Aeryn is 17 months now. She’s your typical attached, breastfed toddler in many ways. There is almost nothing that mama milk and cuddles can’t soothe. The pushchair is also lava, she just likes being close in her sling, awake or asleep.
I think a lot of people perceive toddler bedtime as an inevitable battle, with parent and child at odds, sleep a retreating goalpost, meltdown certain and all of the things Aeryn likes (lots of songs, stories, cuddles, massage etc) as delaying tactics or tricks by little people wanting to stay up late.
I truly, honestly believe that bedtime doesn’t have to be an inevitably stressful experience, if we have a more realistic expectation of what a toddler bedtime will look like. Apart from a few magic unicorn babies, expecting bedtime to be fast and kids to sleep through is unrealistic.
Here’s how we do things here:
Bedtime is an Amble
It takes me around 2 hours to get Aeryn to sleep, from the start of the bathtime/bedtime amble to the end, usually.
I say amble, because it isn’t a race. I don’t think to myself that I want her asleep by X time, because I know I’ll be disappointed and frustrated over something I can’t control.
There is rarely a time I need her asleep by X time because of a commitment, but if so I try to give myself at least 2 hours so it isn’t a rush, and I’m realistic about what I can commit to because of bedtime.
Generally, kids do what their bodies need when they need it
Perhaps the root of my bedtime and parenting approach is that Aeryn is not a force to be coerced, cajooled and controlled. She’s an individual and has her own natural impulses, ideas and rhythm to life. I trust her to know what is best for herself as much as I can (though obviously she still needs guidance and boundaries, for safety etc). She eats if and when she feels like it (although I give her healthy options and she is offered a meal at the same time as us), she breastfeeds on demand, and it’s the same with sleep.
While our “routine” isn’t strict, it has recognisable elements
We have dinner at a varied time because Ben works shifts, but usually by 6:30 latest. Then we play and I tidy and we potter and read and do quiet things. Sometime around 7-7:15, I’ll run the bath, if we are having one (we usually do because she LOVES the bath). Sometimes Ben or I get in with Aeryn, other times she’s by herself. She stays in the bath exactly as long as she wants to, then asks to be lifted out. This has been up to an hour before, but is sometimes just 2 or 3 minutes!
We still have some boundaries (I.e we are gentle but not pushovers!)
We do insist on a nappy still when she gets out (to save our carpets!) and pyjamas depending on the weather, and have a few basic boundaries. Gentle parenting isn’t just permissive, we just set boundaries when needed and enforce them gently, explaining their purpose. I don’t want blind compliance, I want connection and a child who doesn’t just do as I say because they are scared of being “naughty” or punished.
For instance, one boundary is I ask Aeryn to lie down next to me if she wants to breastfeed at bedtime. This is mostly a practical thing, so if she falls asleep, she’s not stuck in an awkward position or in my arms where I may wake her placing her in bed. She accepts this as a normal part of our wind down routine and doesn’t really protest it. When she does try to feed in other positions, I simply cover myself and remind her to lie down at bedtime.
I pick my battles
I’d like her to sleep, of course, but I’d also like her to want to sleep. I want her to tap into her body and listen to what it wants and needs. By slowing down and allowing her to ask for as many songs or books as she’d like, she often asks for less than you would expect, because they aren’t rationed. Sure, the 20th rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle in a row is annoying as hell for me, but when I really think about it, she’s not asking for much. Just a few songs and books and time to reconnect after a busy day.
Trust, Trust, Trust
Then we just see where bedtime goes. I stay on the bed ready for milk and don’t join in any excitable games or jumping. I do occasionally offer suggestions e.g. would you like to cuddle while we sing? Would you like some more mummy milk?, but otherwise wait for her cues. We stay in our bedroom, door closed, unless she’s so clearly nowhere near tired she needs more playtime downstairs.
She signs actions from songs she’d like to hear, asks for a tummy rub or back rub and goes back and forth for milk for sometimes up to an hour. But I just lie there and accept that, at some point, she will sleep, because everything she needs or wants is there. And I trust her to get there without needing to shout, sleep train or disconnect from her. It’s pretty much as stress free as it could get, because I’m not watching a clock, I’m watching her.
She usually is out by 8:15, but sometimes she could still be up at 10:30. If she’s really not tired enough, we’ll go back downstairs for a while and try again later. We really take her lead, so she has nothing to test against, as there isn’t a set way I want bedtime to look. She usually wakes at exactly the same time every day, regardless of when she went to bed, but her nap and next bed time simply adjust themselves and she seems to get the exact amount of sleep she wants to get.
This sort of approach fits really well with my desire to unschool. I trust Aeryn to know what she needs and when, and with our support and guidance she will achieve it. I think letting a child know that they can trust their own natural ability to learn everything, from falling asleep and toilet training right through to quantum physics, how to bake mille feuille or the nuance of language choice when writing poetry, is one of the greatest gifts I can give her as her parent.
It’s not for everyone, but for us, not having a routine is the best routine of all.