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Getting Spirited Children to Sleep and Related Challenges

Getting Spirited Children to Sleep and Related Challenges 2

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Getting Spirited Children to Sleep and Related Challenges was originally posted on my previous blog on December 4, 2012, when Caroline was six years old. I am adding it to my 31 Days of Learning Differently series.

One of the most popular posts on this site is Raising a Spirited Child and Feeling Like a Bad Mother. (I wrote it when Caroline was about three and a half and I was so frustrated with her bedtimes.) Many people end up on this blog looking for information on spirited children and make their way to my Raising a Highly-Sensitive and Spirited Child page or one of the posts I’ve written on this topic.

Every once in awhile I see a search engine phrase in my StatCounter listing that just breaks my heart. You can tell by the words the person is searching that she is really struggling with parenting a spirited child. A few times I’ve wanted to be able to write to her or contact her to offer encouragement, but there is no way for me to do that unless she leaves a comment.

Today I received an email from someone and it made me realize I need to do an update on the content of that post from two and a half years ago. The email said:

Dear Sallie,

I just came across the above post from 2010 and as I read it, I started thinking, “Did I write this?” I could have – word for word. I am an introverted mother of a spirited toddler who will be up until 9:30 -10 PM. even with a 7:30 start time on her bedtime routine, every night. No matter how patient I try to be during the day, at night I have none after the third request for a hug and kiss or to put her sheet back on. Please tell me it gets easier!

Thank you!

Yes, it does get easier in many ways.  (And in a few ways it hasn’t.)  But here we go!

I’m going to share what I’ve learned in parenting Caroline.  The following may or may not work for other parents and their spirited children.  But I can honestly say that I’ve been there done that in a way that a lot of other parents of non-spirited children haven’t. I’ve survived infanthood, toddlerhood, the preschool years and kindergarten with a spirited child.

And not only have I survived, I’ve gotten to the point where I enjoy my spirited child.

She’s a whirlwind of joy and enthusiasm. She is a great little girl who is kind, helpful, thoughtful, compassionate, creative, imaginative… so many wonderful things. But it took me awhile to get to the point where I really enjoyed her and not just looked for ways to cope with her spiritedness. Here’s what I’ve learned. See what you can glean to use in your own home and ignore anything that doesn’t make sense for your particular child.

Filling the Spirited Child’s Tank

The biggest thing I have learned is that you have to fill the tank completely before bedtime. When a spirited child’s tank is full, she is more apt to go quietly to bed.  And by filling the tank I mean emotionally she feels full, verbally she’s gotten it all out, creatively she’s fully expressed herself, and physically she has had enough action during the day. This might sound obvious, but for an introverted parent it can be so hard to make sure a spirited child has a full tank in every way. It takes so much out of us to interact sufficiently with a spirited child. But I do think this is the biggest thing. When Caroline has gotten lots of attention, activity, and play she generally goes to bed quite well now.

Adjust Bedtime Expectations

Re: bedtimes. Caroline is on the very short end of the spectrum when it comes to sleep needs. She only needs about ten hours. So she’s up most nights until around 10 and she’s awake between 7 and 8. There’s nothing we can do about it. We’ve just had to learn to adjust our expectations in the evenings. I now go to bed later and get up later than I would prefer. I don’t get up before her even though I wish I could. But I need my sleep in order to function well. As she gets older and more independent, this will probably change. But for now this is what we’ve learned we have to do.

A Break for Mommy before Bed

Related to this is my need for a humorous, vegetative break each night. Every night I watch something funny before I go to bed. Cosby, Home Improvement, whatever. No drama and nothing serious. I have a snack and veg with something that makes me laugh. It really does make a difference in how I feel and it allows me to unwind in a way that reading or heavy content DVDs don’t.

Helping Spirited Children Fall Asleep

Spirited children are not good self soothers. I’ve read this in numerous places and believe it to be true. They have a very hard time turning off their minds because they are so full of ideas and questions. We always had to rock Caroline to sleep when she was little. I think we rocked her to sleep until she was three. Many nights she still needs help falling asleep. Either she wants David to rub her back or I sing Christmas carols to her (year round!).

