Many children go through phases where they resist sleep, either in the day, at night or both!
“How can I get my child to nap?”
This question came to us from a parent recently, during a Facebook Live with Kristen Volk.
The mom's child refused to take naps because she could tell it was daytime.
Here are three ideas Kristen gave her.
Three Gentle Ways to Fight A Child's Resistance to Sleep
Here is a three-key strategy that Kristen outlined. These ideas will work well to support any family with children who are resisting sleep or sleeping alone.
1. Support Your Sleep Goals First
After a few days or nights of trying to tackle sleep issues with a child, parents are most likely tired themselves, and full of feelings about the subject. It's best to offload those first. Find a listener who will let you let off steam, without judgments. (Our Hand in Hand Parenting Community Group on Facebook is a great place to find a listener if you are already familiar with Hand in Hand's tools and your children are 12 or under).
“You can get “mad” at your child,” in this space, says Kristen. “You don't want them to hear it. You don't want them to be a part of the listening partnership, but you can say in that listening partnership, “Go to sleep!” she says.
Make Space and Take Your Time
Use the time to say what you'd like to say, to think about how you feel about sleep, to cry or rant and rave.
“It doesn't reflect who you are as a person, it's more about the feelings you have and the energy behind them,” Kristen says. “Those feelings are there when we are with our children, they are behind all the things we say to our children and how we show up, and so when we can work on all those feelings we can show up in a different space, and we can set limits in a different way, we can set limits with support rather than setting limits with anger.”
There's a huge difference there in how children experience and how they can move through what's hard for them, she says. “When we show up with frustration and anger or tiredness, they come back with more of that challenging behavior. It's more of a power struggle. When we show up in warmth they can butt up against it, but then they soften.”
Once you have made space for your own feelings, you are ready to move onto actively helping your child. A good first move is play.
“Play and laughter are incredibly powerful for loosening up tense feelings, for a child and a parent. We call it playlistening and with this tool you want to create laughter and follow it,” Kristen says. Start when things are calm – rather than when you want them to go to sleep.
Get the giggles going by giving a child the more powerful role in play.
Try Switching Roles
“A simple playlistening idea around naps or sleep could be as easy as you laying on the floor, saying, “I'm just want to go to sleep, I hope nobody wakes me up,” Kristen says.
“This prompt, of course, acts as an immediate invitation to a child to wake you up!”
In this role reversal, it's you trying to go to sleep and the child is going to stop you. To keep the laughter going, you try again.
“Try saying, “Oh! I'm so tired, I hope nobody wakes me up.” The child sits or jumps on you and wakes you up, and you roll around, hugging and laughing.
In the midst of this physical play, you collapse, and snore, and be asleep again, inviting more laughter. Customise games to suit what appeals to your own child's sense of humor and makes them laugh, and let him keep coming and keep waking you up.
Play as long as there is laughter. This play can be great for breaking up the tension that both of you have about naps and falling asleep.”
3. Recognise, Validate and Support the Fears
Sleep is similar to separation anxiety. “If you think about sleep is a time when a child is moving into their own space all by themselves even if we are there, even if we are nearby and that can be scary. Especially at night, that's the longest time they are separated from us,” Kristen says.
Doing Special Time has a similar effect as it does with separation anxiety – it fills up a child's “connection cup,” so that they can have an easier time going from a more aroused state to a more relaxed state.
“Special time can be very useful. Have it on a regular basis. Have it on the calendar, so they know it's coming. Do what you can handle – if it's once a week, that's ok. There's no judgment. Ask what you can reasonably do that makes sense for you and your family, where you can have one on one time with your child,” says Kristen.
Know That Tears Will Help A Child Breakthrough Fear Around Sleep
Lastly, Staylisten. When it comes to sleep, staylisten because you want the child to feel that pain they have about going to sleep at the same time they are getting support from you. (If you are new to Staylistening, read these posts first: The Science Behind the Hand in Hand Parenting Tool of Staylistening and What to Say During Staylistening)
Crying helps them offload those fears.
“With a warm voice, tell your child what is going to happen. Expect a child to have a fairly big reaction, because obviously there is resistance there. Stay with the limit,” says Kristen.
“A child might say, “No! It's still light out, I'm not, I won't.”
“Continue to stay warm. Stay right where you are, in the room you want sleep to happen, and make sure the child stays. Keep your child with you. Be persistent with the limit.
“It's light, but that doesn't matter to the sun. It's still naptime.”
“You don't have to engage in a conversation about the sun, or about it being light because that isn't relevant. A child picks something like that as a pretext to stay stuck where they are. Focus on the limit, and stay warm,” Kristen says.
“It's a good thing if your child starts to cry. You let them cry about the limit so that they can get your attention and support about the pain they have about sleep. That support helps them heal that fear they have around going to sleep.”
Although the limit stays the same whether it is night or day, it might be easier to set during the day, Kristen advises.
Use Three Gentle Tools to See Sleep Resistance Fade
These three ideas set you up in a powerful position to see your child's attitude to sleep change.
- Begin by working on your feelings around naps, sleep and your child's resistance. This will help dissolve your tension.
- When you feel more open and responsive, you come to your child with warmth and with play.
- Finally, validate the very real fear your child has. Recognize the resistance but keep to the limit, listening and supporting any tears that arrive from it.
Use All Three Tools Together
By using all three tools in tandem, you work on your feelings and you work with your child's feelings in partnership, moving together to work through a resistance to naps.
More Sleep Resources
Meet the Instructor
Kristen Volk a former Hand In Hand Instructor based in Denver.