“Goodnight, Buddy! I love you,” I whisper to my seven-year-old son as I quietly slip out of his room and into the hallway, leaving his door a few inches ajar like he prefers.
“‘Night, Mom! See you tomorrow!” He calls sweetly in return as he rolls over, clutching his favorite stuffed shark, ready for sleep to claim him.
I pause to breathe in the moment, remembering a time not so long ago when most bedtimes ended up with me sitting outside this very same door, locked from the outside, watching a baby monitor image of him pounding on that door relentlessly while both of us cried.
Our little dude has a stubborn streak a mile wide, and it was on full display at bedtime. It started when he learned to pull to stand at eight months old, and it triggered a sleep regression that didn’t let up until after his first birthday. I aged five years in those four months. Things settled down a little until he learned to crawl out of his crib just after his second birthday, necessitating the switch to a toddler bed. We tried to set expectations and create a routine he could count on, but night after night, week after week, he kept pushing and fighting for one more book, one more song, five more minutes of snuggles. We tried keeping things exactly the same for weeks, hoping he would learn what to expect, but he never accepted the routine and kept crying and pushing for more at every bedtime. We tried giving him more of the things he asked for to see if he would self-regulate and determine for himself what would be enough for him, but there seemed to be no such thing as “enough.”
At some point, probably after a hefty session of prayer, it dawned on me that my little dude might be having a bit of separation anxiety at bedtime. Maybe this is obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to either my husband or me, because it was never something he seemed to struggle with at other times. When we dropped him off at church, preschool, or even childcare at the gym, separation was never a problem. In those cases, the allure of different toys to explore and new friends to play with was stronger in our curious little extrovert than his reservations about being parted from us.
When it came to bedtime, however, I wondered if separating from us might be part of the problem. From infancy, Cam would fight sleep as long as he was with Mommy, keeping himself awake as long as I rocked or sat with him, but he also couldn’t bear to be parted from me and would go to pieces when I would leave. During his epic sleep regression, we discovered that he would fall asleep for Daddy, but not for Mommy. I wondered if the root of his struggles was the idea that Mommy and Daddy leaving his room was the end of his contact time with us for the day. I also wondered what might change if he realized that wasn’t entirely true.
The next night, at bedtime, I decided to test my theory with a quick question.
“Cam,” I asked, “Did you know that Daddy and I come into your room and check on you after you’re asleep.”
“You do?” He asked, incredulously.
“Yes, sweetie,” I explained, “We come in after you’re asleep and make sure you’re covered up and give you kisses before we go to bed.”
“Oh,” He exclaimed, his little face registering a modicum of relief, “That’s gweat!” (I miss when he said his “r’s” like that)
In a moment of what can only be attributed to divine inspiration, I followed a whim that changed the game for us from that day forward.
“Tell you what, Buddy,” I said, “Why don’t you choose a stuffed animal. I’ll take it with me when I leave, and then I’ll bring it back when I come to check on you tonight. That way, when you wake up and see it, you’ll know that we came in to see you after you were asleep.”
“That’s a gweat idea, Mom!” He said, handing me a stuffed bear. I picked up the stuffy, gave him a kiss, walked out of the room, and held my breath.
There was no crying. No fussing. No sound of footsteps out of his bed. No pounding on the door. I peeked in his room five minutes later, and he was asleep already. An hour later, I came back and he was still sleeping peacefully. I deposited the stuffy on his bed and tiptoed out of his room.
In the morning, he came into our room with the stuffed bear in his hand and his face beaming. “You weally did check on me!” He exclaimed.
Thus we began a nightly routine that carried us through the next several months and has come back into rotation on and off over the ensuing years. He eventually figured out his preferred method of execution was to leave the stuffy on my side of The Big Bed before retiring to his room, and to this day, I will occasionally find his favorite stuffed shark sitting there waiting for me when I head to bed.
When it was our daughter’s turn to struggle with bedtimes, it was soothing to her as well. (It helped that her big brother explained it to her—she took his word for it even when she was slightly skeptical about ours.) She uses it frequently still, usually on the occasions she naps and has a hard time settling down. Her preferred stuffy to leave for us is Diamond, the sequined unicorn.
It’s such a simple thing; I would never have thought it would have the impact it did on our kids. I’ve passed the tip on to other families, many of whom have said it helped them as well. It hasn’t fixed all the bedtime problems—we will still hit the occasional speed bump that a stuffy on the bed won’t fix. And to be sure, there are some bedtime struggles that a late-night stuffed animal delivery won’t even touch.
But it’s simple, easy, gentle, and might just be worth a try. May your bedtimes be peaceful and your evenings be your own.
Tori Rask is a writer, wife, and mom living in the Pacific Northwest. She loves Jesus, music, reading, watching sports (but not playing them), drinking Jasmine tea, and connecting with other moms any chance she gets. Tori writes about life, faith, family, and friendship on her blog, Grace for the Real Stuff. You can also connect with Tori on Instagram.