When we talk about battles, we set up a conflict scenario in the way we frame bedtimes. When a child is fidgety, angry or distressed at bedtime and we are in bedtime battle mode, we are inclined to think of this as them using a “tactic”- see the old “my baby is manipulating me” scenario. We tend to see it as us against them. We have to combat their resistance with our own riposte.
Is this really what we know about how our children behave though? When they are distressed, this is not them employing a tactic against you. They are expressing that they are not OK, that they have a need that isn’t met. They are not winning by being miserable and angry. This is not what they want, they are not fighting you, they are communicating. When we are in battle mode, we tend to be focussed on the outcome “getting them to sleep” and not on the process. When we are focussed on getting to the end goal, of winning, of sleeping children, we often sacrifice a lot of our gentleness, our respect and our patience. Now, it isn’t only our battle mentality that contributes to a lack of patience at bedtimes. We are usually also exhausted and looking forward to some grown up conversations, a sit down, a break from the constant needs of our children. But the effect is that right at the time that we need our children to be the calmest, we are at our most stressed, and tend to read motivations and manipulations that are not there into their behaviour. It doesn’t take a lot of bedtimes like this before a child is expecting bedtime to be distressing either, so we can create this self-fulfilling and repeating battle scenario that makes it a more stressful and miserable experience all round.
Winners and losers
The reality is that, just like at all other times of the day and night, the behaviour is communicating something. They need something. A change in atmosphere, a different ritual, something to calm them and help them to soothe and settle, some connection with you. Yes with you. They are craving calm and are often met with the rigidity of conflict at bedtime. We often escalate with ultimatums “get your pyjamas on now or no stories” rather than reassurance and cuddles.
The big problem with bedtime battles is that if we win the other side loses. The other side is our child. That little human we nurture all day becomes our opponent when the lights go out and they have no idea why. I don’t want my child to end everyday a loser, I want them to tell me about their day to let them decompress, to feel them relax into me as they let go of their worries and their questions, rest into music or stories, snuggle into the blankets and my arms and drop off. I don’t want them to pick up my tension, or feel rushed to sleep. Have you ever tried to get to sleep as fast as you can? It is a recipe for fidgeting and frustration for me so I can’t imagine it helps them much. Our understanding of the brain supports this. The more pressure we put them under, the more stress we cause, the more cortisol (our alert system hormone) is produced, which supresses our production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). Our children don't sleep, we can't relax and everyone is a loser.
Good guys and bad babies
Babies and young toddlers wake and that it ok. This does not mean they are morally ambiguous or badly behaved.
We can all be winners
When we work as a team: we both win at bedtime, we can get our child to sleep without conflict, we get our evening, we get more of it. This only works when we don't get everyone more tense, and we don’t spend half of the evening in a wound up cortisol/adrenaline come down after our battle. There are ways to work with our children, to understand them and to make bedtimes easier, and just reframing the way we think can really help.
If you are struggling with bedtimes check out the map to find your local consultant or sleep workshop. Our consultants help you find ways to deescalate bedtime stress and work together for calmer sleep all round.
Equally if you want to support parents to have calmer bedtimes, and get more sleep without tears and stress, take a look at our training to become a Certified Parenting Consultant.
Written by Jenni Littlejohns - Director of It's a Sling Thing