Eventually this will end, but we got to the point where we accepted this is what she needs from us and we do it with a good attitude (most nights). Even then we will think she must be asleep or almost there and her eyes will pop open and she’ll ask a string of questions about something or tell us a story she’s made up. We’ve learned to just let her talk at that point rather than trying to shush her and tell her to go to sleep. She has to get it out or she can’t sleep.  Once she tells us whatever it is or we answer her questions, she goes right to sleep.

And Other Spirited Child Sleep Issues

Re: the not knowing if you are going to get a Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde in the morning… That definitely changed. I think she outgrew that around the time she was a preschooler.  I was very glad for that!

Re: the length of time for her to go to sleep… We did shorten up the routine. When it became obvious to us that she was never going to go to sleep before ten no matter what, we adjusted things.

The bottom line is that you really cannot change them and their bedtime needs. I know that probably isn’t what parents of spirited children want to hear, but I believe with all my heart it is the truth. They have their own unique set of bedtime issues and it isn’t something you can “train” out of them. Somehow parents have to find a way to deal with the never-ending bedtime routine and needs. Believe me when I say we tried every trick in the book, every bit of advice we could find and nothing works.  (Well, we didn’t try everything. We do not spank or threaten her.  That’s not an option. Period.)

I hope this is helpful.  If any parents are reading this, feel free to leave comments or questions!  There are a few other parents of spirited children (some grown) who read and comment here as well.  You are not alone!  There are other parents who understand.

Read More to Understand Your Spirited Child

Raising Your Spirited Child, Third Edition: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and EnergeticRaising Your Spirited Child, Third Edition: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and EnergeticTaming the Spirited Child: Strategies for Parenting Challenging Children Without Breaking Their SpiritsTaming the Spirited Child: Strategies for Parenting Challenging Children Without Breaking Their SpiritsAnswering the 8 Cries of the Spirited Child: Strong Children Need Confident ParentsAnswering the 8 Cries of the Spirited Child: Strong Children Need Confident ParentsRaising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and EnergeticRaising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and EnergeticRaising Your Spirited Child WorkbookRaising Your Spirited Child Workbook

33 Comments

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  • Loved reading this! I have four kids and my second is definitely spirited. When he was small he usually woke up around 6:30. I finally gave in and taught him how to toast a pop tart and then he was aloud to quietly entertain himself until the rest of us woke up. I felt like a bad mom, but we thrived on that schedule. My youngest is also a spirited child. He greatly benefits from what I learned with my first spirited one. He also loves his older brother, because he loves and understands him.

  • Loved this. I have a 6 year old that is teaching me so much about this (and has been since she was born). It was a big moment for me when I realized that the “tanks need filled” before we can relax and settle down (so our bedtime routine starts right after lunch now :-). Much more of parenting is me being better prepared, rather than training her, which was definitely not what I expected. 🙂

    I enjoy reading experiences that help me remember I am not alone, or even unusual. Thank you!

    Best wishes to you as you work around her sleep schedule.

  • As a mom of a spirited, now 34 yr old, I can say you do come out the other side and all is well. But, it can be a wild ride sometimes. She is now married, teaches at a college on graphic design, has a part time job at a firm as a graphic designer and runs marathons. She stopped napping at 16 months, had sleeping problems all along. The one thing that work for us was we did away with bedtime times. But when we went to bed everyone had to be in there rooms. It freed her up to choose and many times went to bed earlier. She says now that she had a hard time shutting her mind off and still does. I have to say tho, that as she went into puberity, it got worse. Many nights she was up till 1 or 2. We took the alarm clock out of her room. She kept a journal were she wrote down all she wanted to do in life. Helped get it off her mind. She still has it. I have liked your blog for awhile and first time to comment. But, finally felt I had something I could say. 😀

  • One spirited child goes to sleep at 7:00 and wakes up at 4 or 5 in the morning, the other spirited child sleeps at 9:30-10:00 and wakes up at 8:30-9:00.

