Toddlers That Won’t Go to Bed (Solutions from Eileen Henry)

Eileen Henry is a pioneering sleep consultant who for decades has helped exhausted, concerned parents guide their infants and toddlers to more restorative sleep. As Janet’s guest this week, Eileen shares her wisdom and detailed suggestions in response to emails from Unruffled listeners struggling mightily with their toddlers at bedtime. A one-year-old seems to get increasingly wound up as bedtime nears, escalating to biting her mother. A 23-month-old refuses to nap. An almost 3-year-old won’t separate from her parent at any time of day, calls “mommy, mommy” whenever her parent leaves her side, making bedtime impossible. Eileen offers her experienced perspective, warm support, and actionable advice. “Sleep is not a problem to be fixed,” she believes. “It is a skill to be learned.”

Transcript of “Toddlers That Won’t Go to Bed (Solutions from Eileen Henry)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I have the pleasure of hosting Eileen Henry. She’s a longtime friend and fellow RIE associate. And she’s a pioneer, as one of the first child sleep consultants in the U.S. She’s been helping families achieve peaceful and lasting sleep for decades. Eileen offers effective, holistic solutions that end up transforming parents’ experience with sleep and common behavior issues in the early years of development. Eileen’s the real deal, and when she works with you, it’s with her and the unique method she developed, not borrowed ideas from other experts.

She says: “Underneath most behavior is a need that longs for expression. Often these needs are in conflict with one another in the early years.” I’m really excited for the second opportunity to share Eileen’s sage insights with you on Unruffled.

Hi there, Eileen. Welcome back. Thank you so much for returning to share with us.

Eileen Henry: Always a pleasure.

Janet Lansbury: As Eileen knows, I sent her a whole bunch of questions. They were just some that I’ve been saving because they’re all around what Eileen is an expert in, which is sleep issues. All of these are about helping our child to get to sleep. It’s not about what happens after they’re already asleep and it’s done, but it’s that process of helping them get to bed, which can be very challenging, obviously.

I thought maybe we could start by having you say a little bit about what you thought about all these notes, if there’s something that stuck out for you as a similar theme in the issues parents are having. Some general guidelines, maybe, that you could offer before we get into the specifics.

Eileen Henry: Yes, I’m happy to. I noticed they’re all toddlers. I think the youngest one is a year old, and that’s coming in the beginning toddler. And then there is the accomplished toddler: two, two-and-a-half, coming into three years old. Very verbal, and they’re accomplished in their basic skill set and they’re practicing their skills. And they really show up in the night before bed when it’s time to let go and say goodbye to the day and separate from parents.

I like to look at this in the macro and then the micro. The macro, the family system, we’re working on meeting the needs of the child in the context of the most dynamic stage of growth and change in a human being’s lifetime: development. And development is the most interruptive thing to sleep. And it’s kind of an entropic system, early family life. It’s going from order to chaos to order to chaos. Order is when the habit formation solidifies and there’s a good habit, a good routine, and things are rolling along. And then chaos comes in big leaps of development and change. And toddlers are really apprehending a lot of emotional change, cognitive change, and change is happening in the environment too.

Janet Lansbury: And physical change too, in their development.

Eileen Henry: Oh yeah. And our job is really, if we think of the overall, is to create a sense of order just enough that over time we’re modeling the ability to return to order when life and change and growth and development takes us into chaos. So we’re always ushering them back into a place of order, into a place of stability. And that learning, that’s a two-decade proposition and learning experience, really. Because that’s how long this kind of dynamic brain development is going on.

I really identify with the toddler. This is the training ground and it really paves the way to the young child, the adolescent, and the teenager. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when people come to me with toddler sleep, it’s not a genuine sleep issue. It’s a boundary and a habit issue. And that’s great news because, as you know, Janet, Magda told us we can change anything we’re doing with our children at any time. And I love that because we’re going to do this over and over with our children.

Janet Lansbury: That’s right. It’s never too late. It’s never too early to start thinking about creating routines that you want to work in the future or that you hope will work.

And I am with you totally on loving the toddler years. One of the reasons is they’re just a mess, putting it all out there. Hopefully we see it as kind of a lovable mess, but as we get older, we’re more hidden in our feelings and things we’re going through. Toddlers just are like an open book.

