April 3, 2024

How One-on-One Time Can Help With Sleep

Older Children, Toddlers

A few months ago, as I was getting our 4-year-old ready for bed and was moving her through her bedtime routine, she said, “Mom, I feel like you’re bossing me around.”

That comment really made me pause! I can certainly get impatient sometimes, I’m not perfect – but I really wasn’t being impatient, I wasn’t nagging, it was the same as most other nights. Which is why it kind of stopped me in my tracks.

Why was this night so different??

It wasn’t until I heard two moms (and psychologists!) talking about our kids’ “emotional piggy banks” that it really clicked.

So in this post, I’m going to share that insight with you and how that piggy bank can directly impact your little one’s bedtime and sleep!

The “Emotional Piggy Bank” Analogy

A few weeks after my daughter told me I was “bossing her around” at bedtime, I was at a conference with other sleep consultants, and we had a morning of training dedicated solely to toddlers.

Drs. Jenna and Shanna from Helping Families Thrive led the workshop and it was so helpful, both professionally and personally. And at one point they were sharing an “emotional piggy bank” analogy and it brought my Avery’s “bossy” comment to mind again, and this time it all clicked.

So here’s the analogy…

Picture our kids like little piggy banks. All day long, in the interactions they’re having with us and others, they’re either getting coins added to their little piggy banks or subtracted. Compliments from their teacher? More coins! Hit by their sister? Coins taken out. Hide and seek with dad? Coins added!

The hope is that we’re regularly filling our kids’ piggy bank, but there are times when we will subtract. They have to clean up their toys, even if they don’t like cleaning. We are going to floss their teeth, even if they don’t want to. We are going to turn the TV off after one show, even if they want two shows.

That’s parenting!

So the goal here is not to tiptoe around, never say no, only fill fill fill the piggy bank – that’s not real life!

The goal is, however, to pay attention to their little banks. If they’re nice and full and we have to subtract a bit, no problem. If they’re running dry and we’re subtracting, yikes. We are going to see some behaviors come out that impact us all!

While I don’t remember what our day looked like when Avery said I was “bossing her around,” I bet it was filled with lots of “do this, do this, do this” – or at least the last hour or two before bedtime felt more command-filled rather than “let’s just be”s.

So by the time I reminded her to toss her clothes in the laundry basket and get her jammies on for bed, it felt “bossy” to her. Her little emotional piggy bank was probably running low and I was continuing to subtract from it.

We weren’t in the danger zone, bedtime didn’t become a battle, but her little “check engine light” was certainly on.

Some Real-Life Examples of the Piggy Bank Analogy

Another connection I made was with my four-year-old again.

My girls are home with me every day, but on Thursday mornings we go to a homeschool co-op, and on Sundays, we’re at church. I started to realize that quiet time on Thursdays and Sundays were a struggle for Avery and it often resulted in frustration for everyone.

But then I thought of that little piggy bank. My girls love co-op! They love seeing their friends, doing new projects, and learning new things. But they have to sit and listen to the teacher. They have to raise their hand to talk. They walk in a line quietly to the next classroom. They’re not supposed to run around the church basement. All good routine stuff when you’re operating in a group of people, and again, good things!

But that also means when we get home and move right into quiet time, something that my introverted oldest loves and craves, but a time that can be more of a struggle for my extroverted four-year-old, quiet time is that much harder for her. That piggy bank has been both filled but also subtracted from all morning, and having to now play by herself is another dip.

Same thing with church on Sundays. Avery is either in childcare with her friends, playing and doing a lesson, or doing quiet activities in the service with us. Once again, there’s structure and she has more limits than just free play at home.

When I realized her tougher quiet times were Thursdays and Sundays and connected it to this piggy bank analogy, it made all the difference! Now when we come home, we really intentionally connect with Avery, especially, before quiet time. (We still need our quiet time, so for us it’s not just a matter of skipping it altogether!).

And those are also the days our girls can enjoy quiet time together rather than apart. It’s been the trick to help refill our sweet girl’s little piggy bank while keeping our usual routines in place!

Now picture a 5-year-old who has been at school all day long. School is great, but it’s also really tiring for kids! There’s a lot of structure (which is good!), but think about their little piggy bank. If reading was hard today, or their math project has a tear in it, or it took forever for the class to line up for recess and the teacher was getting frustrated, that keeps dipping.

So when that 5-year-old comes home from school and they’re told right away to wash their hands, put their lunchbox away, and do their homework, you’re probably going to get a lot of pushback. A lot more pushback than if you were at the playground together all morning, then come home and have them wash their hands, put their lunch box away, and do their homework.

But if they come home and you have a snack together or hang out, maybe listen to some music together, or read some picture books, or shoot some hoops, and then do homework, think about the difference it could make!

Just the other day, one of our kiddos was clearly having a tough afternoon and every little thing was setting her off. She was coming to me with another something that went wrong (that piggy bank was low!) and so I got silly and said I needed the biggest cuddle of her life.