    The early sleeper is IMPOSSIBLE to keep awake, and wakes up abruptly, usually by joyously screaming HEY EVERYONE! IT’S A NEW MORNING!

    Mom and dad: slowly going insane.

  • Thanks to everyone who left comments. It is encouraging to hear from other parents who are going through similar experiences.

    John – I have to say when you said you have TWO spirited children on completely different schedules, my stomach started churning and I felt stressed out. Oh my. I need to pray for you and Peggy!

  • Hi Sallie, I know this is a old post, but I felt compelled to chime in and thank you for it. I was a “spirited” child who struggled with sleep for years. I’m now a rather “unspirited” adult (fibromyalgia stopped me in my tracks in my early twenties) raising a spirited little girl who is 18 months old. I struggled with sleep from infancy, stopped napping altogether at 9 months (a fact my mother reminds me of every chance she gets), and didn’t physically or mentally need much sleep until my teens. I chattered non-stop, had boundless energy, and I can remember constantly having so many thoughts going through my head.

    I am so glad that people like you are encouraging other parents that it’s ok to let their children be who they are….it’s HARD, but I think in many ways it’s easier than the alternative (fighting with and crushing the child’s spirit). I wish my parents had known that this was a possibility when I was young, it would have made our whole relationship my easier and might have affected my self image as a young person. I am in my mid 30s now and am so glad that before I became a mother, I had come to peace with and learned to embrace the fact that this is how God made me.

    Anyways, I read your blog years ago, before Caroline was born, and it’s wonderful to see what a lovely young girl she has become.

  • Rahime,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to leave this comment. It really encouraged me and I know it will encourage the other moms and dads who come here via searches on spirited children. (I get a lot of those.)

    It was really hard. I feel like we are reaping the rewards of our labors now that Caroline is six. But the years she was one, two and three before she could really communicate well. Oh my. It was stressful. There’s no other way to put it. We had to rethink so much and second guessed ourselves so much because we just didn’t have much to go on other than our guts and what we were reading. I’m so thankful God led us to the books He did. They truly were an answer to prayer.

    Please stop by often!

  • Hi Sallie!

    I just came upon this post after a particularly rough battle getting my spirited 3 1/2 yr old to bed. We are a mess because I am a spirited introvert and she is a spirited extrovert, so by the end of the day, I have given her everything I have! My husband is away on business so I have no backup. We have a bedtime routine that has never changed, but it doesn’t help. I think I am just having a very hard time figuring out exactly what she needs to get to sleep so I can give it to her. In the end, I probably need to suck it up, and spend more time in her room reading, and talking until she gets it all out. Thank you for the knowledge that this will not be forever! I won’t give up!

  • Hi Brandi,

    Thanks for stopping by and saying hello! I see from your website you are an army wife. Oh my. Handling a spirited little one on your own. I wish I could help. I struggled and I had David to share the load with. I don’t have anything new to add, but do know that you are not alone in your struggles. Caroline is seven now and although it does get easier every year, bedtime is still my least favorite part of the day. I just keep telling myself that one day she will put herself to bed and try not to wish away the years at the same time. It’s a hard balancing act. Hang in there! 🙂

  • Just an update to say that our children have moderated their sleeping schedules (a little) as they’ve gotten older: the early bird gets up at 7, and the night owl is often in bed by 10.

  • Having raised a spirited child who is now 36, I want to add something I learned along the way. Just because they are awake does not mean you need to interact with them. My son did not sleep through the night until he was four. Somewhere along the line, I figured out that when he woke at night, he wasn’t hungry, he didn’t need to be changed, he wasn’t sick….he just wanted to play with me. I stopped going to him when he was awake, but not in distress. I put some books and quiet toys in the corner of his bed and he would turn on the light and play quietly. He knew he was only allowed to play in his room and he complied since the rest of the house was dark. As he got older, he had a “bedtime” when he was required to go to his room, but was not required to go to sleep. He would read or play quiet games until he was ready to sleep. As long as he let the rest of the family rest and was functioning at school and in his activities, I let him choose his own sleep pattern.