Eileen Henry: They are. And what they’re grappling with is a lot that human beings, we do all our lives. And I think one of the most interesting elements of humanness is desire and longing. And toddlers, we see it in their behavior—and you’ve talked to this a lot, and I love how you speak to this—that underneath the behavior are needs. And if we can get under the behavior, the desire, the longing, the asking, mommy, mommy, mommy, running around, that wild burst of energy they can get before bedtime. Underneath the behavior is the desire to connect, the desire for some control.

And I like the word “apprehend” because it really captures how the embodied toddler is coming into these natural human feelings of desire and longing and wanting and expression and mischief and curiosity and all of that. They apprehend it in an embodied, physical, highly expressive way. And they’re having conflicting needs.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, and that’s what you’re reminding me of is that even though I said they’re putting it all out there, they’re putting it all out there, but not in a way that’s clearly going to communicate to us all the time what the actual need is. Sometimes it’s, “I need to be with you all the time!” That’s what I’m saying and that’s what I’m demonstrating. But what I really need is the order that you can give me. What you’re talking about, about order. And so that’s where it’s so easy to get misdirected by them because obviously our heart goes out when they’re saying, “I just need to be with you. Don’t ever leave me!” kind of thing.

Eileen Henry: And the truth of the matter is, because they’re still immature, so this rising up, this first time in toddlerhood, these genuine feelings are coming up, they’re still immature and they don’t know the difference between a need and a want. And that’s our relentless job, to discern that for them. If we think about it, we look around, a lot of grown-ups struggle with that, so we can really give toddlers a big break.

Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. Okay, we better get going on these questions because we do have a lot and I want to get to as much of this as possible, get your expertise. And I know parents really appreciate hearing advice on these issues. Here’s the first one:

I’ve recently bought No Bad Kids and I’ve been implementing some of your disciplinary guidelines and I’ve noticed them make a huge difference in my relationship with my daughter. Meal times are much smoother. I’ve noticed that she appears so much more confident to explore and play on her own. I’m feeling less guilty and much more confident about setting boundaries. Yay! And our time together feels really connected.

One area I’m still struggling with is bedtime, which has never been particularly easy for us. My daughter has a sensitive nervous system and definitely takes a while to wind down in the evening. That being said, we had a nice little rhythm going until this last week. The rhythm was: physical movement and dancing, wind down, dinner, bath, husband reads with her, he leaves the room, I come in and sing songs with her, sleep. We’ve been staying at the in-laws’ while they’re away, I think this might be a contributing factor. And as soon as bathtime is over and I’ve finished reading to her, singing songs, and winding down, she all of a sudden becomes giggly and starts climbing off and onto the floor bed, crawling around the floor, picking up anything on the floor that she can find. Last night it was a lamp, which I’ve since moved away.

And then she starts either hitting or biting. Last night after she had bitten me twice, I told her that I wouldn’t let her do that and that I’d send her dad to finish bedtime. She cried for about 20 minutes straight until I eventually came back into the room and from there she managed to get to sleep, but this was already way past her bedtime. We’re facing the same situation tonight. I’ve been bitten twice and I’ve now left the room and her dad is reading to her. No tears yet, though.

Any tips you could offer would be so greatly appreciated.

Eileen Henry: Okay, yes. The first thing I would ask is how the naps are. Most toddlers at this age still need a combined two minimum, preferably three hours of day sleep. And so if they don’t get that, the cortisol builds up and the wild child shows up right before bed. I love the ritual that they have—the physical activity, dancing, moving around, and how they wind into the night. And I trust mother’s intuition that she has a sensitive nervous system. Those nervous systems need a little longer to wind down, and so I would start earlier with that winding-down process, but I really love that. I love the dance before dinner and then coming in to dinner, then books. And once we enter the bedroom, we want to create a really intimate, close connection.

I wonder about the floor bed, too. Sometimes for this age child, that can be a lot of room and, depending how the setup is, I always ask for pictures of the physical environment. So once they start crawling up and down and off the bed and all around, the container might need to be brought in. And I’m also not sure if the parents are the body boundary, if they’re laying down to have her stay on the floor bed. Our presence can become really stimulating for our little ones, especially this age. So if we combine a little lack of sleep during the day, or even if she’s getting enough sleep during the day, let’s say she’s getting great naps and this behavior is still showing up, I would recommend bringing in the container to give her the ability to move around.

