T. and I have a special ritual at bedtime each night. After teeth-brushing and the bath and the pajamas, and the hair-combing and the two stories (or one, if we stayed up too late) and the good-night kisses to her papa and her brother, we snuggle in the dark in her bed.
"Tell me a story with your mouth," she asks me, and this is her way of asking for a story I've made up there, on the spot. She usually supplies the main characters--her favorite dinosaurs Maya and Dazzle, for instance, or sometimes she'll want the story to be about a bear or about her own family. The plot formula is always the same, with a few variations here and there, depending on how sleepy and inspired (or uninspired) I am. There's an introduction and the setting of the scene, then some action in the middle--a daring escape from the T-Rex, for instance--then the falling action and a neat little resolution, sometimes with a moral at the end thrown in for good measure (you have to find teachable moments wherever you can). I always wait for some criticism from T.--an exclamation of surprise about the ridiculousness of my made-up stories--but always she sighs as if she had just heard the most wonderful tale in the whole world and gradually her arms loosen around my neck. I might doze a little, thinking about my day, and when I surface some minutes later she is fast asleep, her eyelashes curved wings and her dreams filled with magic. Some nights T. is too tired to ask for a story and goes right to sleep without one, and I miss the chance to tell her a made-up story, even though it is nice to catch a break now and again, and just lie there in the dark, no obligation to spin a tale.
Bedtime routines have been an important part of our lives for such a long time. I can barely think back to a time when I was responsible for getting only myself to bed, without playing sandman (sandwoman?) to my kids. There have always been two schools of thought on sleep and sleep routines. As readers of this column might have figured out, we have always fallen on the side of creatively parenting the kids to sleep, rather than subscribing to the idea that kids must be taught to sleep independently at a young age, whether they are ready to or not. For a period of time when L. was a baby, I think we owned every book on sleep that had been published, and it was too long before we realized that no book can really teach you a formula for getting your child to sleep. Like so much else in parenting, helping your child sleep is about responding to their needs, and about striking a balance between what they need and what you need them to do. Each child is different, and no sleep method will work for every child. For over eight years now, a solid, two-hour chunk of our evening is devoted to getting the kids ready for bed and sleep. When they were babies, we rocked and sang them to sleep, making up special songs just for them, ones designed to match the rhythmic sway of our bodies as we paced around the room. I nursed T. to sleep for 21 months, and there were many, many nights there, in the dark, that I fiercely resented her need for me in order to sleep. But then, even T.'s need to nurse to sleep became a thing of the past, filed away with diapers and finger foods and dimpled hands, and I missed it more than I ever thought I would. I really did.
Our days are so busy that L. doesn't slow down much until bedtime, and then the same arms and legs and mind that are in constant motion all day long begin to wind down, like a tired clock slowing to a different pace. Sometimes I catch myself feeling impatient about bedtime. I think about the piles of work I have left to do, the papers I have to grade, the columns I need to write, the work I need to edit and review, and then I long to wave a magic wand and send my kids instantly to bed--teeth brushed and silly stories and everything, done in the blink of an eye. But no sooner do I think that than I regret it immediately. I always end up needing the winding down time with them more than I thought I did. I lie in the dark and listen to their quiet breathing and I breathe a little easier myself. So much about parenting is about this: the give and take; the lessons you learn from your kids--those little relentless people--the ones always urging you to stay in the here and now, and to live it with them while you can.
What sleep rituals do you have at your home? How do you help your kids transition from day to night?