    As an adult he still doesn’t require the sleep that others need. He works in IT and has had to work for 24 hours at a stretch when there was a critical problem to be solved. He is able to do that when others wilt hours before him. He runs for several miles in the morning before work, getting up at 5 a.m. to do this and doesn’t go to bed until about midnight most nights. A couple of nights a week he also exercises after work to help him wind down from a stressful job. Some people just don’t need the sleep that the rest of us require. Don’t feel guilty if you are not interacting with them just because they are awake. They need to learn to be by themselves and be respectful of others needs.

    It does get better, but they will always be a spirited individual.

  • I can identify with so much of your post and also with everyone’s comments. I’m sitting here reading this at 10:45, as my 6 year old is building forts out of cardboard boxes! It’s nice to know I’m not alone. She often tells me that she just can’t shut her brain off. I think the only thing that keeps me sane is the fact that I don’t require a lot of sleep. Finding the energy to “fill her tank” on a daily basis is an exhausting job.

  • I have 2 spirited children- same as “John” from the above comment. When I read his comment I laughed out loud and said “we are living the same life!!” my son wakes up at 5 am and decides it is the perfect time to practice 1 of the following:
    piano
    recorder (similar to a flute)
    singing

    the other spirited child, my daughter, will literally rush out of her room (all you see is a body with hair all over the place) and yell “stop the racket! The birds aren’t even up yet!”
    then I look at my husband and we sigh very loudly…this is our life and we love it!

    Oh and did I mention they are a year apart AND we are starting homeschooling next year?? Please pray for us 😉

  • Hi! I read John’s and Kelly’s comments and can empathise. I have four spirited children all on the autism spectrum (as am I) with different sleep schedules. One goes to bed between 9 and 10pm and is up at 6 or 7, 2 boys generally go to bed anywhere between 11 and 5am (this morning it was 7am) and my 2 year old who, if she crashes after 5pm will then wake up at 7pm and be up until 1am. If the 2 year old makes it through that nap time and then crashes at 8pm she will wake up at Midnight and then that’s it, up for 4 to 5 hours. What advice so you have or what would you do?

    Sarah

  • I’m so glad I found this website! I thought my husband and I were alone in our struggle with our spirited toddler. We have an 8 year old with high functioning autism who is an awesome sleeper, he always has been, started sleeping through the night at 8 weeks old and not waking until 7 or 730 am with a bedtime of 8 pm. Five years later our daughter was born and silly me thought her waking every 2 hours to eat would only last a few weeks. That turned into a year! She is now 3 and will not sleep in her bed. If she falls asleep in her bed it’s because I sat in there with her for an hour and a half, massaging her feet and her back after singing and reading her favorite books. She always wakes around 2 and and climbs in bed with me and my husband. Most nights I’m so tired that it’s easier to just put her in bed with us to begin with. She is a smuggler so even though we have a king sized bed, she’s either right up against me or up against her dad. If she manages to fall asleep before me, I will move her to her bed but she wakes up around 2am and climbs back in bed with us. A friend of mine says her youngest was just like my little one and she and her husband just let her sleep with them until one day when she was 6 she no longer wanted to sleep with them. There are nights like tonight, I thought I’m going to try and get her to sleep I her own bed. I started at 8pm and here it is 10 pm and we are in my bed. She cried the entire time! I tried holding her and she continued to cry. I gave up and I feel like a failure but I figure this is only a phase and she will soon grow out of it. Hopefully before she’s a teenager.

    • Amanda – I’m glad you found it too! You can clearly see since she’s your second child that she simply is a different person. In some ways I think it must be easier to have the second one be more challenging because you know it isn’t your parenting ability. You have a good sleeper in the house already so you can see it has more to do with personality than parenting. When we had our daughter, we thought we just weren’t hitting on the right answer or combination so we tried everything. In retrospect, it all makes sense. She’s highly imaginative and has a hard time shutting down her brain, she’s a night owl, etc. But when you feel like you can’t do the most basic parenting thing of getting your child to go to bed and it’s your first one, it’s so confusing! In my experience is does get easier, but I think sleep is just harder for some kids. Hang in there!