As far as the biting goes, my daughter, when she was two-and-a-half, left a RIE class after her best friend bit the heck out of her, and she looked at me the next day and there was still a mark on her arm and she said, “Ava didn’t mean to hurt me, she just meant to bite me.” It’s so true. It’s that impulse, that compulsion, just like that nyump expression. And sometimes it’s an expression of passion, excitement, this idea called cute aggression. When human beings get really excited, it’s just like, I want to bite it! I would say, in a quiet moment: “I notice that you get really excited before sleep time and you bite.” And offering something to bite in the bathtub, offering a lovey, the transitional object, something they can bite. And I would remove myself after the first bite. So, “Oh, you bit me, I’m going to step away.”

But the need for attachment, closeness, connection, and the opposite, equal conflicting need for autonomy, separateness, authenticity, those are usually the two conflicting needs at this time. So I give a lot of preparation to the physical environment and the emotional environment because we’re sculpting a container that holds our children, it holds our toddlers, it holds their sleep. And it also holds these expressions of needing to move and needing to get that out of the body. That’s what they are in charge of. They’re in charge of moving their bodies and finding the rest, and we’re in charge of holding the boundary and coming and going in what I call “co-regulation in motion.”

In toddlerhood, these natural behaviors come up and the parent being next to the child is really stimulating. Quite often the child can find rest sooner if they have a safe environment. They can roll around, play with their lovey, play with their toes and their hands, and walk around and let the body find rest. So I would just need more information on the physical environment. And I know they’re at their in-laws’ house. So it’s a new environment, that’s challenging. But the floor bed at home, what is that physical environment like? And how to create a little more containment for the one-year-old to move about and get that energy out of her so that her body can find rest.

Janet Lansbury: I was thinking about what the parent said about the sensitive nervous system too, which would make a child even more sensitive to the energy of the parent. And then if the parent’s getting annoyed—which is very normal for us to do, we want our day to be over as a parent, and now it’s taking longer and longer. And so now our energy is not just exciting because it’s a parent, but it’s unnerving because our vibration is not a comfortable one.

Eileen Henry: Yes, and they’re interested in that. That’s curious . . . They’re learning in relationship. And sensitive nervous systems don’t usually happen in a vacuum. They happen within the nervous system of the family. And so we want to be mindful of any somatic practice of self-regulation starting earlier. When we notice these things in our children at a year old, it’s not too young to say, “I see and I hear you. I see this at night. Let’s get to the bedroom sooner so you can crawl up and down off of the bed for a bit, and then settle in for story time.” I don’t know what time they’re hitting the bath, but by bathtime she might be a little overtired. This is classic a-little-jacked-up-on-cortisol behavior.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. And one of my three children, bathing actually stimulated him, so it didn’t have that effect that we hope it’s going to have. So it’s not necessarily a calming-down experience for children. It can be an excitable experience too.

Eileen Henry: Good point. Then that way we would want to put that earlier in the ritual, maybe after the dance party, then the bath. We’re going from an upright, active love, family environment to horizontal, quiet love, sleep environment.

Janet Lansbury: Great, I love that. Okay, here’s another one:

I’m a mum to T, a delightful, curious, intuitive, and strong-spirited 23-month-old who’s an incredible communicator, strong verbal skills. Myself and my partner follow a gentle, respectful approach with her and have done from the beginning. I’m currently at home with T full-time except for naps, and one afternoon a week when my mum has her. I really feel I need this time and space to refill my cup.

In the last few weeks, my mum has received a cancer diagnosis, and whilst we are awaiting a full diagnosis and prognosis, I believe the cancer is advanced and we are perhaps facing the end of her life. I—understandably, I know—feel overwhelmed and sad and find my tolerance and patience with my daughter is in much shorter supply than usual. In light of the diagnosis, I’m not asking my mum to look after T, as I feel she has enough to manage and process at the moment.

T is also beginning to refuse her nap, which I’m finding so frustrating and feel myself becoming uncompromising and resentful with her in the moment. We have recently stopped feeding through the night, which on the whole T has managed and accepted very well.

I wonder if you can speak to how to navigate this time— the frustration I’m feeling towards my daughter when she refuses to nap, losing the small window I have to myself now, and also how to navigate any changes that may help support me during what I feel will be stormy clouds ahead for our family.

I’m mindful that the gentle approach to making changes such as stopping feeding or bed-sharing is to do this when there are no big life changes imminent. Whilst I don’t particularly want to stop either, I worry that if my mom’s prognosis is poor, I’m going to be rocked to my core and I’m not sure I will be able to manage feeding and the lack of space bed-sharing currently allows going forward.

