Bedtime Rituals: Stumbling Into a New Rhythm

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I’ll always be a product of seasonal living. Growing up as the youngest child to two schoolteachers in a small Indiana town left its mark: stay focused, be diligent throughout the school year, but summer? In the summer, all bets are off.

Summer, for us Midwesterners, is a season of anything goes. The hard work and biting cold of winter gives way to a glorious three months of sheer, unabashed play. From June to August, there are fireflies to catch, salamanders to hunt. It’s a season of sticky marshmallows and sidewalk chalk, of Band-aids and cartwheels, pool noodles and tire swings. Blackberries by the fistful. We spend our days at farmer’s markets and the neighborhood playground. We traipse through gardens in the downtown square, stopping halfway for popsicles from the corner cart. There are blisters on our feet, grass stains on our knees. We fall into bed exhausted, but the happy kind.

Still, September comes.

The thought occurs to me in the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. I am in front of the sink, readying myself for bed while Ken is in the kitchen with the kids, serving avocado out of the shell with tiny spoons, stirring a curry dinner for one. I hear muffled laughter down the hallway, and I can tell Bee’s practicing another knock knock joke. I can tell she hasn’t yet nailed it.

Am I missing out? I think as I rinse, spit.

I pad to the bedroom and set my nightstand alarm for 2am, for an early morning work day of silence and quiet and focus. I have deadlines to meet, emails to send. Ken, per usual, will handle dinner and bedtime while I pull the blackout shades down low, throw a pillow over my head.

But tonight, it is still August, and the hallway smells of chicken and cumin.

How many more days of play will we get before the weather turns, before the farmer’s markets close? How many more nights before the fireflies disappear again?

I flip over to my stomach, sleep hard to find.

The next week, Ken would be diagnosed with pneumonia and quarantined to the basement to cough-cough-cough through the night. (He has since recovered well.) He’d spend 10 days out of commission, and the kids and I would squeeze every ounce of summer into our days, nights – just the three of us.

(Sleep was no longer hard to find.)

I’ve often romanticized the idea of bedtime. Bubble baths and fluffy towels, wet eyelashes curling toward the heavens. I think of Bee’s lingering stories, her heartwarming prayers. Lullabies. The quiet rocking of a curled-up Scout, one tiny toe peeking through a hole in his footed pajamas.

It is that, sometimes.
Often, it is not.

I once read that one small secret to a happier life is to replace routines with rhythms. Routines call for a fair amount of grit – of hard-earned practice, of checking the clock, of trying again and again and again until a perfect balance is struck.

But rhythm? It’s offered naturally, with time. Coming and going. A cycle, a song. Reappearing again and again, like fireflies.

And this is what I think of when September arrives.

I think of routines and rituals, and how sometimes, we’re forced to bend them a bit, like when your husband is on bedrest and your 2am deadlines fly out the window. Or when the start of school is on the horizon, and you’re far from ready, still clinging to the heat of summer’s glory days.

Best to try a rhythm, instead.

A few bedtime rhythms I rely on in the midst of transition:

  1. Slow and steady.
    This likely goes without saying, but nothing frenzies me faster than the perception that I’m running late, so I’m a big believer in padding bedtime. This means inching everything back an hour or so — starting dinner at five(ish), an evening walk at six(ish), bedtime baths, stories or general sleep-readying at seven(ish) in hopes for a solid set of Zzzzs before eight(ish). Part of this means ditching a peek at the clock entirely. If it takes more or less time, I’ll be none the wiser.
  2. One at a time.
    Scout is entirely mobile these days, so chasing him around while attempting to create a calming sleep environment for Bee is absolute futility. Instead, I’m often setting Bee up with a glass of goat milk and a few books at the kitchen counter while I tackle Scout’s simple bedtime routine: nighttime diaper, rocking chair, a warm bottle. Once he drifts off, I’ve got both hands free for Bee’s teeth-brushing, story-reading and (endless) answering of questions.
  3. Be consistent.
    Consistency is never a guarantee when it comes to our kids’ behaviors, reactions, feelings, so it’s best to offer it wherever else we can. I’ve mentioned this before, but Huggies OverNites Diapers are a standby in heavy rotation for Scout. (Each has a soothing protective layer designed to keep your baby dry and sleeping soundly for a full 12 hours – guaranteed, or your money back.) For Bee? Her favorite blanket is this one, and she’s almost never without a tattered Rosie.
  4. Mind transitions.
    Transitions are widely-used in our family, so I’m quick to offer them both verbally and not. By dimming the lights, switching to softer, slower music (or none at all), heading up the tidying efforts and lowering the blinds, the littles know what’s on the horizon even if the sun hasn’t yet set on the day.
  5. Affirm.
    A small ritual I offer everyone in our home (including myself) is a bit of nightly affirmation. Mistakes were made throughout the day, no doubt. A quick reassurance of forgiveness, love and grace goes a long way in a peaceful night’s sleep. My favorite version of this? An old quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Last night, after Scout was fast asleep, after teeth were brushed and dogs were fed and the dishes were done, Bee asked if she could catch a lightning bug before bed.

It wasn’t part of the routine, or even the rhythm. But I knew enough to say yes.

How many more nights before the fireflies disappear again?

OK, I tell her, but just one, and before I can remind her to throw on shoes, she’s out the back door in a flash.

It’s still August, after all.

Come winter, we’ll need all the light we can get.

For those of you transitioning into a back-to-school rhythm, tell me – how are you doing/feeling? How have you shifted a few rhythms, bedtime or not? Sending warm vibes for a peaceful start for both you and the littles.


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  • What a wonderful essay to read on this first day after Labor Day, when summer is truly over no matter what the weather. Thanks for sharing this great reminder with us!

  • I guess you could say it’s a blessing in our house that we still work the full time jobs over the summer, and he still went to daycare/preschool, so very little will change with this transition to Kindergarten. Or maybe, since he won’t nap at school anymore, bedtime will be a tad easier? We’ll see. = )

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