  • My now 25 year old daughter cried and cried in her crib and wouldn’t sleep nights so when the doctor told me I was physically exhausted I put her in my bed and no more problems. Got her a toddler bed for our room and that worked when older and for a while she slept in a big bed in a room she shared with her older sister but at 15 she was back to sleeping in my bed again so off and on till 17 she just felt better sharing a bed I guess. She now has the most spirited child I’ve ever seen and they sleep together, my son in law snores, so has his own room.

  • Hi Sallie,
    I am not usually one to leave a comment on a blog, but this resonated with me. I am a first-time mom of a spirited (alert, happy, active, social) 4.5 month old. She has never been a good sleeper/napper, despite a solid bedtime routine. Currently, she sleeps 9:30-8 with at least 2 feedings/wakings at night (she’s ebf) and a few 45 min. naps during the day. I have a good friend with a baby the same age who is sleeping a solid 8-10 hours a night, plus naps… very discouraging to hear when I never sleep for more than 4 hours at a time! 🙂 Your comments about letting them “get it all out” and not being able to “shut her brain off” make a lot of sense- both for her and me! As a child I would get out of bed and, since I wasn’t allowed into my parents bed, I would bring my pillow into the hallway and sleep on that until my dad woke up and let me help make breakfast! Sometimes our LO’s best sleep is after a big play session with Daddy, which I thought would be too stimulating. We’re working to find the right balance between too stimulating and enough activity to “fill her bank”, mostly with social face-to-face time, followed by a long transition period with lots of consistent “cues” (I’ve started singing two specific, calming worship songs at the very beginning of the routine). I’m glad to hear it gets easier… eventually. 🙂

  • I just read your post in tears. I had no idea that my daughter’s personality had a label “Spirited Child” or that there were many others out there going through the same things. My daughter is 6 years old, and although we put her to bed at 8pm, she is often still awake when I go to bed at 10pm. I am introverted and she is extroverted. She is loud & creative & joyful & SPIRITED & kind & loving and really does have a wonderful moral compass for her age but I struggle with a lot of these wonderful traits that she has because they are opposite to me. I want to be the mother she deserves, I was feeling like a failure, but reading you post and some comments and going through some archives, I feel like I am better equiped to help her flourish into the beautiful lady she will become. Thank you!

  • My 2 year old son is spirited and I knew he was different three weeks after he was born. I never know how our days will go because he can be happy one day and miserable the next. He woke up every two hours til he was a year old. He still wakes twice at night and is a persistent nurser.  Now that he’s talking more I feel a slight relief that we can understand better and better what his needs are. Patience is the biggest thing I have learned and intense love that I never knew I could feel. He makes me laugh and he makes me cry, we both are learning together.

  • Oh wow! Found this article when I needed it the most…my 3 year old daughter is highly energetic, has trouble winding down and falling asleep. Most nights she will only fall asleep just after 10pm. I like the part about filling their tanks, makes a lot of sense! Starting from tonight I’m going to try it out and see how it goes. Thank you so much, you’ve given me hope!

  • Oh my goodness! Elvina just scared the crap out of me! 4 years old until her son slept through the night?! I’m bordering on insane and my spirited daughter is only 14 month! She goes to bed okay (certainly not on her own) at this point as I don’t think she’s quite to that stalling age. However, she still wakes up every 2-2.5 hours throughout night. I had to start cosleeping with her at about 7 months because I literally couldn’t make myself get up that many times anymore. So she sleeps in her crib for the first couple of hours and then with us. I also have to nap with her, partially to get her to actually fall asleep and partially because I need those naps too. It’s nice know I’m not alone but I certainly wouldn’t wish this sort of sleep deprivation on anyone!

  • Thank you for this! I just got introduced to this. I dont what else to say but thank for writing this. I am now on to read your others posts because I could cry right now reading this!

    • Stacie –

      I’m so glad you found this helpful. I have a lot of posts that you might find helpful. I’m actually in the midst of redoing my entire site so things are even easier to find. Let me know if you are looking for anything in particular. Hang in there. It does get easier!