Any insight, wise words, and tips gratefully received.

Eileen Henry: This is when human beings are the most human: grieving. Yeah, all these feelings that are coming up for you, “uncompromising and resentful with her in the moment.” That’s so human. That’s so understandable when you’re going through grief. And this is a unique grief, this mother is in the middle of the past of being mothered by her mother and mothering. This is a huge transition. It’s kind of this mom to not want to put too much on her mother as far as doing the caregiving with her, given what she’s going through. I would say if you could carve out time of just the three of you being together and just being present with each other as much as possible and really sinking into this time, this huge transition.

You stopped feeding through the night, which your toddler accepted very well—hold on to that. Developmentally, she’s capable of holding on to night weaning and you don’t need to go back to that, because that’s going to deplete you. And you want to be as resourced as you can going through this time. As far as bed-sharing, you could make that change. But I would say, trust yourself. Is that a change that you really feel like you could make right now?

And as far as the nap goes, if you’re doing bed-sharing at night, I take it that your daughter is reliant on you to lie down with her for naps. Here again, it would be setting up the sanctuary of rest, relaxation, downtime, and not even call it nap. But at this age, if she’s used to you being with her to get the nap, it’s going to be hard to change that at this age. You could just transition to downtime and go to bed earlier or be with her. Your body might need a nap at that time. Grief is exhausting, it takes a lot of energy to be present with grief. But if you could create a space that you could just give her permission to, you can make noise, you can sleep, you can hang out, you can play. And this is the downtime. And we give them an environmental cue. I like using a light cue. Red is slow down, hang out, quiet play and green is go, dog, go!

Janet Lansbury: Are you saying that the parent would separate and say, “This is your time. You can go to sleep if you feel like it. You don’t have to.” And letting go of that pressure the parent’s putting on herself. Often it’s letting go of something around sleep that makes it work, just because sleep is letting go, right? That starts with us letting go. So letting go of that it has to be this way. Like, Here’s some things in your room. Hang out, but I’m going to rest. I’m going to go rest now.

Eileen Henry: We’re modeling self-care and we’re showing our daughters how to love the self, how to take care of the self as far as the basic needs. And it’s okay. Because we also have that need for closeness and attachment versus self-preservation, authenticity, and autonomy. And we want our children to integrate those two because those two needs, that are in conflict, they’re going to have to navigate and even negotiate in every close relationship they have in this life, especially their intimate relationships.

So what we want to do is create, again, a sanctuary, a calming, peaceful place that we can release the child to. And I don’t know how this little one, how her autonomy muscle is. If she’s used to having the place in RIE, the yes space, where we can release our little ones to and they have autonomous, self-directed play. And we come and go. Check in, go do our thing, come back and check in. And that can be built at any time. I just don’t know, going through grief, if this is something this mom can take on. I would encourage her to let go.

Toddlers are great at grief. They can cycle through every stage in like 20 to 30 minutes. Denial, bargaining, sad, disappointment, anger, rage, sad, frustration, acceptance. And when I work with mothers who are going through a grieving process and changing sleep habits in their home, what they’re faced with is their own grief and then their child going through their loss in grief of separating, saying goodbye to the day, letting go of mom and dad as their sleep rock. And I do discuss in toddler sleep the process that toddlers are going through. A letting go, a loss, a grieving. If they’re letting go of the breast as their sleep crutch or being in constant contact with a parent. And as we usher them and support them into moving into greater abilities and autonomy, they have to let go of that. And they experience all the feelings of grief.

The only other attachment person that talks about this and the grief around sleep and saying goodbye and letting go is Gordon Neufeld. He really speaks to this beautifully. And we both agree that we meet that letting go with ritual—storytelling especially, as part of the ritual—and lullaby. Those are the two perfect ways to meet grief and letting go, because that’s how we’ve dealt with it for thousands of years. Before the written word, we did oral storytelling. And the lullaby is an ancient, ancient form that we use in rituals, especially rituals to deal with sadness, loss, and grief.

Janet Lansbury: And do you feel like since this is a grieving, letting-go process, that this is also a time to consider that there may be some really healthy crying children need to share?

Eileen Henry: Yes.

Janet Lansbury: Generally I always feel like, and I would notice this in my children, if children this age, that are in such emotional turmoil for a good part of the day, if they don’t have regular venting periods, which is usually around when we set a boundary with them, Sorry, we can’t play outside anymore. It’s really time to come in. If we could see those all as positive sharing that our child needs to do, if we could keep reminding ourselves of this perspective that, Oh, I haven’t done a bad thing as a mom, this isn’t bad. This is actually really a positive thing. Then our children don’t have to store it up until the end of the day.

