The Slippery Slope of Lying With Your Kids at Bedtime

How does something SO GOOD turn sour so quickly? No, I’m not talking about the bag of apples on your counter…I’m talking about the simple practice of lying with your child at bedtime in order to fall asleep. 

The progression tends to go a bit like this:

  1. It often starts when moving to a big-kid bed as a way to keep them from climbing out. Your little one may not want to stay in bed and the easiest way to get them to stay there is if you are lying right there next to them.
  2. Or perhaps one night your little one was feeling some extra feelings and asked you to stay with them for a little bit. Sounds innocent enough, right? You can stay with them for a few minutes, no harm at all.  In fact, it’s actually kind of nice to have a little extra 1:1 snuggle time and watch them drift off to sleep.
  3. You notice how GREAT this is working.  No more getting out of bed, no more calling for you, extra cuddle time….this is fantastic! He or she is falling asleep quickly and you found the key to a peaceful bedtime! HOORAY!

BUT (There’s always a but, isn’t there?)

Slowly, ever so slowly, this bliss of this new bedtime habit starts to shift and you notice things start to go downhill.  It often happens so slowly that parents don’t realize things are going south.

You may notice:

  1. It starts to take longer for your child to fall asleep.  It may have started with you just staying in there for 5 minutes (not a big deal, right?) but it starts to take longer and longer.  5 minutes turned into 6, to 10, to 15, to 20….to 40, to over an hour.
  2. Your child may fall asleep relatively quickly, but as soon as you attempt to leave the room, their eyes pop open and you have to start the process all over again.
  3. One parent becomes the preference.  Only mom can lie with them, or dad….whoever they prefer at the moment 🙂
  4. You may make it out of their room but now have several night wakings.  You either need to come and lie with them again OR they come to your room and sleep with you.
  5. You are basically held hostage in your child’s room.  You lie down when your child says to lie down, you can’t leave, you can’t move, you don’t have an evening anymore, you don’t get anything done or have time for the rest of your family, you have to sneak out and pray the floor doesn’t squeak. You’ve basically lost all control at bedtime. 
  6. What started out as a delightful time of connection has turned into a frustrating habit that makes you dread bedtime.

Does this sound familiar? How do I know this progression so well? I’ve seen it with most all of my toddler and bigger kids clients AND have experienced it firsthand with my own kiddos.  It is unfortunately one habit that generally does not get better on its own unless you consciously decide to make a change. 

Disclaimer: If lying with your child at bedtime is working for your family and everyone is happy- there is no need to change anything! Some kids DO fall asleep quickly with their parent lying next to them, or allow their parent to leave early if needed, and then sleep all night. If this is the case for you then there is no pressure whatsoever to change how you are doing things.  Enjoy those snuggles!

But why does this happen in the first place?

Why is lying with your child such a slippery slope?

The reason this happens is there is a shift in your child’s perception.  You lying with your child goes from something they want to something they think they need.  They get used to you being there with them and they like it! If you like something so well, why in the world would you want to stop it?

Your kiddo is also smart and realizes that you are not going to stay there all night.  They know you will leave at some point (which they don’t want).  The fact that your child KNOWS you are going to sneak out at some point is what causes your child to stay awake longer (they know you are going to leave as soon as they are asleep….so they try not to sleep) AND causes them to wake early in the night.

Think about this from a different perspective.  If you KNOW someone is going to steal your pillow as soon as you fall asleep (which you need to sleep), are you going to quickly fall asleep? No! You’re going to stay awake because you are anticipating your pillow leaving.  Not only that, you are going to purposefully wake yourself to be sure your pillow is still there.

This is the exact same thing with children.  They will actually wake themselves up to see if you are still there, especially early in the night. Keep in mind that everyone (past the age of 4 months) naturally wakes 5-6 times during the night as they transition through sleep cycles.  This is completely normal and nothing we can stop.  If your child NEEDS you to be lying with them to fall asleep (like they did at bedtime), they will either call for you to come back to their bed OR come to your room.  After all, they think you need to be there for them to sleep, right?

So, how do we change this?

How do we stop this habit once it is ingrained?

  1. Prepare your child for the change the day before and tell them you will no longer be lying with them at bedtime
  2. Provide the opportunity for 1:1 connection during the bedtime routine, but have boundaries around it.  During your bedtime routine, I want you to have 10-15 minutes of uninterrupted time with your child to do with they want.  This could be a game, books, puzzles, coloring, or roughhousing. It does NOT need to be quiet play! Let’s fill your child’s cup with an activity THEY enjoy with YOU! Set a timer so there is a clear start/stop to this time.

When it’s time to be done with playtime, move on to the next step of your bedtime routine, which is a great time for reading together.  You can snuggle in bed and read together, but make sure your child knows how many books you are reading and that you will leave after the books are done.

The bedtime routine should take about 30 minutes max and the order could be something like this: bath, brush teeth, jammies, 1:1 playtime, 2 books, kiss goodnight, and leave.

3. Be calm and confident when you leave the room for the night. If you linger and are apprehensive about leaving, your child will think they should be nervous too.  If you simply can’t just leave your kiddo at bedtime because it’s too big of a change, you can play something called the ‘Kissing Game’.

The Kissing Game

  • Tell your child you will come back to give them a kiss in just a few minutes after tucking them in (if they are lying quietly in bed trying to sleep).
  • Only get to the doorway, then come back and give them a kiss and tell them you couldn’t wait that long.
  • After that kiss, leave for just 30 seconds to 1 minute.  Then come back into their room and give them a kiss.  This builds trust that you WILL come back (and aren’t just saying it).
  • Wait for progressively longer intervals.  
  • When your child wakes up in the morning, tell them you came back to kiss them, but they were already asleep! Offer a prize or reward for doing such a great job.
  • Continue this each night but leave more and more time between check-ins as they grow in confidence. 

4. Be sure the sleep environment is the same during the night as it is at bedtime.  This includes lights, sounds, the door, etc.  Your child will be more easily able to fall back asleep if everything is the same as it was when they fell asleep.  

5. Stay consistent and be patient.  This is a hard habit to break, but your child WILL get used to you not lying with them anymore if you give it time (generally 1-3 weeks).  The key here is CONSISTENCY.  If your 3-year-old throws a giant tantrum because they want you to lie down NOW, you can’t give in.  Gently remind them of the sleep expectations and that you will check on them.  Your child needs to know that this boundary is firmly established.  

Nope.  There’s no way

If you read this and are thinking there is NO WAY this will work for your child, have no fear! Some kids just have a more difficult time breaking habits than others.  This is what I’m here for! I love working 1:1 with families to help make some much-needed change.  Check out my toddler and big kid sleep packages to see how I can come along side of you to get everyone sleeping better.  

The moral of the story: You can enjoy 1:1 connection time with your kiddo while also not being held hostage in their bedroom for the whole evening.  It’s time to get your evenings back, don’t you think?


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