  • Thank you for sharing this information. I felt pressure to get my spirited 8-year-old son to bed earlier thinking he will be so tired the next day. He seems manic at bedtime, wide awake, talking, sharing about something that made him sad at school etc. We have tended to stay with our children until they fall asleep and sometimes let my spirited 8-Year-old draw or read until he falls asleep. He says that these things help him to feel tired. Tonight felt frustrating because he was doing everything he could to keep his younger brother who is 6 awake.  the 8 year old is a control child and I kept taking deep breaths because my anger was growing as bedtime had passed over two hours.

    I loved the information you shared as it is a good reminder and also advice that makes sense. It also was very normalizing and freed me to feel less of a bad Mom and to instead focus on my child and his needs. Thank you so much. What a gift you are giving my family. I think my son also sensed that I really wanted him to go to sleep which was making him anxious and then of course he had a harder time falling asleep.

    He fell asleep just after 9:30 tonight.  We started at 7:15.

    • Hi Jen,

      Thanks for sharing your story. This post and these comments get read by so many parents every day. I know how encouraging it is to hear from other parents who “get it” about bedtime issues. I’m glad you found the post encouraging. 🙂

  • Thank you thank you thank you!!!  This describes my not-yet-3yr old to a T! What you said about spirited kids needing to be “full” really resonated with me. Mine won’t sleep until 10pm regularly or sometimes later if we’ve had a mellow day.  And the waking up when about to drift off is so her! The other night she absolutely NEEDED to draw something (I now have a kids table with crayons and paper outside my bedroom door).  Other times she will wake up and want to know why she can’t go into books to help the protagonist. Or she wants me to remind her which dinosaurs are omnivores. (What did parents do before google???)
    thank you for making me feel ok about just going with the flow. I’ve had it with all the advice from people who just don’t know– saying things like “it’s a delay tactic,” or “you need to have a consistent routine,” or “start her bedtime earlier,” or “let her cry it out,” or “just tell her she is going to bed, no excuses, and she will fall asleep,” or “it’s going to take a lot of your willpower, but you need to <insert something completely contrary to what my gut tells me>.”

    i I came to your site looking for advice on transitions, got some insight about my own increased drive toward perfectionism at my current job (huh– after 5yrs I’m apparently getting bored), and finally decided to comment on your sleep section.     Thank you again!!!

    (and I will gladly buy any books you have!)

    • Renee,

      I laughed at your comment about how did parents do this before Google. I totally agree in so many ways! I’m glad you found some helpful information throughout my site. I write what I do in the hope that the right person will come to the right post at the right time to find the help she/he needs!

      Books are in the works, but nothing to sell today! Did you subscribe though so you can get the free ebook I offer? I think you would like it!

  • Wow, this post and the comments that followed were exactly what I needed to read tonight. I just needed to know that I am not the only parent with an intense child, also I did not know to call him that until now. He is 5. We head up to his bedroom by 630, 7 at the latest in hope he will be asleep by 930/10. We read at least 10 books, he draws at his art desk, sometimes makes crafts, and sometimes even eats a second dinner! Sometimes he gets so into a book, he needs to recreate something that happens within it. Then I feel guilty getting a little snappy with him, because he’s not really doing anything wrong. I just don’t get my unwind time. Thank you for your posts. Reading them helps me feel less crazy, lol. Nice to read comments from other parents and hear their situations as well

  • Thank you so much. Feels like we are raising the same child. Being a single mom with a full on job and an extremely spirited 4 year old I’m tired to the bone, but I will take this amazing girl anyday above any good sleeper. She just a never-ending joy full of surprises. Thank you for writing this. Now I can relax and just keep pushing on.

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Sallie-Schaaf-Borrink-060313-B-250x250I'm Sallie, teacher by training and now homeschooling mom of Caroline. My passion is to provide products, encouragement, and information that helps others discover and do what works with their children. I also write about living a cozy life as a highly introverted person. Welcome! ♥

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