It’s one of the first things people ask new parents about, and the focus and source of a lot of our time, energy, and stress during the first years of our kids’ lives.
I recently visited with close friends and their week-old baby. One of the first things Dad said to me was, “wow, the sleep deprivation finally caught up with us. We were fine for a few days and then…” he trailed off. “This is hard.”
Supporting families in sleeping better is one of the most tender and vulnerable things I witness in my work. It’s hard work for the whole family, and it asks parents to really consider what they want to communicate to their child about rest, trust, and surrender. It means listening to a lot of big feelings—their child’s and their own.
How you help young children sleep better is, like so much of parenting, dependent on many individual factors related to the child, how and where everyone sleeps, and your particular family values.
But there are some practices that tend to be universally helpful, especially if you take time to personalize them.
One of my favorite tools to improve rest is bedtime and sleep rituals, which can bring closeness, relaxation, and comfort to nighttime and naptime sleep.
Why Rituals Help
During the early infant period, many of us held our tiny babies for hours, days, weeks, or even months while they slept. We rarely put them down, and we saw how well they slept in our arms.
But at some point, we need to let our children sleep on their own, without being held. For most children this doesn’t just happen because we decide it’s time.
To help our children sleep well, we need to help them feel safe. We need to transfer that in-arms feeling to another set of practices or rituals that can engender the same cozy, warm, and protected feeling in our child.
Sleep is about letting go—surrendering to rest. And because of this, it can feel vulnerable. We can’t fully let go or be vulnerable unless we feel truly safe.
Rituals, when we practice them daily, can create a feeling of safety and connection for children that can help them surrender to sleep.
Perhaps your parents had a ritual they did with you nightly that you remember fondly. We remember these moments so clearly because the secure feeling they created still lives in our bodies as adults.
We give this felt sense of security to our children starting at a very young age through all the ways we attune to their needs, comfort them physically, and pay attention to their experiences and feelings.
Sleep rituals are a way of saying, “I see your need to feel safe and seen so that you can drop into sleep. This ritual is my gift to you, and your invitation to relax into peaceful slumber.”
Sleep mantras are a tool that many sleep consultants recommend, and because I find language so powerful in parenting, I am particularly drawn to them.
The idea is that you create a mantra—a short statement or series of statements—that you say to your child each time it is time to rest. The mantra can be anything that resonates with you and is tailored to your child’s needs. Even “goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” is a mantra. Here are a few I have used or clients have shared:
I love you. You’re safe. It’s ok to rest now.
Night, night. It’s resting time. I’ll check on you soon.
The mind rests. The body rests. Sweet sleep overtakes you.
Sweet dreams and jellybeans, I love you, goodnight! (this one is courtesy of sleep consultant Eileen Henry)
Your mantra might take a little while to fully form in a way that feels easy and authentic. That’s ok—keep tweaking it and gradually you’ll notice that one pours out of you and feels right. If you have a partner, it’s ok to have separate mantras, as long as you are each consistent with using yours when you do bedtime.
When my son was very small, my husband started doing a body scan with him each night before bed. He does it right before he leaves the room, after lights are out and he’s done the other parts of our ritual. It goes something like this:
“Let’s see, what did your body do today? It was very busy! First your feet and legs were busy from the moment you woke up. They jumped out of bed, and then ran around the house and out the door. Then they ran, climbed, and jumped at the playground. They danced in the kitchen with mama before dinner…”
He goes on like this, briefly working his way up to my son’s head, reviewing all the things that each body part did that day. My favorite part is the heart, which he says both kept our son alive that day, pumping blood throughout his body, and felt a lot of feelings throughout the day.
When he finishes the scan, he goes back down through our son’s body, saying, “And now it’s time for your whole body to rest and relax. Let your arms and hands relax… let your belly be soft… let your legs be heavy on the bed…” If your child enjoys physical touch at bedtime, you can gently touch the parts of the body that are relaxing as you reach them, to help reinforce the message and encourage softening.
Sometimes this practice is so relaxing that my husband falls asleep with—or even before!—our son. When our bodies are relaxed, sleep naturally follows.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Another favorite practice in our family is to review the day before bedtime. We do this without fail each night, and as our son gets older, he contributes more and more—sometimes correcting the story, sometimes adding to it.
Because our kids have so many experiences over the course of the day, and because it is often the case that something unexpected, new, or challenging happens to them each day, this kind of storytelling can help your child integrate and understand her experiences.
Research has shown that doing this kind of linear storytelling—“first this happened, then you did this, then you seemed to feel that…”—can be enormously beneficial to your child’s developing brain. Listen to Daniel J. Siegel talk about this a little if you want to know more.
If you have a particularly verbal child, you also might hear stories, questions, and ideas come pouring out of him at bedtime. I think children have a natural tendency to do this before they rest as a way of offloading—and understanding—their experiences so that they can drop into more restful sleep.
A little boy I know used to ask his mother the most fascinating, existential questions in the few minutes they shared together before sleep. It was only at that time of day that he brought up these questions, and it seemed necessary to him to do this before he rested.
Our children can sleep better if they can put the many experiences of their day to rest before we ask them to rest themselves.
You can also help your child prepare for the day ahead if you briefly look forward to the fun things she’ll be doing tomorrow. That way when she wakes after a good rest, she’ll already have an idea of what’s in store for her. Keep the “looking ahead” piece of this ritual short and upbeat—we want our children to go to sleep looking forward to the day to come, not worrying about it.
Do you have treasured bedtime rituals in your family? Please share them below in the comments!