My habit had been to lay down with my five-year-old daughter at bedtime until she was asleep, which often took half an hour or more. She would fall asleep fairly easily when others put her to bed, reading books with the light on until she fell asleep.
I was ready to make a shift in this pattern, but didn’t want to use that approach.
She and I share a room and I told her that I would lay next to her for a few minutes and then go over to my own bed to sleep there. I had a cold at the time and wanted to get to bed early, so this felt right to me.
Moving In, Not Moving On
As I started to get up out of her bed, she protested. In the past I would have been focused on moving myself farther away in spite of her protests. Instead I moved in closer and just said, “You really don’t want me to go.” I touched the side of her face. She began crying. These were big fat tears rolling down her face that Hand in Hand Founder, Patty Wipfler, had said might come with releasing grief.
She sat next to me and said that she didn’t want me to go because she might feel lonely, that she would feel all alone, that she didn’t want to feel lonely. I said, “You don’t want to feel lonely,” and she said, “No, I want someone to be with me, that’s what I want.”
She said this very strongly several times. She cried and cried for about 10 or 15 minutes. Toward the end she said, “And I might not have anyone to play with” and cried very hard again.
She had just started kindergarten a month earlier and had told me before that sometimes at recess she would look around and not see anyone to play with. She then was snuggling in my lap and looking very sleepy. After this she said, “Mommy, can you lay one more minute next to me?” and I said yes. I laid down for only a minute and gave her a hug as I told her I was getting up. She very sweetly looked up at me and said okay. She was very peaceful as I left, and didn’t ask for her night light. I went over to my bed and I could hear that she was asleep within minutes.
Keeping the Limit and Supported Crying
The next night as I explained that I would again go to my bed, she began protesting vehemently. She asked to sleep in my bed, and I explained that tonight we were going to keep working on having her sleep in her own bed and mommy sleep in her own bed. As I got up to leave her bed, she was clinging to my leg and then she ran over to my bed.
I said, “Tonight you need to sleep in your own bed.” I was able to keep my voice sweet, calm and matter of fact. After several minutes of her going back and forth around the room, she became angry at me.
I approached her and said, “You need to come back to your own bed.” She began to hit me and kick me to keep me away.
I moved in close and gently held her arms. She was crying hard and raging at me. I manoeuvred one of my legs to keep her legs from hitting me and gently but firmly held her arms. She was crying very hard and perspiring.
I remained calm and said, “I am here with you, I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you.”
She looked at me with absolute terror in her eyes and screeched, “I might die! I might die!” I said “I’m not going to let you die.”
At one she was pulling my hair and I needed to release her fingers from it. She said, “Don’t hold my wrist, you’re hurting my bee sting, my wrist hurts, you’re hurting the bee sting on my wrist!”
I wasn’t actually holding her wrist, but was holding loosely farther up on her arm and she has never had a bee sting on her wrist. She’s had one bee sting last summer and it was on her hip.
Triggering Past Hurts
Then I remembered that when she was one day old she had blood drawn from the vein on the top of her hand. We had needed to take her into the hospital to have the routine blood test for newborns since that wasn’t something they could do at the birth center where she was born. The technician was very inexperienced and she got poked many times while he tried to get the needle into her wrist. As he did this she was screaming and I was distraught myself. We’d had a difficult time getting breast feeding to work and I had been feeling I was failing her. In this state of overwhelm I had asked her father to hold her during the procedure while I was right next to them.
These memories flashed through my mind as I was with her. As she cried and raged I said in a very calm, very sure voice, “I am right here with you, I am watching you every minute, I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you.”
After about 15 minutes she became very calm and climbed into my lap to be cuddled. We went over to her bed and she again asked if I would lay down next to her for one more minute.
When I got up to go I gave her a big hug and she said, “I love you, Mommy.” and went peacefully to sleep.
– a Hand in Hand Mom
How To Help Your Child Sleep Alone
Do make sure you are feeling mentally resourced. Talking about your child's sleep issues and your feelings about it with a listening partner will help. Once you feel ready and able to approach the issue, here's how to get started.
Give notice. Talk to your child about why you'd like them to sleep in their bed. Repeat this calmly and without frustration.
Get prepped in the day. Offer Special Time and physical play during the day. Both foster closeness, connection and confidence, and may help loosen or unblock fears before bedtime.
Go slow. When your child is tucked up and you are ready for bedtime to begin give advance notice that you will move away. Be prepared for protests and work with them. Don't actually go at this point. You are giving your child the space he or she needs to work through the feelings she has about you leaving and this new change.
Stay and listen. If your child begins to tantrum or rage, move in, stay calm and listen. Children's tantrums are a natural way for them to release fears, both old and new. You may gain some insights into what's troubling them day to day, or help them release some seemingly forgotten fear, but don't expect to pinpoint exactly the triggers – often fears are deeply held and entwined.
Offer calm support and comfort. During a tantrum or rage, children don't readily process instruction or rational thought and so you don't need to say much. “I'm close,” “You are safe,” or “I'll make sure you are safe,” and simple and supportive words that you might try as you sit close.
Wait it out. Gradually the tantrum will pass. If your child has sufficiently worked through their feelings, you'll find them calmer about you leaving and more able to fall asleep easily. If not, prepare to repeat these steps as needed, for the next few nights.
Keep making space. You may find that you are triggered by your child‘s cries, you might feel desperate or hopeless, or feelings you have about sleep, pain, or guilt may arise in you. Note these and talk them through with a good listener or in a listening partnership.
If you'd like to learn more about helping your child with sleep issues, take our self-guided class Helping Your Children with Bedtime and Sleep.