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Finding Your Way In The Dark

by Anna Cole

Our winter issue is out now. Regular contributor and parenting expert Anna Cole shares her practical wisdom on how to gently encourage a child who is resisting sleep. Dive on in to learn more…

Finding Your Way In The Dark

Be Gentle

by Anna Cole

Many children go through phases where they resist sleep, either in the day, at night or both. “How can I get my child to nap?”. What to do when your child refuses to take naps because they can tell it is daytime? Here are three ideas. These ideas will work well together to support any family with children who are resisting sleep or sleeping alone.

Support Your Sleep Goals First

After a few days or nights of trying to tackle sleep issues with a child, parents are most likely tired themselves, and full of feelings about the subject. It’s best to offload those first. Find a listener who will allow you to let off steam, without judgments. (If you would like to find a Listening Partner, tune in to Hand in Hand resources at the bottom of the page). With a safe, adult listener, you can get ‘mad’ at your child. You don’t want them to hear it. You don’t want them to be a part of the Listening Partnership, but you can say in that listening partnership, “Go to sleep now or…!” and let out all that you are managing on the inside with a child who won’t sleep.

Make Space and Take Your Time

Use the time to say what you’d like to say, to think about how you feel about sleep, to cry or rant and rave. Remember, it doesn’t reflect who you are as a person, it’s more about the feelings you have and the energy behind them. Those feelings are there when we are with our children, they are behind all the things we say to our children and how we show up. When we can work on all those feelings we can show up in a different space, and we can set limits in a different way – we can set limits with support rather than setting limits with anger. There’s a huge difference in how children experience and how they can move through what’s hard for them, when we show up with frustration and anger or tiredness, they come back with more of that challenging behaviour. It’s more of a power struggle. When we show up in warmth, they can butt up against it, but then they soften.

A Super Simple Play Idea Around Sleep

Once you have made space for your own feelings, you are ready to move onto actively helping your child. A good first move is play. Play and laughter are incredibly powerful for loosening up tense feelings, for a child and a parent. Hand in Hand call it Playlistening and with this tool you want to see what you can do to create laughter (without tickling) and follow the laughter. Start when things are calm, rather than when you want them to go to sleep. Get the giggles going by giving a child the more powerful role in play.

Try Switching Roles

A simple Playlistening idea around naps or sleep could be as easy as you laying on the floor, saying, “I just want to go to sleep, I hope nobody wakes me up.” This prompt, of course, acts as an immediate invitation to a child to wake you up! In this role reversal, it’s you trying to go to sleep and the child is going to stop you. To keep the laughter going, you try again. Try saying, “Oh! I’m so tired, I hope nobody wakes me up.” The child sits or jumps on you and wakes you up, and you roll around, hugging and laughing.

In the midst of this physical play, you collapse, and snore, and be asleep again, inviting more laughter. Customise games to suit what appeals to your own child’s sense of humour and makes them laugh, and let them keep coming and ‘waking’ you up. Play as long as there is laughter, if you can manage it. This play can be great for breaking up the tension that both of you have about naps and falling asleep.

Recognise, Validate and Support the Fears

Sleep is similar to separation anxiety. If you think about sleep, it is a time when a child is moving into their own space all by
themselves even if we are there – even if we are nearby, that can be scary. Especially at night, that’s the longest time they are separated from us.

Doing Special Time (set a timer for 5-10 minutes, bring extra warmth and delight, offer your child ‘I’ll play whatever you want to play’) has a similar effect with separation anxiety – it fills up a child’s ‘connection cup’ so that they can have an easier time going from a more awake, excited or upset state to a more relaxed state. Special Time can be so useful. Have it on a regular basis. Have it on the calendar, so they know it’s coming. Do what you can handle – if it’s once a week, that’s ok. Daily if you can handle it is better! Ask what you can reasonably do that makes sense for you and your family, where you can have one-on-one time with your child.

Know That Tears Will Help a Child Breakthrough Fear Around Sleep

Lastly, after the play or Special Time move in close, anchor yourself and stay and listen to any upset your child may have
that it’s over. We call this Staylistening. When it comes to sleep, Staylisten because you want the child to feel that pain they have about going to sleep at the same time they are getting support from you. (If you are new to Staylistening you might be interested to read more about it on the Hand in Hand website listed below.)

Crying Helps Them Offload Those Fears

To set it up gently, bring the limit to your child that it’s naptime or bedtime: “It’s time for a nap, sweetheart.” With a warm voice, tell your child what is going to happen. Expect a child to have a big reaction, because obviously there is resistance there. Stay with the limit as warmly as you can. A child might say, “No! It’s still light, I’m not, I won’t.” Continue to stay warm. Stay right where you are, in the room you want sleep to happen, and invite your child to stay. Keep your child with you. Be persistent with the limit.

“It’s light, but it’s still naptime.” You don’t have to engage in a conversation about it being light because that isn’t relevant. A child picks something like that as a pretext to stay stuck where they are. Focus on the limit, and stay warm. And as hard as it is to remember, it’s actually a good thing if your child starts to cry. You let them cry about the limit so that they can get your attention and support about the pain they have about sleep. That support helps them heal the fears they have around going to sleep.

The warm limit stays the same whether it is night or day; however, as you get used to these steps it might be easier to set during the day, before you get too tired yourself.

Use Three Gentle Tools to See Sleep Resistance Fade

These three ideas set you up in a powerful position to see your child’s attitude to sleep change:

1. Begin by working on your feelings around naps, sleep and your child’s resistance. This will help dissolve your tension.

2. When you feel more open and responsive, you come to your child with warmth and with play.

3. Finally, validate the very real fear your child has. Recognise the resistance but keep to the limit, listening and supporting any tears that arrive from it.

Use All Three Tools Together

By using all three tools in tandem, you work on your feelings and you work with your child’s feelings in partnership, moving together to work through a resistance to naps.


Anna Cole, PhD, Regional Lead,
Hand in Hand Parenting,

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