Reflections #11. Bedtime mindfulness


Bedtime mindfulness
Issue #11, January 2016




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A little window into my life

Bedtime mindfulness
I must have somehow told the Universe that I was ready to look at the issue of bedtime fears again: the sings and insights were coming from everywhere. One of them came as video from Hand in Hand parenting. In it, the founder talked about helping children with their separation anxiety. She mentioned a few phrases that parents can say to support their children emotionally when that anxiety is triggered; one of them was “I am here”. As soon as I heard her saying it, with all the softness and love and presence in her voice, I burst into tears. Wow! I realised I needed to look at my own Sweet Spot at the same time as helping my daughter with hers. But even after I did, I kept on wondering about the power of that statement: “I am here”.

So that evening, as I was sitting with my children while they fell asleep, I tried it out. My son settles down and does not move any more. He is usually asleep within minutes. My daughter twists and turns and wriggles, distracting herself with thoughts and thirst and pees and nose picking, fidgeting and fighting the dreaded moment of disappearing into sleep. I find it hard to witness. I realised I have found my ways of disappearing, too: I plan dinner for the next day, do my pelvic floor exercises and sort out my life, waiting for her to succumb to the weight of her eyelids.

But that evening I stayed very present. I watched her, I felt her, I sensed into her restlessness with curiosity and compassion. Every time I noticed her “gone”, every time she would move or use her Control Pattern of rubbing my fingers, I knew she was not feeling safe. So I would softly whisper “I am here”. The reaction was extraordinary. Every single time, she would sweetly look into my eyes, as if to check I really was present; then she would snuggle up close tenderly; and then she would close her eyes and relax into her body. She never does any of that at bed time. These are the behaviours you would expect of a child going to sleep, but only when they feel safe enough. My daughter had to be reminded almost constantly that she was safe enough. Little by little, the message sunk in. When she did fall asleep, it wasn’t because tiredness had won the battle, but because she had willingly surrendered.


The theory behind the practice

I was talking to my youngest sister about this process and she said: “But I thought you had already worked on her bed time fears!” I had to remind her that issues are often like onions: we look at the top layer, we heal the pain, that layer falls away, and after a while the next layer presents itself for healing. The good news is that it’s not an endless process. Eventually we do get to the core and then the issue is totally gone: there is no more pain and no more trigger. But until we get there, and specially with core wounds like this one is for my daughter and myself, it often requires several visits before they heal completely. I must say that every time it becomes easier and easier to face the issue, which is a relief when they are big and scary as core wounds usually are.

I like the term of “Emotional Projects” for these processes, because it gives me a sense of scope and progression; it helps me accept that they can potentially take a while and that it makes sense to tackle them in chunks or phases. I also like remembering the contractions at birth, and how they ebb and flow, which makes their intensity bearable. So it is with emotional projects: we focus on them for a while, then they fade for some time, giving us some respite, and then they come back. This particular emotional project is taking us years!

When I looked at my Sweet Spot around bedtime fears, it became obvious that there were two aspects for me to heal: there was first the trauma of being left in my cot crying myself to sleep as a baby. And then there was the time when my daughter was a baby and I was not able to be present enough with her uncomfortable feelings so she could feel heard and safe, and fall asleep peacefully. At those times I would rock her, feed her, sing to her, take her for a walk on the pram, give her to her baby sitter or even leave her alone to cry. I am incredibly sorry for all those times when I couldn’t be present emotionally for her, when I passed down on to her the hurt I had received as a child. Yet, it is not surprising I didn’t have the skills to be there for her, since no one had been present for me in that way when I was little.

So the first step for me was to learn to be present with my own uncomfortable feelings and listen to their voices. The second step was to be present with my daughter’s uncomfortable feelings (those two are at least 75% of the work!). The third step was to be present to her uncomfortable feelings and mine, at bed time, which is when they mostly come up for us.

So now, on the days I feel resourceful enough (because it is a big undertaking) her bedtime looks like that: she fidgets and wriggles, I practice mindfulness. She tries to distract herself, I am present, watching, curious. I imagine she is telling me a story with her movement: she is telling me about her fears, and so I listen. I stroke with tenderness her restless hands, or legs, as if tuning into her account, wandering what is bubbling underneath.  Every now and then I call to her: ‘hello?’, ‘where have you gone?’, ‘I am still here’, reminding her that she is safe to keep on telling me. Sometimes I catch myself gone, too, thinking of tomorrow’s dinner or whatever happened earlier in the day. Then I bring myself back and tell her: “Oh, sorry, I went away; but I am back now’.

I have noticed two huge shifts happening over the few weeks I have been practising this bedtime mindfulness: the first one is that, for me, it has transformed from a tortuous process to the most tender, soft and loving of times. Before I used to count the minutes till I was freed up from the chore of putting the kids to bed and was able to tackle the next thing on my list of jobs to do. Considering the girl takes an average of 45 minutes to fall asleep, it was quite a long daily torture for the mother. Now I just love her, and love her, and keep on loving her through her fears and restlessness. And if I become restless, I hold my inner fears with the compassion and tenderness I would have liked from my mum.

The second shift is that I can see her slowly changing the pattern. Some days she falls asleep even faster than her brother! Other days there is a lot of unresolved stuff under the skin, and it’s harder to settle. But I sense that in the past she was fighting sleep, and me for making her go to sleep! Now she trusts me more, she will come and lie down when I pat the bed beside me because she knows I’ll be watching over her. I can really feel her relax when I call her back from her world of thoughts and she snuggles up close. Small steps on our “bedtime mindfulness emotional project”. But I know they are in the right direction, and will lead us to peaceful sleep, and a deep sense of safety and trust in life.


If you see yourself reflected, touched ,inspired or if you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.


Inspired Parenting glossary

Sweet Spot:
This is a term created by Marion Rose to indicate the place where pent up feelings are stored up in our system. I use the term Emptying the Bucket, which refers to the release of pent up feelings in a therapeutic way. Aletha Solter talks about the Balance of Attention, which is the situation in which there is a balance between a sense of safety on one hand and the feeling of the difficult emotion on the other; this balance is perfect when it touches the Sweet Spot, and in doing so it allows Emptying the Bucket: the difficult feelings are released and healed through the vehicle of laugher or tears. Sheff describes it as “the distancing of emotion”: ‘this feeling of simultaneous distress and safety is always a necessary requirement before any therapeutic emotional release. If the person is too overwhelmed by fear (“underdistanced”), they will not be able to laugh or cry. Likewise, if the feared element is not present at all (“overdistanced”), they will not feel at all frightened, and also will not laugh or cry’. (Scheff, T.J. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual and Drama. University of California Press, 1979. Also see Solter, A. Helping young children flourish, page 52).

Control Pattern:
An activity done habitually in order to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Typical control patterns for babies and children are sucking (feeding, dummies or thumb sucking), holding onto security objects like blankets or a teddy, hipper activity or distraction. These develop into adulthood as over eating or addictions, the need to be on the go all the time or to be entertained or distracted constantly (with work, social relations, facebook or any other way). Almost anything can become a control pattern, and most babies have well-established control patterns by six months of age. It is important to note that these activities are only control patterns when they are done for the purpose of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. When they are done with connection and consciousness, then they are not being used as control patterns.


Leunig prayer

God help us to change.
To change ourselves and to change our world.
To know the need for it. To deal with the pain of it.
To feel the joy of it.
To undertake the journey
without understanding the destination.
The art of gentle revolution.

By Michael Leunig



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