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I absolutely love it when I discover resources that help point my boys to Jesus in the middle of a struggle they might face. That’s why I got so excited when Christie Thomas reached out to me and introduced me to her brand new children’s book called Quinn’s Promise Rock that helps kids understand who God is when they feel anxious and afraid. On top of that, my oldest boy has been struggling with going to bed the last few months. The wisdom in this post has helped us so much! I know it will help you too!
My son tucked his face into my neck as he cried, his warm tears leaving dark splotches on my shirt.
Every night it was the same thing. My people-loving little boy hated being put to bed. He fought, whined, procrastinated, and cried. It was a fight, night after night.
I’m glad my son loves me so much, but sometimes I wish his love would lessen a little bit at bedtime. I could have stayed in his room and snuggled with him each night, but I knew that he would avoid sleep as long as I was there. For the sake of his sleep – and my sanity – we needed to make this parting a little bit easier.
Bedtime is hard, right?
Everyone’s tired and cranky, and kids know how to push mom and dad’s buttons. Parents want to just chuck their kids and shut the door but kids want to get 18 more cups of water, go to the bathroom, and read another shelf-full of books.
In our case, our inconsistent bedtime routine had caused a huge problem, because it had created a habit loop in my son’s brain.
A HABIT WHAT?
There is a specific area that stores habits inside our brains. The basal ganglia takes a normal pattern of behavior, compresses it and stores it away permanently, similar to the way a zip file stores large computer files. All it needs is a specific trigger to cue the basal ganglia to open the habit file up and cause use to move through the habit automatically. (From “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg)
All habits have 3 parts – the cue, the routine, and the reward. Together, these make up the habit loop.
The basal ganglia’s job is to store patterns of behavior. When certain cues come up, the basal ganglia leaps into action and starts the habit machine. It ticks through it, allowing your brain to think about other things while the basal ganglia helps your body execute the habit.
Essentially, habits are routines that have been encoded into our brains, and they’re reinforced by the reward at the end of the loop.
In my son’s brain, the habit loop looked like this:
CUE: parent says goodnight
ROUTINE: crying and begging and disobeying
REWARD: parent stays in the room
I can’t blame him for this. He didn’t do it on purpose or to drive his parents crazy. He did it because of a habit loop that we had accidentally created. Every time we gave in, we reinforced the habit loop in his brain.
Getting the reward occasionally was enough to cause his brain to unfold the habit loop every single time.
Whether or not we think have a real bedtime routine, we unintentionally create habit loops in our brains and in our kids’ brains. Habits can be really helpful because compressing and storing automatic patterns saves brain space for thinking deeper, but we tend to develop a lot of unhelpful habits when we just let the habit machine work without intentional input.
HABIT REVERSAL THERAPY CAN HELP
But that doesn’t mean we’re stuck with our bad habits. We can change habits. In the psychology world, this is called “habit reversal therapy”.
The golden rule of habit reversal therapy is that we don’t change the whole habit: we insert a new routine into the middle of the habit. Because habit loops are so powerful, we don’t want to try to mess with the cue and the reward. But we CAN change the routine in the middle so we start with the same cue, and get the same reward.
In our case, we had to back up. We couldn’t just change the part where we said goodnight and walked out the door and expect that our little guy would magically fall asleep. Instead, we had to look at the entire bedtime routine.
The cue for bedtime routines is usually someone saying “it’s time to get ready for bed!”
Then, a routine unfolds. Sometimes that routine was consciously created by the parent, and sometimes it just has evolved over a few years. The reward is that everyone is in bed. How long that takes differs between families, and even from kid to kid.
THE GOLDEN RULE OF HABIT CHANGE:
To change our bedtime habits, we didn’t change the cue or the reward. We started the habit the same way we always did. In this example, we said, “it’s time to get ready for bed!” And we still get to the same reward: a sleeping child.
What changed was the routine in the middle. This is the golden rule of habit change – that we don’t change the outer parts of the habit, we just change the middle.
Let’s imagine a typical bedtime routine:
Bathtime – Pajamas – Brush teeth – Read books – Tuck in – Parent leaves – Kid calls for parent – Parent comes back – Kid gets another story – Parent leaves – Kid calls for parent – Parent comes back – Kid gets a back rub – Parent leaves – Kid calls for parent – Parent comes back – Kid gets a glass of water – Parent leaves – Kid calls for parent – Parent comes back – Parent turns on the lights to prove there are no monsters – Parent leaves.
You get the drift.
This kind of routine will eventually end up with a sleeping child, but it might take hours. And it leaves us, the parents, feeling enormously frustrated and exhausted.
A NEW BEDTIME ROUTINE:
But we can change that. This is the routine we now use in our home, and we try to only deviate from it in extreme circumstances.
CUE: “It’s time for bed!”
1) Pajamas + teeth brushing
2) Read a devotional book or a few Bible verses.
4) Read 3 books (to a younger child) or 1 chapter (to an older child).
5) Hugs and kisses.
6) Pray a Biblical blessing over the child.
7) Parent leaves.
REWARD: Child is in bed and goes to sleep, and the parent is happy. Hurrah!
THE KEY TO HABIT CHANGE
Now, the key to inserting a new routine into my habit loop was consistent practice.
It felt weird at first because both my brain and my son’s brain were used to the old routine. He still freaked out. He called out and whined and cried because his old habit loop was still in place. But I was creating a competing response to his old routine, and I was sticking to it! With practice, we
eventually modified that habit file in his brain (and mine) until it had completely overwritten his old habit loop.
Part of our routine is to read good quality books with our children. If your child struggles with bedtime anxiety, that could be a good indication that they’re struggling with separation anxiety as well. My child simply didn’t want me to leave.
My new book, Quinn’s Promise Rock, can give your child an incredibly helpful reminder and tool to help work through anxiety over bedtime and other separations.
THE GOODNIGHT BLESSING
While the entire routine has been helpful, the lynchpin in this habit loop is the last part. Praying a nightly Biblical blessing over my child has changed our bedtimes for the better. This has not happened because it is magical fairy dust that makes my children’s eyes close, but because ending our night with a consistent reminder of God’s eternal presence and love brings incredible peace.
You can learn how to transform your bedtime with this simple habit through my 7-day blessings challenge.
DID IT WORK?
A few months ago, I noticed that he yawned as I sang his blessing song. The next night, he did it again. Now it happens each night.
Here’s how his bedtime ends now: his little arms tighten around my neck in one of his “never-ending hugs”. Then I place my hand on his head and sing these words over him, “May the Lord bless you, may the Lord keep you. May he make his face to shine upon you. And may he be gracious to you, and lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Adapted from Numbers 6:24-26) As I sing, he nestles deeper under his Paw Patrol blanket, hugs his teddy a little tighter, and yawns. Then I say “I love you” and walk out the door. Within minutes, he is peacefully asleep.
How about you? How does your bedtime routine help or hinder your child? What part of the routine can you tweak to help your child sleep in peace?
About the Author
The mom of 3 boys that love stories and wife of an educator, Christie Thomas helps parents cultivate a vibrant faith life so that they can live the abundant life AND so that they can model and share this life with their kids. Pre-order her new book and receive instant access to a series of videos that will give you tools to help your anxious child!