Eileen Henry: Yes. I’m thinking of that previous letter, the little two-biter. Mom stepped away and her daughter cried for 20 minutes and then she came back and she was ready to go to sleep. She had the release she needed. Here again, release is so important.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. I like that analogy of the container, but for my survival it’s been more like that little bit of emotional distance of kind of being the therapist that I guess contains, but it’s more like witnesses. It’s more like allows for, makes room for, and doesn’t have to take it onto myself in any way.

Eileen Henry: Yeah. We’re doing something with our children that therapists will intentionally do but don’t want to unconsciously do. We’re in parallel process with them. And that’s going to be the challenge of this mom. Parallel process is if we start to feel the feelings of the other so much that we get carried and swept away in their experience and we don’t remain differentiated.

Janet Lansbury: And it’s really hard not to do that, by the way. Really, really hard. But that’s why I like the visual for me, the feeling of being the anchor. People will say to me, “Well, I’m riding these waves.” No, don’t ride the waves with your child! If you’re surfing all day, you’re going to be wasted.

Eileen Henry: You’re going to get swept away.

Janet Lansbury: But if you can be an anchor, then it’s passing through and you expect it to. You’re not trying to stop the waves or tame them. That’s why I hate that term “taming tantrums” and things like that. No, that’s us trying to control something that we don’t any of us control, which is our feelings.

Eileen Henry: No. I think tantrums are absolutely something that the child can handle. They can’t control it. It kind of has to ride its course, right? It just rides its course and then it comes down and all of a sudden it’s, “Oh, a bird!” They move through.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And it’s very sudden a lot of the time, like, What just happened? They’re fine and I’m still a mess. What’s going on here? But yeah, that always amazes me. I’ve seen that so many times with children I’ve worked with, my own children, that you feel like, as a parent that’s sensitive like I am, It’s the end of the world! And now two seconds later, What just happened? They’re all, La la la, everything’s great. What happened? And that’s why people think they’re faking it, right? Because how can they do that? But that’s the healthy way that children vent.

Eileen Henry: That’s what I mean by integrate. So the more we hold that anchor for them—I like the anchor too—holding that space, they’re able to move through those feelings. And I’ve noticed with my own and with children that I’ve worked with and the feedback I get from parents, it’s scary. And yet over time as they develop, it integrates into a very fluid and flexible emotional system. No one feeling takes them out. They’re able to have all the feelings of being human and all the feelings of grief and all the feelings of loss and all the feelings of frustration and disappointment, all of it. I think it may have been Gordon Neufeld who says, and they have every right to have every feeling.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And Magda said that too, all the time. Even about infants, that they have a right to cry. Okay, so moving on. That was wonderful, thank you. Here’s another one:

My daughter is turning three in March. She is soooo needy. She has been this way from the day she was born. She still needs me to put her to sleep. I stay with her until she’s fallen asleep. If I try to leave while she’s still awake, she screams and cries in despair to the point she will vomit. My back aches on a daily basis from carrying her. That’s the only way she will fall asleep.

On another note, she’s extremely needy. I get stressed because she doesn’t let me do anything. I tell her I need to get ready and will come back in five minutes. As soon as I step into my room, she’s calling for me. “Mommy, mommy!” It goes like this all day long. I give her my undivided attention, but it’s just not enough for her. I’m a stay-at-home mom and only work on Sundays as an RN.

I’m exhausted. Please budge me towards the right direction.

Eileen Henry: Oh, the three-year-old’s on top.

I’m going to go into the language of, “she still needs me to put her to sleep.” In my book, I talk about the difference between authentic need and parent-reinforced need. So, this is good news: This is a parent-reinforced need. She doesn’t need you to put her to sleep, but in her little mind she does because that’s the only way it’s happened. So, she can do it. She wants you to put her to sleep. And this is the discernment we have to do, the difference between a need and a want. And if you don’t, “she screams and cries in despair.” That is because she hasn’t learned another way to do it. But she can. She can.

And the great thing about working with a three-year-old, they have all their skills, they’re just practicing them over and over. They’re verbal. If there are any words coming out of the mouth, that means they do have access to what higher brain they do possess. And that actually isn’t distress or despair, that is longing and desire and come fix it because I don’t know any other way.

