Father putting a baby to sleep

Managing parent preference in babies and toddlers

Very often when parents are preparing to improve their child’s sleep, one goal that they set out to achieve is that either parent, and not just exclusively one parent, may attend to them at bedtime and in the overnight period as needed, with ease- as it is quite typical that many children appear to have a parent preference for one parent/caregiver around sleep, essentially locking out the others parents’ efforts to attend to their child. 

Encouraging inter-changeability around bedtime is desirable for many households, but achieving same may not be as easy as you may anticipate or hope for. Most frequently, this can be due to the currents stage that your child is currently at; both emotionally and developmentally and what and with whom they routinely associate with going to sleep.

It is very typical-in fact, it is developmentally appropriate for a child to assign their needs to be met solely by one specific parent, and whilst we do endeavour to encourage a level of flexibility between 2 parents, when applicable, we may also need to meet your child where they are at and accept their preferences, if attempting to change same, seems to be too distressing for all involved.

Being developmentally able to focus on more than one relationship at a time, especially in the first year or so, may make it harder for your baby to allow the other parent to perform bedtime duties and in fact any care-giving activity and this may become even more obvious with a toddler, who may also start to assert a level of choice making too as he gains a greater sense of self.

This dynamic, whatever the cause factors, at the time, often results in one parent feeling disempowered, unloved and sometimes resentful too.

If we can better understand this tendency and make various adjustments then, even if we cannot resolve the current issue, we can accept this stage, acknowledging that mostly the favour of one parent over another can flip- flop anyway in time.

Although being seemingly rejected can leave that parent feeling demoralised, help-less and upset, in general, I encourage parents to not allow their child to witness the distress or hurt or indeed anger this may invoke in you. 

Try to stay separate from their current favouritism and not take the behaviour personally as a true rejection or lack of love for you. 

View this as a developmental stage- encourage the bonding and allow the unconditional relationship that is flourishing with the other parent to continue to strengthen and work behind the scenes to encourage a higher level of acceptance of the less preferred parent when possible.

  1. Avoid projecting your feelings of fear and thoughts of failing onto your child, don’t let them see you be upset by this behaviour, remain separate, curious and questioning about how best you can meet them in the middle and gently create opportunities throughout daily tasks and play time to be part of their activities

  2. Ensure that each parent is getting daily, quality- one to one time with their child. Make time for play time down at your child’s level and give of yourself, wholly and exclusively-track their play and allow them to know that you are focused entirely on them for ideally 10-20 minutes at a time, without modern life distractions.  It may be helpful if you are generally -the less playful parent- that you do your best to interact with your child authentically in a fun way, with plenty of physical and eye contact to enable and strengthen the emotional connectivity between you.

  3. Make time to deviate from the same schedule every day-be spontaneous, take them to the park, drive through puddles, stay longer than planned, create genuine excitement. Very often one parent is mostly involved in the somewhat boring daily tasks and that leaves the other parent seen as the fun and playful one- do your best to enjoy your time with your child and without forcing crate opportunity for them to see that side of you too.

  4. As part of your bedtime routine-allocate specific toys or games or activities that only the less preferred parent will do with the chid-make a special effort to attract them to your presence in activities that you know they could look forward to if only you and they do them together, reserve special books or games that only you will read or take out when it is your turn to do bedtime

  5. If your child is very reluctant to be left with the other parent, start to do activities as a group, where the comfortable duo are joined and the other parent gently eases themselves into the group, being helpful, taking it in turns to change a nappy or give the bath or just pass the toys or bed-clothes. Show your child that as parents you trust each other to be part of the processes

  6. Add an extra 10-15 minutes to your already established bedtime routine. Ensure that you can give of yourself without pre-occupation and also, without fear and anxiety-learn some deep breathing and grounding exercises, so that you can be emotionally regulated, helping, in turn your child to feel safe and secure and regulated too.

  7. For general day to day activities, avoid rescuing the less preferred parent as this may undermine the relationship with the parent- sending the inadvertent message that you don’t trust that parent to manage and as a result rescue your child when they are unhappy, rather than take over-allow them to work through it- or join them instead of excluding the other parent

  8. If improving sleep and starting a sleep learning exercise-begin with the same parent for the first 2 nights- generally have the preferred parent spear-head the campaign and then the other parent to do the next 2 bedtimes.  Give  both parent and child time to see if they can learn together and if they can accompany each other on this journey

However, don’t let the task of improving the sleep tendency more important than the actual relationship.  Although inter-changeability is desirable, this really should only be continued if your child is open to it-if resistance to one parent remains high-then it may be best to temporarily stand the less-preferred parent down, whilst the other parent and your child continue to establish positive sleep practices and then once that has been achieved then attempting to re-introduce the other parent may be re-tried, having spent much time strengthening the day to day relationship as outlined above.