8 steps to managing bedtime anxiety with co-regulation

Bedtime anxiety is something I come across frequently in my role. Whether it be due to past trauma (like the Christchurch earthquakes), fears due to imagination kicking in, or simply freaking out from not having a good strategy to fall asleep. There are ways to help manage bedtime anxiety with co-regulation from a parent or caregiver.

When I work with families, I’m effectively teaching parents how to help their child manage their bedtime anxiety, learn to sleep well, and build resilience. In addition to great sleep, resilience will help our children navigate their later years with success. And that’s our goal as parents, right? To grow successful adults.

Importance of Managing Bedtime Anxiety

When we are sleep deprived, our anxiety increases (our amygdala is 60% more reactive than if we were well rested). So, it is easy to become caught in the downward spiral of increasing anxiety if you don’t manage bedtime anxiety as soon as possible. 

Bedtime can be a source of heightened anxiety for many young children as part of their growth and development. Fears of the dark, separation from parents, or simply the transition from day to night can be overwhelming. Co-regulation provides a structured and comforting presence that can alleviate these bedtime anxieties.

But first what do we mean by co-regulation?

Understanding Co-regulation

Co-regulation refers to the process where an adult (you) helps a child manage and understand their emotions and behaviours. This is especially crucial for young children who are still developing self-regulation skills.

By providing a calming presence and demonstrating healthy emotional responses, adults can guide children in managing their own emotions. Calming emotions is step one, because any strong emotion is not conductive to falling asleep. We all need to be at least semi relaxed to drift off confidently.

The trick here is that you need to know how to manage your own emotions before you start. As a parent your goal is to understand and respond to your child, not just jump in and react. Manage yourself first. If this means taking a short time out, some calming breaths or repeating a mantra, so be it!

We all know that children copy us (who hasn’t let out a bad word and had it repeated by their toddler or child). Whatever we do, they are watching. And I also know that co-regulation isn’t always easy – especially when you’re already sleep deprived.

So, let’s look at a step-by-step process for how to implement co-regulation to reduce your child’s bedtime anxiety.

How to Implement Co-regulation

  1. Establish a Routine: Predictability is key. Establish a soothing bedtime routine that your child can anticipate. This might include a bath, reading a story, or quiet time together.
  2. Stay Calm and Present: Your calm demeanour can be contagious. You want them to copy you, remember. Use a gentle, reassuring voice and maintain a relaxed body language.
  3. Listen and Validate: Allow the child to express their fears or anxieties. Acknowledge their feelings without dismissal or judgment. For example, saying “It sounds like you’re really scared of the dark, and that’s okay, we all get scared sometimes. How can we make it better?”
  4. Breathing Exercises: Teach simple breathing techniques. For example, instruct the child to breathe in deeply while counting to three, hold for three seconds, and exhale for three seconds. You can turn it into a game or make it part of a bedtime story.
  5. Use of Imagery or Stories: Create a humorous story where your child overcomes their fear, or use guided imagery to transport them to a relaxing place, so they feel more comfortable.
  6. Gradual Separation: If separation anxiety is an issue at bedtime, start by staying in the room until the child falls asleep, then gradually reduce the time spent in the room over successive nights.
  7. Positive Reinforcement: Praise your child for their efforts in managing their bedtime anxiety. If it helps, you can also reinforce their progress with small rewards or affirmations.
  8. Consistency: Apply these techniques consistently. Co-regulation for bedtime anxiety is most effective when it becomes a predictable (every day) part of your child’s bedtime routine.

Co-regulation is much more…

Co-regulation is not only about managing your child’s immediate bedtime anxiety; it’s also about teaching them lifelong skills in emotional regulation (ie resilience). By practicing these techniques, you can provide a supportive environment that helps your young child navigate their anxieties, especially at bedtime. Thus, leading to more peaceful nights and a stronger emotional foundation.

And if you need some help with the process, I’m here for you! Book a free initial call and we can chat about what’s happening in your family. If you’re already incredibly tired, you don’t have to do it alone!