There's SO much conflicting sleep advice out there for children, but most of it boils down to one basic rule: routine.
Routine is awesome, and for most children it usually comprises of bath, book, bed. We've done this with our twins since they were first born, but they've never found settling for sleep in their cots or beds easy. One becomes very anxious at the separation and very clingy albeit he lies still, the other turns into a whirling dervish spinning in his bed, kicking his legs around, and screeching - he looks very happy, but actually it's a form of mania: his brain is so tired it can't stop, he can't think and can't be reasoned with either. In the morning, no matter how eventful his settle to sleep craziness has been, he has no memory of it at all, which really does show how hijacked his little brain is!
Neither child is ready yet to fall asleep on their own. So many parenting guides tell you that the 'ideal' is that your child self-soothes, and I read so many parenting forums full of parents frustrated that their little ones won't get themselves to sleep on their own in the dark: how terribly inconvenient! These babies and toddlers are often called wilful and manipulative by other parents, if not their own, and the advice given ranges from 'let them cry it out' (ignoring) to co-sleeping on the other. Fact is, there is no right way or wrong way: it's whatever your individual child wants and needs for now.
Mine are simply not ready to fall asleep on their own yet, and that's okay. I very much doubt that by the time they're 30 they'll be unable to fall asleep without a parent with them! It's not forever, it's not hurting, damaging or spoiling them by staying with them, it's doing what is needed and necessary, and I totally won't feel guilty about that. Neither of my children will go to sleep until they feel calm enough and safe enough to do so, and a big part of that involves us: they associate us with calm and safety. I think that's pretty awesome: what parent wouldn't hope to be someone their child feels calmest and safest with? While it means bedtime for us involves both parents - one parent to one child - and may take around 30 minutes from the start of settling to when sleep begins, it's completely worth it.
So how do we tackle our children's anxieties around settling for sleep?
Baths are important as they raise the body temperature and then, as the body cools, it helps the sleep chemical melatonin to be released...which should then mean you're ready to sleep. But not if you're anxious: baths can be too much sensory input, and are a step closer to doing that thing you're worried about....sleeping!
So, we have two types of bath: a functional bath, and what the boys call a Calm Bath. Functional baths are just for getting clean and are used on days when they haven't been too anxious or too tired; they tend to be quick, rowdy, and splashy! However, on difficult and/or tired days we have Calm Baths; the boys will even ask for them now when they feel they need one.
A Calm Bath has minimal to no lighting - we have a watersafe LED floating light we use, or else we turn off the bathroom light and just use the light from the landing one. We use nice smells; this week, we've cut fresh rosemary from the garden to drop in the water, and on another night I added a few drops of lemongrass oil and some slices of fresh lemon. The boys bathe together and spent a long time playing 'lemonade and ice cream machines' with the lemon slices, water and stacking cups - it was their calmest and most cooperative play session of the day! I also sometimes play music: Adiemus by Carl Jenkins is a favourite. Adult voices are kept low toned, quiet, and minimal, too.
Books are great, especially one you've read many, many times before: repetition and familiarity can be so calming...but not if you're anxious. My most anxious twin loves books and has a vivid imagination, but so often I can see him counting down the pages until the book is finished because he knows then that he will be expected to settle to sleep, which means Mummy goes away, which means....and therein begins a potentially lifelong habit of overthinking before sleeping! He is also sometimes left with images, plot worries about consequences and feelings, and questions he needs to process, all of which interfere with settling to sleep too.
On particularly difficult days we still tell stories, but we don't use books. We turn the light off, and either have a child on our laps, or sit next to them as they lie in their beds; they both like to hold hands to make sure we're not going to run away! Then, either we tell them the story of the day they've just had - retelling all the things they did, saw, ate, played, etc, ending with them in bed ready for sleep - or else we'll ask them what sort of story they would like. Usually, they'll ask for a story about their family, so we have a lovely opportunity to recount tiny tales about our own childhoods, or about their grandparents and great grandparents.
This idea was inspired by one of my favourite childhood books - The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston. In the tale, the protagonist - Tolly - a little boy staying with his Grandmother, sits with her each evening. The Grandmother lives in an ancient house that has been in the family for generations, and she knows tremendous amounts about all its historical inhabitants. Every evening, she says to Tolly: 'Make a great blaze, and I shall tell you a story'. So Tolly stokes the fire, and then asks to hear about a different aspect of the house, its people or the grounds - the river, a horse once owned by a young man who lived there centuries before, a wooden mouse, and so on. I loved this beautiful and rich oral history mechanism, so we adopted it too - though there are no fires to stoke in our bedrooms! Instead we say: 'Snuggle down, and I shall tell you story: what should it be about?' And then the boys will think of something for us to explore together.
The final part of settling to sleep, is about regulating breathing.
For my whirling dervish, we will encourage him to do a Rhythmic Movement exercise on the floor; this is a rocking movement that soothes the base of the brain. To begin with we had to show him and do it with him, then it was us suggesting and encouraging him, now he chooses to do it for himself when he needs to.
Then, for both boys, we do our Comfy, Cosy, Warm and Safe poem - see the video below for all the details. I showed the video to my most anxious boy when I made it and he was so happy that other people would know about his bedtime routine, and he now asks to watch it on my phone before bed!
Do these strategies always work?
No! Of course not! Anxiety isn't always that easy, and there are some days when whatever the boys have experienced is bigger or more overwhelming than our toolkit of strategies can cope with...and that's okay!
We still persist and repeat each tool and, with calm and patience, they will both settle. It only becomes a fight if you make it into one!
We know the boys value these tools and feel the benefit of them because we can see it and now, as they're more able to make their own choices and articulate needs more clearly, they will take the lead and ask us for a particular tool or else they will use their initiative and implement them on their own.
Setting for sleep can be a really scary part of the day, but we're all in it together: no one is left on their own, and everyone helps to make it the best it can possibly be.