Whether we’re bedsharing with our babies (or kids!) or not, bedtime represents separation. When we close our eyes and nod off to sleep, we temporarily say goodbye to those we love the most. And so it makes sense that our kids naturally resist that separation.
One more story. One more glass of water. One more chapter.
One more snack. One more song. One more hug. One more game.
Our kids are trying to hold onto us. Trying to hold onto connection and keep separation at bay.
On the other hand, we’re exhausted. We’ve made it through the entire day, often with very little help. We’ve made meals. Played games. Cleaned clothes. Managed kids. Navigated naps. Washed dishes. Regulated emotions (theirs and ours!). And we need a break.
The light is at the end of the tunnel as we creep ever so slowly towards some much-needed “me” time. Some solitude. Some quiet time. Some Netflix. Some time to wind down and have a break from caring for everyone else.
And so we rush through it. C’mon, you need to brush your teeth. Get your pajamas on. Haven’t you been to the bathroom yet? Let’s go! We’ve got to get to bed…it’s late already.
In our single-minded focus on the destination of sleep, we’re unknowingly pushing our children’s faces into the separation they’re hardwired to avoid. And so, they resist (as they should), they drag their feet, they take forever to put their pajamas on, they ask for one more story, one more snack, one more hug. One more piece of connection that they need to make them feel safe.
Separation and connection
Developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld teaches and speaks extensively about the importance of secure attachment and the impact of separation. He teaches that:
- Contact and connection is our preeminent need surpassing even physical hunger in the hierarchy of needs and that attention is driven by attachment needs.
- Equally, facing separation is our preeminent threat, whether the separation is experienced or simply anticipated. Facing separation evokes three primary emotions (pursuit, alarm and frustration) which have a profound impact on our children’s behaviour.
The more immature and dependent a child, the more heightened their alarm can be when it comes to separation at nighttime, especially in highly sensitive children.
As a sidenote: this is the reason counting to 3 and threatening to leave little kids at the playground works so effectively – because it alarms them and they’ll do anything to preserve their attachment to us. But, at what cost? The cost of unnecessarily alarming our children, heightening their reactivity, eroding their trust in us and messing with the sacred nature of attachment. Back to sleep…
Take the focus off separation and onto connection
Rather than focusing our attention on sleep as we approach bedtime with our children, if we can instead focus on connection, it can make a world of difference to our kids. How so? Because if separation is the problem, then attachment and providing a sense of connection is the cure.
We need to view sleep as a byproduct of our children’s tiredness, combined with a sense of safety and security we provide through connection and comfort. When we change our perspective on sleep in this way, we also come to view bedtime in a more positive light and bring less urgent (alarming) energy to our nighttime rhythm as we focus on ways to infuse our children with connection.
Bridging nighttime separation
In his teachings, Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks about the importance of bridging separation by focusing on the next point of connection. As parents, it is our responsibility (not our children’s) to take care of connection, to remind our kids that we are always holding onto them even when we’re apart (physically or separated through sleep).
Bridging means that we remind them of things that represent our relationship for them to hold onto. It may be focusing on plans for the next morning or letting them know you’ll be checking on them in the night. Dr. Gordon Neufeld says that bridging means we focus on the next point of connection rather than the distance that comes between us. When we bring attention to connection, this can help reduce our children’s feelings of alarm over separation, making falling to sleep much easier.
So, here are six suggestions can help bridge nighttime separation by giving your child the sense that you are always holding onto them:
1. Start early
Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting, talks about the need to fill a child’s love cup with connection. When we get to the end of the day our children – consciously or not – determine whether their love cup is full from the day. If they haven’t had enough connection throughout the day with you, you may find yourself needing to play catch up right before bed. So, start early. Banking connection throughout the day will help your child feel more ready to surrender into sleep more easily.
What can connection look like throughout the day? Spending one on one time with your child. Baking a cake. Watching a movie. Going for a walk. Playing. Doing a puzzle. Putting the phone down and giving your child your full attention. Hugs and more hugs.
2. Focus on the morning
Bridge the separation nighttime represents and instead focus on the morning to follow. This isn’t the same as “if you don’t go to sleep, we won’t get to ______ in the morning!”. This is more about focusing on the next point of connection you’ll have in the morning and how excited you are about it:
- “I can’t wait to have our crepes and strawberries in the morning!”
- “I’m so excited to go for a ride with you in the morning.”
- “The movie we’ve been waiting for comes out tomorrow, I can’t wait to go and see it with you! Are you going to get popcorn or M&M’s or both?”
3. Use the magic of imagination
Little kids have the biggest imaginations and even big kids love the magic of what could be. Bring this to life in any way you can to immerse them in the feeling of connection. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- If you’re sleeping separately, tie an invisible string around your bedpost and attach it to your child’s, connecting them through the night.
- Tell your child that you will meet them in their dreams and plan an adventure to have together.
- Pick up your child’s pillow, open the slip and fill the inside of their pillow with kisses and hugs.
- Tell a story to your child at bedtime that continues each night, bridging the gap to the next day.
4. Reminders of love and safety
Remind your child just how much they are loved, day and night. Let them know that your love for them continues through the night and that even when they’re sleeping you’re keeping them safe and checking on them. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- When your child is asleep tell them that you’ll check on them every 5 minutes through the night and that you’ll leave a love heart on the floor each time you do. Check on them and before you go to bed yourself, leave a hundred love hearts scattered around their room for them to wake up to.
- Write them a love letter and leave it under their pillow or on their bedside table to find in the morning.
- Put photos of their loved ones in their room and tell the child they will watch over them through the night.
5. Reminders of attachment figures
I was reminded of the importance of this one recently as my husband traveled for the first time since Covid. My son missed him especially at bedtime so these were some of the ideas that really helped us:
- Record a bedtime story in advance for your child to listen to at bedtime.
- Give your child a parent’s shirt to sleep with or in.
- Record a parent singing a song to the child.
6. Physical connection
Bedsharing is one of my favourite things when it comes to natural parenting. We’re designed to be social sleepers and especially when our babies and kids are little they expect to be held close through the night. Bedsharing gives families an extra 12 hours a day to feel safe and secure, close and connected. If you can’t bedshare, then consider cosleeping in the same room together.
Connection is a parent’s nighttime superpower
I hope you’ve found these six simple ways to connect with our children at bedtime helpful! Connection is our responsibility to take care of as parents. We want our children to be able to take connection and attachment for granted. To know that they can rest in it and when we shower our kids in connection they feel safe to surrender to the temporary separation sleep represents.
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