So I would encourage her to allow her daughter to learn how to navigate the liminal space of consciousness. From consciousness to unconsciousness, that’s the space that our toddlers have to confront to become skilled sleepers. And we help them. We set them up, we prepare them. I use storytelling, lovies, play, dress rehearsal, lullaby to set them up with a ritual that is irresistible to the toddler to prepare them, to release them into that space and learn how to navigate that space.

“She doesn’t let you do anything.” That means she’s in charge. And when toddlers are in charge, no one really gets what they need. It’s chaos. If I see an amount of chaos in an exhausted parent, it’s she’s gotten on top of the sleep ritual.

And the vomiters, oh my goodness, that’s a longer discussion. I’ve worked with varying degrees of vomiting. And it’s disheartening and it’s really upsetting to parents, yet it’s one of the easiest things for them to do is vomit. Crying and vomit is easy. It’s not like the vomiting that grown-ups do. It’s very different. We give them permission to vomit, actually. That’s just flat-out honest. We prepare them. We set up the crib, we set up the space, we put out new jammies. I have some of the most incredible stories I have about the cathartic experience vomiting children went through and got to the other side. A two-year-old who went to the crib and pointed and gagged and pointed to the crib and shook his head and said, “No more, no more.” Because his mom told him over and over, “It’s okay if you vomit. You don’t have to, but if you vomit, I’m going to clean it up, I’m going to take care of it, and we’re going to put you back to bed.” A toddler who is three years old at the gate, and his mom set him up, he had his bucket, they went through the dress rehearsal. And she sent me an email the next morning, she said, “I was in the kitchen and I heard the bucket fly over the gate. And I went and he looked at me, he said, ‘I don’t need that.'” And he went and got back to bed and he went to sleep. He was given permission for even that expression.

Janet Lansbury: Because the parent had the perspective that you gave them to not be deeply alarmed, like most of us are, especially the first time that happens.

Eileen Henry: Two to three years old, I tell parents, this is the age where we titrate the bad news and the great news, because it’s both for the child. That grown-ups are in charge and we don’t harm ourselves anymore to take care of our children. If our back is genuinely hurting, we look at the child and say, “You know what, sweetie? When I do that over and over, that hurts my back. So I’ll come sit down. You can sit in my lap.” We give them options, but we don’t do things that hurt us anymore. Because again, we’re modeling what it’s like to take care of ourselves and treat ourselves lovingly.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, I think it’s so hard for us, it was for me at first, to frame these kind of boundaries and sticking up for ourselves as such a positive, important teaching moment that will benefit our child their whole life. If we can see boundaries that way.

Eileen Henry: So underneath is the need, we want to meet the need. And then the behavior, we’ve talked about “letting it ride,” that expression and then it integrates and the nervous system calms down. The more the behavior meets the strong boundary, the loving limit, and the environment stays consistent, strong, and it holds, the behavior, even the vomiting, it goes away.

Janet Lansbury: Right. Because there’s a calming effect of, Oh, I don’t have to run everything. They’re comfortable being my leader, they’re comfortable doing this.

What I would say to this parent too, what I would suggest is that she gets the practice. Because I feel like bedtime is the hardest time to set a boundary. We’re tired. They’re tired. It’s this sensitive time for us separating from our children. It’s not just them separating from us. It’s us. And we want to feel like it was a good day and it’s all nice so that we can get to sleep and not feel agitated and worried that it’s all wrong and everything’s bad. It’s a really important time for a positive feeling. So I would just lean into the boundaries all day long so that you get a lot of practice with the dynamic of: I set the boundary. You get upset. I hold the boundary because I love you too much to not hold this for you. You need me to. And yes, you’re going to rail at me and scream at me and whine and say my name 50 million times, but I love you too much to crumble for you. It’s this really powerful, loving reframe. And the more practice she gets, the better chance she’ll have of being able to do this at night. Which is the hardest time, for me at least.

Eileen Henry: Yes. And setting the stage. A three-year-old, we can look at them and say, “You know what? I want to create a bedtime we look forward to.” That’s why I involve toddlers in their own solutions. We actually collaborate a solution with them. Now, we’re in charge of it, we show them the structure of it. And then we allow them to invite in the stuffy support animals, we invite in this creative connection we forge with them—what bridges us to the next day, where we’re going to meet, where we might meet in our dreams. A verbal child, this is when we really want to create an intimate, lovely preparation to then release them and let go of them.

