In this post on sleep issues, we talked about using play as a tool that helps children release the minor fears and tensions that hold them back from sleeping well. Sometimes those fears run deeper and play alone isn’t quite all that’s needed to let go of those fears.
How Setting Limits That Gently Insist on Sleep Work
When a child sets rigid rules about bedtime, by requesting “one more drink,” after “one more drink,” asking for extra stories, or a specific routine that has to be “just so,” we can read that there is an anxiousness or uncertainty about going to sleep.
These rigid rules that a child sets are a way of saying “I’m not ready yet.”
If you are confident that a child’s physical needs are met, and you have tried some play, but a child still resists bedtime, try setting a gentle limit around settling to sleep.
Setting a limit on going to bed gives children the permission they need to get upset about whatever it is bothering them. Tears offer a profound way to clear stuck emotions, and so a limit, given firmly and lovingly, tells a child that the time has come to confront those fears.
- “I’m right here. You’re safe. It’s ok to turn the light off now and go to sleep.”
- “I’m so sorry it’s hard. It’s safe here. I’m right here, and I’m going to turn the light’s off.”
For others ideas on setting limits calmly and simply read How To Set Limits In Five Words or Less
When you set the limit you can expect whining, upset and even rage. These reactions look like they have to do with the issue of going to sleep, but what a child is resisting really are feeling the fears that stop them sleeping peacefully and well. If you have tried to sit with any kind of discomforting feelings yourself you’ll recognise this can be hard to confront.
But tears, like laughter, have the effect of clearing out the system, and with that, dissolving fear. So if you can stay with a child, hold that space with them, and become partners in the fear, a child will be able to work through the emotions safely and shed the tensions they’ve been holding onto.
With fears gone, children fall asleep easily.
Supporting A Child in Tears
As parents, it’s our role to support a child and let him know that he is safe in our care. As his fears overtake him, he may fight, or scream, beg you not to leave. And you don’t have to. In setting a limit, you introduce the idea of sleep rather than enforce it with immediate effect. We can stay close, as a calm and loving presence, as a child works through the feelings troubling them.
We don’t need to say much at all, but when we do, our words are like anchors.
- “I’m right here.”
- “You are safe here.”
- “I hear that this is hard for you. I’m not going anywhere.”
These soothing words can sometimes have the effect of slowing the tears. Your child might grow quiet, or, perhaps, take them to mean that you are letting go of the limit. He might believe in that moment you will relent and he might not have to settle down right then. You’ll know, when you repeat the limit, softly and gently once more, if he is done working through his feelings. If he isn’t, he’ll become active again, resisting or crying or both.
Let the Goodbyes Linger
While our goal, as parents, is to ensure our children’s smoother transition to sleep, working on the issue can’t be hurried. The miraculous thing about the human system is that when feelings about a subject are fully expelled, the tears dry, the upset finishes, naturally, and on its own. Although it can be tempting to stop the flow, waiting helps a child work through those fears on his own and builds his resilience long-term.
A parent who stays close by, anchors a child in a calming presence of support and kind words, holding space for their child to feel all of their feelings.
How many nights this takes will depend on how deep fears have taken hold.
“Sometimes the crying subsides quickly, sometimes it takes longer. As the fear begins to dissolve, the crying will slow and there will come a point that your child will begin to settle and fall asleep peacefully,” says Catherine Fischer.
But when those fears are released, when a child can see nothing has changed, he or she is loved and safe, then, you will find them more willing to turn off the lights and close their eyes.
For more insights into this transition to peaceful sleep, read Helping My Daughter Sleep in Her Own Bed.
Hand in Hand’s online, self-guided sleep course Helping Your Children Sleep will help you help your child sleep with confidence.