My wife and I have been happily married for eight years and are absolutely enamored of our 3-year-old daughter, Mary. We both work stressful jobs, and we are tired from doing household tasks and playing with Mary once we’re home. We need a few minutes to sit and talk before we go to bed. However, once we tuck her in, Mary just won’t stay in bed. We stick to a routine that includes brushing teeth and a story, but she constantly gets out of bed, asks for a glass of water, or complains about an imaginary tummy ache. We are exhausted and frustrated, plus we argue about the best way to handle these nighttime travails. We vacillate between comforting Mary, demanding that she go back to bed, and criticizing each other’s parenting style. It’s beginning to wear on our relationship. What can we do to preserve our sanity and get a little quality time with each other at night?
You are right that in order to keep your marriage healthy, you need to nurture yourselves in addition to taking care of your child. Bedtime can be especially stressful. For Mary, that means the end of stimulating interaction and attention. At the same time, you are looking forward to a few minutes of down time yourselves before you fall into bed.
You are off to a good start by keeping a routine. Spending 20 minutes or so on the rituals that lead up to bedtime can help your child know what is coming and recall the sequence that leads to sleep. Unless that isn’t what happens! If you read a second book or deliver water to her bedside when she whines, those behaviors become part of the routine, too.
Here are a few steps that might help:
- Make sure your child knows what is expected of her. Tell her that once she is in bed, you want her to stay there, even if she can’t go to sleep right away.
- Give your child choices both you and she can live with, but that help her to feel in control. For instance, ask if she’d like to take her doll or her panda to bed (the choice is which item goes with her, not whether she is going at all.)
- Make conditions conducive for sleeping. Turn the lights low, pull the door at least partway shut, and keep noise to a minimum. Be careful that your child doesn’t overhear your disagreements about how to manage her behavior. Arguments between parents tend to increase a child’s concern.
- If your daughter has an ingrained habit of popping out of bed once she’s put there, try a firm approach: Simply carry her back–no words, no anger, just calm action. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. The behavior usually disappears within a few nights.
- If Mary seems truly fearful, she may need a more soothing approach to shaping her stay-in-bed behavior. After you’ve read to Mary and turned off the light, pat her back for a few minutes to help her relax. Then, tell her you’ll be back in a few minutes if she stays in her bed. Leave for just a minute so you are sure she will still be in bed when you return, then tell her you are glad she stayed in bed, pat her back again for a minute, and leave again, offering the same thing. If she gets out of bed, put her back in bed without patting, tell her to stay there and that you’ll be back soon (you’ll need to decrease the interval again at this point). Walk out very briefly so she’s in bed when you return, and let her know you are pleased. Keep doing this until you find her asleep. Over the next few nights, gradually increase the interval you stay away each time, so she learns to relax and fall asleep on her own.
- Once a bedtime routine is established, consider taking turns putting Mary to bed, to allow individual closeness as well as offering the other spouse a break. If Mary knows you will both stick with the same routine and give the same answer once she’s tucked into bed, you will minimize the number of trips either of you needs to make back to her room.
- If these simple strategies don’t help, consider seeking assistance from a child psychologist, who can help tailor an approach to your particular situation.
Finally, because evenings can be tiring and leave little time for you as a couple, it is important to keep perspective about how much nightly down time you will be able to squeak out when your children are little. To recharge your relationship, plan ahead for times when you can focus on each other. Consider setting up a regular date night. Remember that this time in your child’s life is brief and things will get better. A little effort to shape appropriate behavior now will avoid bigger problems later on. If you work as a team, you’ll be better able to play as a team, too.
Lynda is a clinical psychologist and is on staff at the Family Life Office in the Archdiocese of Omaha. She and her husband Jim have been married 28 years and have two daughters.