn how to do that (and it will be a valuable skill life-long!). You can say, “Big girls don’t always know how to let themselves relax into sleep. It’s something that everyone has to learn. We can help you learn ways to do that, so it’s comfortable and pleasant for you. You will feel so good when you can do it for yourself and wake up in the morning by yourself too.”
Grownups know lots of techniques for relaxing into sleep. Even little children can learn how to “let each part of you get quiet - first your feet, then your legs, then your body, then your arms, then your neck, then your head.” You can practice this together lying on the floor in the daytime (pretty restful for parents too!). Breathing quietly, slowly and deeply is another useful thing to learn, as is thinking of the good parts of the day to reinforce the nice memories before going to sleep. Some people like to close their eyes and think of looking at a deep blue curtain or night sky. The possibilities are endless and fun to share.
You define what “bedtime” means. It means going to bed after drinks of water, bathroom, hugs, and so forth are all done. In other words, those things are no longer available after bedtime. If your daughter has just mastered going to the bathroom by herself and being dry at night, she may still need to go one more time before sleep, but that is definitely not the time to sit down in the bathroom with her and be a captive audience, delaying bed. At first, you may have to go back into her room repeatedly for a quick hug and reminder that “Now it’s bedtime, so we will wait until morning for drinks and snacks and playing.”
You can decide what you feel is okay for her to do after bedtime, like reading quietly in bed to herself. Having a certain number of books and a bedside lamp may be preferable to using a nightlight, as turning off her light herself will mark a boundary between being up and going to sleep. White light keeps the brain awake, so a red nightlight can help create a soothing atmosphere and will be better for her eye health too. She will probably sing a few songs to her stuffed animals or talk through her day to herself after the light is off, which is a typical way to unwind.
If something has changed at home, like there is a new baby, or a family stressor, or an imminent move, sleep is often the first thing that is disrupted. Addressing the feelings about those things, and reassuring your child that your love and attention are there for her no matter what, are best done in the daytime. Long heart-to-hearts at bedtime can quickly become a delaying tactic, and no one is at their best for figuring things out when tired anyway.
As you can see, a lot goes into the apparently simple act of falling asleep, so it’s not surprising that your little daughter is on a learning pathway and isn’t quite there yet. As you work your way through the various aspects, she will master this important skill — it will help her for the rest of her life.
Let us know how it goes!
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local psychoanalyst and a family consultant at Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through AllenCreek.org, or you can email her your comments and questions for future columns.