I recently shared a beautiful short video from Dr Gordon Neufeld on my Facebook page here. Gordon explains how our children should not have to work for our love but should be able to rest in it. Often a child who is battling bedtime will show great improvements if we target this issue. Tired parents come to me wondering which form of sleep training is best for their toddler or preschooler who is ‘playing up’ at bedtime; but usually, most of the work that needs doing is nothing to do with sleep training. So what does this mean in practice?
 
Here are my tips for helping your little one to ‘rest in your love’:
 
Connect with your child
Often a child who is acting out is seeking attention. Try not to see this as a negative “just ignore him – he’s just attention seeking”. Whilst you don’t want to reward the undesirable behaviour; his desire for attention is a legitimate need. Think about times during the day when you can give one-on-one attention. It doesn’t have to be long periods of time; what’s important is that you are fully present in the moment.
 
When your little one is looking for attention but you are busy, try to acknowledge your child and let him know that he is important. For example, you might say, “I see you are waiting for me. It’s hard to wait. I want to play but I have to cook dinner", or, "I want to talk with you but I’m just talking with Nanna. When I have finished XYZ I will be right with you. Would you like to stand and wait with me or play with your toys whilst you wait?” If your child is angry about this, then acknowledge their feelings - “I see you’re angry. That’s OK. It’s hard to wait.” Getting down to your child’s eye level and using touch to connect can really help.
 
 
Set respectful boundaries
Children flourish with respectful boundaries. Sometimes, bedtime shenanigans can be a sign that boundaries aren’t being clearly set and enforced, or that they are too strict.
 
A set bedtime routine helps to establish boundaries at bedtime. Try to ensure that you are in charge at bedtime - don’t give in to the endless requests that some toddlers and pre-schoolers make just as you’re about to leave the room. It can help to set up a system whereby they have, say, two requests – i.e. you are willing to return to the bedroom twice after lights out to answer their requests. You can even create two little cards that they hand over as they use them.
 
An alternative strategy is to tell your child that you will check in on them. The idea is to check in on them whilst they are content in their bed – you’re acknowledging that you are still thinking about them but that it’s time to sleep. Just pop your head round and say, “Just checking in on you. Night night darling”.
 

Allow tantrums
Boundary-setting in the daytime sets the scene for bedtime, too. Give clear boundaries that are consistent and fair, and help your child to stick to them. I like to advocate ‘time in’ rather than ‘time out’ or punishments, so that your child does not have to work for your love.
 
Toddlers and pre-schoolers can’t help but test the boundaries and push our buttons, but it’s our job to help them to feel safe and secure in the knowledge that we will provide a predictable environment and will remain level headed and in control. So, if your child is pushing the boundaries calmly, say (for example), “You want to stand on the table. It’s not safe. I can’t let you do that. Can you get down safely or do you need help?...(and if your child won’t get down)…I see you need help. I’m going to lift you down now.” Your little one might not be pleased about this, but stay with him whilst he expresses his anger and frustration.
 
Remember, those emotions are OK, and releasing them with an adult who will listen is so important. If your child is lashing out, then restrain him as gently as possible and again repeat, “It’s OK to feel angry, but I can’t let you hit. I’m going to stay here to keep you safe.” You’re teaching your child how to regulate – a key skill for relaxing into sleep.
 
 
 
Give more than is pursued
As often as possible, try to give your child more than they give to you. So, give a bigger hug; tell them you’re proud of them; highlight the things you like about them; leave little notes or pictures for them on their door; at bedtime say sorry for anything that didn’t go to plan during the day – reassure them that you love them today, yesterday and tomorrow no matter what.
Paediatric Sleep Consultant 

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