Some children go to sleep easily. They are happy to be tucked in their own bed, feeling a sense of comfort and security that all is well in the world as they drift off. For many other children, bedtime and falling asleep do not come easily because bedtime activates primitive alarm systems in the brain and body. Children who feel distress at bedtime need some gentle help from their parents to calm down.
Babies in particular are not capable of calming themselves down. A distressed baby may eventually go to sleep but only because she is exhausted or has given up trying to get a response. A baby can be trained not to instinctually cry when separated from a parent, but do not confuse this quiet as a state of calm. When a baby is trained not to cry when separated from a parent, her stress levels have actually gone up, not down. Your baby needs you next to her. Your presence helps soothe and regulate her body’s arousal and brain chemistry.
If your child is old enough to follow you out of the room after you have done everything you can to settle him in his own bed, it may be that your child still needs the physical you. A child sometimes clings to parents to change his brain chemistry. Having physical contact with you triggers the release of opioids and oxytocin in the brain, which ultimately lowers his levels of stress chemicals.
We also know that stress-reducing opioids can be activated in the brain when someone enters a place of comfort and familiarity. So, try to make your child’s bedroom a cozy, special room that invites your child in.
More to consider: Insecure feelings . . .
Sometimes a child has a hard time going to bed because something or someone in his or her day has triggered feelings of insecurity. One way to help is to tell a story about his or her day. Narrating the day helps a child process emotional ups and downs, and your child may share something that happened of which you were unaware.