Trustful Parenting Experiment #1: No Bedtime

Bedtime has been an ever-evolving routine in our house. I know some parents who establish a bedtime routine for their kid when he’s six months old and hardly deviate from it for the next few years, but that hasn’t been our experience. From nursing to rocking and singing to no singing to no rocking to snuggling with the lights on to reading books to no more books to snuggling with the lights out… we adapt and do what works.

There was a long stretch of time when putting Miles to bed was super easy. We told him it was bedtime, he got in bed, we read stories until he fell asleep. During this time, Julius was a baby and less predictable, but even when he would interrupt Miles’s storytime, Miles stayed in bed and waited for me to come back.

Then when he was around three and a half, bedtimes started getting harder, and harder, and harder. We were trying to put him to bed around 8:00-8:30 but he was protesting and staying up later and later. 10:00, 10:30, 11:00. On nights that Mike was home we’d both be so tired and stressed out we’d end up bickering at each other or one of us would lose our cool with Miles and it was just a nightmare. There were one or two nights when I literally gave up, put a video on my phone for him, left the room and went to sleep.

What we were doing was obviously not working so I had a thought. It was an idea that seemed radical at the time but now seems perfectly rational. We abolished bedtime. I thought, maybe he isn’t tired at 8:00 or 8:30. Let’s just disengage. See what happens when we let him decide. I actually thought that he would probably continue to stay up really late, but at least we wouldn’t be fighting about it every night and that was preferable for sure!

The surprising thing was, he started going to bed earlier. And this has been working well for us for at least six months now, maybe more (hard to remember).

It’s not that we just let him party all night long. Mike and I are tired after a long day and want to relax, and we have a right to! So last call for snacks and drinks of water is at about 7:00-7:30 and we try to direct the kids toward some quieter play if they are being rambunctious. We no longer will play upstairs in the bedroom or downstairs in the playroom with them (Miles is free to go there but since he doesn’t want to play alone, he doesn’t). We shut off the lights in the kitchen. We put Julius to bed around 8:00. Then we play quietly with Miles (if he wants) until about 8:30, and then if he’s still awake we sit down in the living room and read to ourselves while he plays by himself. When he’s ready he runs to bed and calls for one of us to come snuggle. And that’s that. On average he falls asleep around 9:00, sometimes earlier or later.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, I know that we were trying to put him to bed too early, and on top of that, battling with him over it was causing stress that kept him awake even later. The dynamics all around were terrible for everyone. Even if he were able to express to us verbally “I’m not tired enough to fall asleep yet,” I don’t think he felt that he was allowed to say that. We were coming down in an authoritarian way about the issue and basically telling him WE KNOW WHAT’S BEST and you don’t! He was resentful because he was having a real, legitimate feeling (too antsy to sleep) we didn’t care about his point of view. A lot of this I think was our insecurity about needing to “show him who’s boss” just for the sake of it. Is that really us? No, it’s an internal dialogue that stems from feeling insecure about our parenting.

I really feel that Miles appreciates our trust and having a little freedom to listen to his own body about when to sleep, and I know that Mike and I are a LOT less stressed out in the evening not having to engage in a fight and spend our last waking moments with him full of ugly feelings.

I’m not saying anyone should necessarily do this – writing prescriptions is NOT my aim for this series. In fact, it’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do, which is separate my children’s unique needs and my authentic values from the noise and hullaballoo of parenting culture. I’m telling you something that worked for us and was so surprising at first, and then so normal.

Also, of course a child has to be developmentally ready to identify when they are and aren’t tired – Miles clearly IS, but Julius is still learning. There are nights when Julius decides to go to sleep all by himself, and others when he’s overtired and emotional and needs prompting, sometimes a LOT of prompting. But we are kind of gently guiding him in the direction of choosing his own bedtime by pointing out when he does need to sleep, and someday he’ll get there too.

Recently on a night when I was snuggling Miles to sleep, he put his arm around me and said, “I’m soooo proud of you.”

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