Once upon a time, I thought I knew what I wanted. I wanted to put my kids to bed, tuck them in and go to sleep, serene and satisfied because my little darlings would fall asleep on their own. I wanted it but what I have is nowhere close to it.
For almost a year, we’ve been coddling the kids to sleep. It all started when we moved cross-country and the kids said they were scared at night in their new rooms. Okay, that made sense, so we stayed with them until they fell asleep. Temporarily, we told ourselves. Temporarily my ass.
Our bedtime routine is this: Both kids go to bed at the same time. My husband takes our four-year-old son, and I take our seven-year-old daughter. My husband puts jammies on our son and takes him to potty and brush his teeth. When they get back to my son’s room, my husband sits on the bed (which is on the floor because my son rolls out of bed a lot) and my son lays out the ground rules for horseplay. “No tickling and no scratchy beard,” he says. Then he runs and tackles his dad six or seven times as they break into peals of laughter.
After horseplay, my son gets into bed and my husband reads a book to him. After the book, my son listens to the Gigglebellies sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on You Tube, followed by “Goodnight my Angel,” by Billy Joel. My husband may or may not hang around for songs. If he leaves the room, he’ll retrieve his phone whether or not our son is asleep, and our son will stay in bed and close his eyes.
My daughter’s routine is a little different. First, she and I race to see who can change to jammies the fastest. I change and brush my teeth. She comes in dressed and we agree that she’s won the jammies contest. Then she brushes her teeth and potties. So far, so good. She gets into bed and she reads me a book. If the book is too hard or she gets tired of reading, I read to her. After the book, I turn out the lights and she gets into bed. (This is where it all falls apart.) I climb into her bed and spoon her to sleep.
Yes, I’m a terrible parent. No, you’re not supposed to do that. But snuggling is the only way to get her to sleep in her own bed. If I don’t do it or — God Forbid — I leave before she’s asleep, she’ll get out of her bed and climb into mine. And depending on how tired I am, I either give up and let her sleep with me, or we go back to bed and snuggle again.
I never intended to snuggle her to sleep. It goes against every recommendation for getting kids to sleep, but like everyone else, I do what I gotta do. For the first nine months in our new house, she slept with her lights on. All night. She’d freak if she woke up and the lights were off. I didn’t have to snuggle with her then, but she did want me or my husband to sit with her until she fell asleep. And then, one night, she told me to turn off the lights. Hallelujah. But I didn’t know what was coming next.
“Hold me,” she said. And knowing this was just part of the transition to lights off, I obliged. I’d lay on her bed, spooning her, and she’d insist I stay until she fell asleep. While I was holding her, she’d tell me how her friend said something mean, how much she liked a boy in her class, how her friend liked him too and should she hate her? – all the things I wanted to hear (and didn’t) when I asked “How was your day?” that afternoon.
It was during our snuggling that I could give her guidance about how to navigate friendships and boys and being the new kid. It was during that time that she’d listen to my suggestions. If I tried to have those discussions after school or in the car or at dinner, I’d get “I don’t wanna talk about it,” or (sigh and eyeroll) “Can I watch ‘Jessie’ now?”
It was my favorite time of the day. But our bedtime routine was a long one, and I knew I wasn’t fostering healthy sleep habits. Plus she was almost seven, and a seven-year-old should go to sleep by herself. I saw an opportunity to change our bedtime routine. We were getting new furniture for her bedroom – a loft bed – and I told her that once she was in the new bed, I couldn’t lay down with her, because I wouldn’t fit. I told her that a seven-year-old has to go to bed by herself. I cut the amount of time I stayed with her, minute by minute, in the final days before the bed delivery. I started a countdown before her furniture came, telling her that these were the last days I was going to stay in bed with her.
On her first night with the new bed, I read her a book, tucked her in and said I couldn’t stay with her. I said we’d been talking about this. I said she was a big girl and a seven-year-old could sleep by herself. And I went to bed.
Five minutes later, my bedroom door opened. “I’m scared,” she said.
“You sleep in your room every night. What are you scared of?”
“Seriously? Why monsters?”
“I saw them on TV.”
After some more discussion, I walked her back to her bed and tucked her in again. I told her to stay there. There was nothing to be afraid of.
Five minutes later, she was back in my room.
“Can I sleep in your bed? Please? Please?”
It was late. “Okay, climb in.” Defeat.
We went through the same routine for the next five nights. My husband and I set up a reward system. For every night she stayed in her bed, she’d get a star. After ten stars, she’d get the Lego Friends set that she wanted. After about two weeks, she’d earned enough stars and we gave her the Legos. That night she was back in our bedroom. I told her to go back to bed. I told her if she slept with me she’d have to give back the Lego set. She went to her room and brought me the box. Then she climbed into my bed.
I had to do something. The next night, I read her a book and crawled into bed with her until she fell asleep. And she talked about her day – how her best friend was playing with another girl, excluding her. We talked about school – about how a boy in her class misbehaved all the time, and how it annoyed her. She told me how her girlfriend was the smartest kid in the class and always helped her with spelling.
And it felt good. Holding her, talking, listening, hearing her joys and complaints. I remembered why bedtime was my favorite time of day. I decided we could snuggle for a little while longer. It won’t be forever. Someday – I don’t know when – she’ll decide that she’s too big to snuggle with Mommy. I’ll tuck her in, and she’ll tell me to go, and I’ll know that our special time is over. She’ll only be little for so long. I’m gonna enjoy it while it lasts.