The Not So Zen Bedtime

December 4, 2015

My daughter still needs me to fall asleep. I’m ok with that. I really am. I try and cherish the moments lying next to her tiny-huge body while she shifts and scratches and her breathing changes as she drifts off to sleep. Some nights I am successful, and others, well…I’m still working on it. My stress is usually due to the juggling act of her little brother waking up and needing me while we are in the midst of our sleepytime snuggles. My husband can step in for me but that doesn’t always go over well.

When she was just a year old I read this classic (in AP circles) article describing the Zen Bedtime and it became our guiding principle for bedtime in our house. We don’t force much of anything in our house and forcing a bedtime is no different.

And I wouldn’t want it any other way. My 4 year old daughter knows when she’s tired; she can listen to her body and feel it needs to sleep.

More recently things have been feeling a little less Zen. The issue is tired or not, she’s four. And she is currently more interested in pretending to be a frog or a fairy or a dog after we read our bedtime books than she is in turning out the light and going to sleep. She will be just moments away from drifting off to sleep when she will pop out of the bed and exclaim that she just

“NEEDS to do one more thing!”

So I’ve been struggling. The last few nights were stressful. She is unwilling (or more accurately unable) to just lay down and let herself relax into sleep and I am unwilling to keep playing, so we have been at odds. I try to keep hurrying things along anticipating her brother’s inevitable wake up. I prep her for that eventuality but it comes out like a threat which is not how I want to parent.

Whenever something isn’t working, I re-evaluate the situation from my child’s point of view. I stop thinking ‘what about me’ and think ‘what is going on for them’ in this moment. This is pretty much the key to gentle and respectful parenting, in my opinion.

It’s not always easy to do and I still fail regularly in the heat of the moment but once I remember things get easier for all of us, almost instantly.

(Note: I am not saying our own needs are not important, I am just saying they don’t trump our kids’ needs and often when we are frustrated it’s because we are coming from a place of ‘what about me?’.)

The one thing I know for certain and remind myself of often is this:

Everything changes.

What is happening today very well might not happen tomorrow or ever again. What is working today very well might not work tomorrow or ever again.

So tonight I decided to just relax and roll with the punches.

And things were much better. Again she was almost asleep on my arm when she popped up because she had to do ‘just one more thing’. I just said ok. When it was obvious she didn’t want to lay down again we went back downstairs. I did say I was tired and wasn’t really up to playing and she said ‘don’t worry Mama and Dada, you don’t need to play’ and off she went to do her own thing and make up her own games.

The imagination was pouring out of her in a way we don’t even often see in the day. And a little while later she came and sat on my lap and I asked her if she was ready to go back upstairs and she said yes. So we did.

And just before she went to sleep she said,

“Mama I need to tell you something” and instead of thinking she was trying to wake herself up again, I just said

“What is it?” (fully expecting to hear I’m not tired, I need a snack, I want to do one more thing…and if I’m being perfectly honest then I know the frustrating night before I probably would have said ‘shhh….it’s time to sleep’)

“I love you so much and I never want to lose you.”

Cue lump in my throat.

“I am right here with you. I’m not going anywhere.”

“But what if one day you walk into the forest and can’t find your way back to our house.”

“I promise I will never do that.”

“OK, good.”

And then she curled up on her side and went to sleep.

Goodnight, sweet girl.

I can’t actually figure out how parents go about forcing a bedtime. Do they tell their kids not to come out of their room at a certain time? What if the kids are scared or hungry or need to talk about something? I’ve had some of my most profound and loving conversations with my daughter while she is on her way to dreamland.

Do the parents who don’t stay with their kids while they are falling asleep not get those conversations? I sincerely hope they still do.

But there is something about the stillness and quiet before sleep that is hard to recreate during the day. So I implore you to spend at least some of those minutes with your children.

Practicing a ‘Zen Bedtime’ doesn’t mean we don’t have a night-time routine. We do. It doesn’t mean we don’t watch for sleep cues. We do. It just means we follow our children’s lead. When our daughter was non-verbal we could see when she got tired. We would go upstairs to read and then I would nurse her to sleep. When she became verbal she started asking for milk when she was tired so we would go upstairs and I would nurse her to sleep. Now that she is four she often just tells us when she is ready to go to bed. Or we ask if she is tired and we go upstairs and read and snuggle to sleep. And if she doesn’t go to sleep in 20 minutes or so, we just get back up.

Some nights are straightforward and some nights are like this phase she is in right now: crazy and messy and not-so-simple. But on those nights if we just remember that what happens today is not necessarily going to happen tomorrow, then it makes it easier to let go of expectations; to remain present in the moment and embrace the crazy and messy and not-so-simple.

Because everything changes.


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