When you’re tired, getting through the day is like walking through molasses: every task feels monumental, you can’t think clearly, and the constant drain on your system makes you cranky and short. Children don’t have the ability to recognize their fatigue and compartmentalize it to get on with their day, so exhausted kids tend to start acting out without really knowing why.
If your usually-well-behaved child is throwing an impressive tantrum at the grocery store, or melting down before dinner, or saying “no” to every book you suggest, they’re likely tired and don’t know how to regulate their system. That’s where you can really help your little ones.
You have a superpower that you can show them how to use: autonomic co-regulation, a body-to-body mechanism that allows us to reach a state of calm with another person by engaging our five senses and connecting emotionally with each other.
Many people struggle to transition from awake to asleep on their own, and children have an especially hard time with it. When bedtime is an activity of connection with someone they love, the quality of children’s sleep improves. This not only supports the health of their bodies and brains, it’s also likely to spare you both from tantrums tomorrow. Breathing together also protects children from apnea (short periods of not breathing while sleeping)—in fact, studies show that babies who sleep in the same room as their parents during the first year of life have a 50% decreased risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Giving your child a warm, comforting, connected presence while transitioning to bedtime not only makes them more cooperative and helps them sleep better, it helps them regulate their emotions and behavior, and promotes healthy development.
A bedtime routine is an excellent way to help children organize their system for sleep. Routines give them a feeling of security and predictability; within that structure, there’s lots of room for creativity and personalization in how you and your child connect. Here are some suggestions:
- Share a book: hearing familiar words is relaxing, and when they know the story and can help tell it, they get a positive feeling about themselves and about their connection with you, both of which are calming.
- Sing the same song every night: routine helps us go into deep sleep, which we need for brain rest and restoration. It also prevents grogginess (and crankiness) the next day.
- When they’re ready to go to sleep, try lying down with them for 20 minutes. If you’re someone who hesitates to do this, you’re not alone—many parents worry they will (at best) fall asleep themselves when they’d rather get adult things done, or (at worst) spoil their child. But being close to you, being able to smell you, and listening to your breathing or feeling your heartbeat has been soothing since they were a baby. Those primal sensory inputs are a direct pathway to calming down (not-so-secretly, it’s great for you, too). If you do drift off during those 20 minutes, it’s often really good-quality sleep because co-regulation is what got you there. And if you fell asleep while trying to help your child fall asleep… you were really tired! Taking a pre-bedtime nap snuggled up in the sweet comfort of your child’s bedroom might make it harder to do the dishes, but it’s worth it. Just because you know how to push through fatigue doesn’t mean that’s good for you.
- This truly won’t spoil your kids. Remember, your body is conditioning them to use this superpower. You’re setting their brain and body up for developmental success by helping them learn how to access a state of calm whenever they need to.
For children who struggle with bedtime:
- Often, children fight bedtime because they know it means the end of time with you, and they love spending time with you. They get all this delicious attention during your evening routine together, and they don’t want that to end! So if being alone is dysregulating for them, help them continue co-regulating by staying with them and staying connected while they fall asleep.
- Doing bedtime in a rush is counterproductive and starts an agitating cycle: when we, as parents, just want to get something done, we can’t help but convey that to our child. Our touch is quicker and less tender; when we read a story at a hurried pace, children pick up on that and it interrupts the calming process; if our child wants to play, we might express frustration, which is dysregulating to the child. When we strong-arm our kids into bed, it always takes them longer to fall asleep because they have to wait longer for their system to regulate, if it regulates at all. This not only impacts their quality of sleep, it also forces them to stay in a prolonged stress state, which is harmful to their health.
- Children are still developing their ability to regulate their emotions and behavior—they complain, kick, scream, or cry, which makes parents more impatient, and children less sleepy, and then everyone is upset. It’s important to remember: they’re not being willful; it’s physiological. If we can remember that they’re not “behaving badly,” they’re just dysregulated, we can shortcut this frustrating cycle and get to the root of their upset feelings. Co-regulation is the best way to help them calm down.
My granddaughter was excited to have a sleepover at my house, but at bedtime, she got very sad that her parents weren’t there. She became dysregulated and started to cry. I held her and sang her “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Rockabye Baby” in alternating rounds. Over and over again, I sang and sang. She fell so deeply asleep that when she fell off the bed in the middle of the night (onto pillows), she didn’t even wake up.
Sleep makes us resilient. We can set our children (and ourselves) up for success by creating loving routines around bedtime. But we’re all human, and sometimes we get dysregulated. Knowing how to co-regulate with our children, and to offer them this lifelong skill, is an invaluable step toward deep, health-promoting sleep.