Janet Lansbury: And I think the more mutual it is, the easier it’ll be for us to release it. Because there’s trust. Our child will make deals with us that they will not follow necessarily, they will not come through on. We shake hands on like, “Alright, we’re going to hug three times and say goodnight, and that’s going to be it.” And we can’t expect them to go with the deal, but at least we know they made this deal. And so I’m going to trust that if they’re not accepting it now, it’s because they need to vent something with me as I’m leaving or whatever it is. And it helps them to get a sense of control too. So yeah, I love that idea of children participating in the ritual. Their ideas about what do you need, what do you want, what should we do? And then, Okay, here’s how we’ll do it, then. Us having the final say.

Eileen Henry: Right, we’re modeling. So we’re saying, Okay, what are your non-negotiables? What do you want before bedtime? We’re going to have this, we’re going to have that. We’re going to make sure to make time for you crawling up and down off the bed. We build it into the ritual so that the child feels seen, heard, and understood, that they’re an active part of this and we’re creating something together to look forward to. And then we literally release them into the sanctuary. We release them into their imaginations, their wonder. They have their lovies. We give them what they’re in charge of in their environment, the lovey, the support animal.

I use storytelling kind of like lore, and there are archetypes in the story. There’s the vulnerable one we take care of and nurture. There’s the protector, maybe a bear. Lately dragons have been really popular with little boys as the overall watching over, protecting the space. And we give them these archetypes and we release them to it. We release them to the self, and we release them into their unconscious where all the shadow material waits for us in our dreams. They’re so good at it.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah, they are. And if we go into that knowing that we’ve done this together, and sometimes I even say, or even suggest, I remember saying this to my children, “If you have more feelings as I’m leaving, you get to share those and I will be back to check on you.” And that’s in the routine. We practice that. So it’s really, it’s in the play for us. It helps us kind of settle into our role a little bit better. I needed a lot of help with this. That’s why I’ve got all these ideas and why I have ideas for other parents too. Because there’s no one with a harder time setting limits than me. I mean, I love the expression, “I never let go of anything without leaving claw marks in it.”

Eileen Henry: Me too. I think I know where you got that one from. I like that one.

Janet Lansbury: And children are like that, right? Young children are. And they’re supposed to be, and that’s okay. If we can normalize that for ourselves and expect it, even, it’s just going to be easier for us to face it with that heroism that we need so often as parents around boundaries.

Eileen Henry: It is. And I tell parents, you just have to be good enough. My kids are way better at boundaries than I am, to this day. Just good enough. Thank goodness we don’t have to do it perfectly.

And that checking in on them, if we can lead the check-ins and reassure the child, I’m going to go do X and then I’m going to come back and check in on you. And if you can keep it a little lighthearted—you talk about this, I’ve heard you talk about this—staying in lighthearted and almost playful. I used to tell my daughter, “I always have three more kisses in me, so when I come back, you tell me where you want those kisses.” And she’d want them on her doll, on her elbow. And it was a little playful.

Also, a magical little phrase and mantra is, “You know what, sweetie? I’m going to give you longer to work this out. I’m right over there. I’m going to be back. I’m listening. I hear you calling mommy, mommy, mommy. I hear that. And I’m going to give you longer to work this out and settle down and go to sleep.” A three-year-old, we can start to speak to them. And I think that is a respectful, gentle way of speaking to a child. It’s just their reaction can be anything but gentle. They’re ruckus, they’re rough and tumble, so that’s going to come back at us.

Janet Lansbury: They’re not unruffled, which is partly what I love about them. But yeah, the reason to have that light attitude too is—and not that we can snap our fingers and have this, it’s all about this perspective and everything that you’ve talked about here today. It’s important because then our child isn’t feeling those intense, uncomfortable things coming from us that they’re going to absorb, and now they’ve got to deal with that too at bedtime. If we can be clear and confident and light in what we’re doing, they have nothing else to dig into there when they’re clawing. There’s nothing, it’s like we’re light as a feather. What are they going to claw into? And that’s what they need. They don’t want to be stuck either, in their heart of hearts. They don’t want to be in that in-between place. They want to go to sleep too, down deep, because they’re exhausted.

Eileen Henry: They don’t want to work that hard. They will.

Janet Lansbury: It’s like they feel like they have to, they can’t be the one to let go first. It’s this wonderful way they’re built.

Eileen Henry: When you’re in the moment, I do appreciate how hard it is when your child’s tugging on your heartstrings.

Janet Lansbury: It really is. And so we do whatever we do and then later we look at it and say, Okay, maybe I want to be kinder to myself the next time. And I’ll try it, and we just do our best. And at some point we realize, because we see it evident in front of us in all the boundaries that we set, that, Oh my gosh, that was a gift that I just gave my child.

Eileen Henry: Yeah. I think there’s a magic in preparing ahead of time, preparing the child, walking them through, having one last night. Especially if they’re heavy sleep crutches, like still holding them to sleep or nursing them to sleep or being with them or picking them up a bunch of times to fix their sleep for them. To really prepare the self, then prepare the child, and then walk through with that confident momentum. I love your term. Confident momentum is co-regulation in motion. It has a momentum, it has a confident movement to it.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. And it doesn’t have the trepidation. Because sometimes when I suggest to parents that they prepare, they interpret it as if they’re using this warning tone. Well, now I have to do this, and here’s your last kiss. And that’s not the comfortable parent that we’re talking about, that’s so vital to this process.

Wow. You are just a wealth of information and inspiration, and I hope that everybody checks out your website if they haven’t already: And your book, The Compassionate Sleep Solution, Calming the Cry. Check that out too. Check out her social media. We’ll put links into the transcript.

And she does this amazing thing: 15-minute free consultations with Eileen. That is huge. So you might want to check that out as well and take advantage. And I love the work that you’re doing and how you’ve spearheaded this work, this role of sleep consultant. You’ve provided a service that is so essential. If we’re not sleeping, everything is much harder.

Eileen Henry: It is. It’s the foundation of our well-being. It really is, to be resourced as parents and human beings. It certainly was for me.

Janet Lansbury: Thank you so much, Eileen.

Eileen Henry: Oh, it’s always a pleasure to hang out with you. Thank you.

Janet Lansbury: Again, Eileen’s website is, and you can also hear our previous conversation on Unruffled, The Beauty of Sleep.

Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Teresa Marazita says:

    I have a 3.1/2 year old grand son who’s parents are going through a very bad divorce,,the mother has always slept with him and treats him like a baby my son has just got custody,for a couple of nights a week ,he loves his dad and is happy to be with him ,but his mum I know says things to him like if you want to cry for mum ,just cry ,and she tells him in front of my son ,it is very hard to put a bit more structure in his life ,when his mum still gives him a bottle and a dummy , his mum does not send him to kinder as he might cry ,
    How can he help his son ,without alienating him ,they are still going through court for him to have him a couple more night a week which is so stressful on everyone,how can we help my grandson came to terms with both his mum and dad is there a book. That might help my son to help his son ,thanking you for any help

  2. Hi! First of all, thank you, Janet, for all your wonderful posts! I find them really helpful and supportive!
    I found something in this episode that made me curious, I was actually wondering about this – you said that it’s good to involve children in establishing the routine, but that you cannot hold them accountable for not holding up their end of the bargain. Fair enough 🙂
    However, how much and how should we hold children accountable for the plans we make together? My son is 4 and a half, I’m happy to say you’ve been with us pretty much from the beginning :)) So the relationship is good, the communication is good.
    It does happen often enough that we make plans, but that he ends up “not being in the mood” for them. A recent example is that it’s customary in our country to offer little trinkets or flowers to women for the 1st of March. I asked if he wanted to make something together for his kindergarden teacher, whom he adores, because he likes crafts, all the cutting and glueing. And he was excited, he wanted to do this, but “not today”. I am not emotionally involved, so if we end up not doing it, that’s fine with me. But what would you feel is better for him in this kind of situations – to push a little because it is my belief that he will pe happy with the result, or not to push because maybe he does not want to do it, maybe he is anxious about the result, or any other reasons?
    For more context – if our plans include other people, say meeting with friends, I say that I’m sorry if he changed his mind, but someone arranged their schedule around this, so we’re not bailing out on them; if it’s about not wanting to stop the playing, after the extra 5 minutes he negotiated, I say that we both agreed to this time limit and no more, I understand he would like more time, however now we’re off to dinner or shower or whatever it is – and he has no problem accepting this.
    So my question really is about plans that are not actually relevant or important, but where my feeling is that the refusal is about either some anxiety of sorts, or maybe just not being in the mood anymore.

    Thanks for reading anyway, hope that maybe you have time to share your thoughts on this!

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