Then I asked her if she needed 100 or 200 hundred kisses, then I moved her arms and legs and did silly dance moves, and her sister then said, “Do that to me,” and we were all laughing and silly. Then she said again what bothered her, but the lightness was felt tenfold. We then read a few books and just switched up what we were doing to try to break that woe-is-me cycle, and it worked!

She just needed some extra coins in that piggy bank to come back to a midline.

How One-on-One Time and Sleep are Connected

So now let’s think about bedtime. Our kids have to go to bed, and it’s not up to them when they go to bed – that’s our job! Even if they don’t want to brush their teeth, it’s not a choice. They can choose which toothpaste they want, what jammies they want to wear, and what books to read. And for some kiddos that choice is piggy bank filling! But for some kiddos, especially when they’re already depleted, that choice could actually drain them more.  

Let’s think about a child whose piggy bank is already pretty low or even empty. Now we’re telling them it’s bedtime, they have to do this, this, and this to get ready for bed, now lay down, and goodnight. We’re probably going to get a fight! And whew, as parents, our patience is already lower by the end of the day because we’re just tired, so it might not look so pretty on either side.

Now think about a kiddo whose little piggy bank is nice and full. Time to go upstairs? Sure! Potty, pull-up, jammies? No problem. Goodnight, I love you! That routine, that, “Do this next,” won’t feel like an order, or “bossy”.

Please don’t hear me say that the only reason your little one is having bedtime challenges is because their piggy bank is depleted. It’s not that simple! But it does make a difference! And when getting upstairs is already a struggle and the routine is already a struggle, why would the actual bedtime – “Goodnight, I’m trying to walk away” part – not be a struggle??

So what I am saying with all of this is to try to be mindful of your little one. How full is their little piggy bank? Take that information and then be intentional with what you do with it!

When we work with older kiddos, especially, we write one-on-one time into our sleep plans. Even just 10 minutes of one-on-one time can make a huge difference when it comes to behavior. Something every day is certainly ideal, but simply aim to do it as often as you can!

And when I say one-on-one time, I’m talking no phones, no laundry, no distraction – just you and your little one. It’s so easy to be with our kids but also loading the dishwasher, or with them and folding laundry, or with them but making sure the baby doesn’t eat rocks. Just because we’re with our kids doesn’t mean it’s quality, piggy-bank-filling time.

A trip to the mailbox with just Mom feels like a treat to Avery. Going to the grocery store with just Dad is her happy place.

And what’s interesting with all of this is you may notice I’m talking about our 4-year-old a lot more than the other two. Our toddler is a bit too young for this to all click just yet, though undistracted time with her is certainly important, too. But our 6-year-old, Olivia, is not only an introvert (so her piggy bank fills a bit differently), but she goes to bed about 30 minutes later than her younger sisters, so every night she’s getting that one-on-one time, or sometimes even two-on-one time, with us.

She knows that time is there, she has it every night, we play some sort of board game or do some activity (of her choice), then read a chapter book together.

Whereas Avery, our middle child, red-headed extrovert, doesn’t have that predictable time built in each day so we have to really make a conscious effort and choice to make it happen!

And no, the bedtime routine doesn’t count as one-on-one time because our kids are not in charge of their bedtime routine or the steps of their routine. I’m talking one-on-one playtime and kid choice! Though it could certainly be the last thing you do before kicking off the rest of the bedtime routine. For some families they make this one-on-one time happen while the other parent is prepping dinner, or cleaning it up. 

Because if you think about it, at bedtime, the result is essentially separation – your little one goes to bed and you go to bed. And again, that’s good! But if there’s not been a lot of connection during that day or that quality one-on-one time, that separation could be harder.

And thinking about attention-seeking behaviors, they often come out when kids are seeking attention – maybe because they’re not getting attention otherwise (positive or negative), and they know acting out will get them some kind of attention or keep mom or dad around for longer. Again, not pointing fingers to say the lack of one-on-one time is the cause for all bedtime battles, I’m just stressing how helpful that one-on-one time can be in general, and specifically for bedtime.

Tips for One-on-One Time

Helping Families Thrive expanded on one-on-one time at the conference in a really helpful way.

They talked about giving that one-on-one time a name, maybe that’s as simple as, “special time”. Giving it a name helps your child see what’s going on, know when it’s going to happen, and look forward to it!

They also encouraged us to be really focused on the child and their piggy bank. Don’t just let them choose what they want to do, but how they want to do it.

When they’re playing Candyland with their sister or friends, they need to follow the Candyland rules. During special time with you, however? If they want to play some crazy non-sensical way, go for it! Even instilling game rules can be a piggy bank dipper.

They also recommended Keeping your questions and suggestions to a minimum (even non-existent!). When you’re building a magnet tower, don’t ask them what shape that piece is. Don’t ask them why they put the Legos together this way. If they crumple up their drawing and start over, let it be!

If you’re having some homeschool preschool time, yes, ask the shape. If they crumple up their drawing and you’re just trying to get a card in the mail for Grandma’s birthday, maybe we can talk about perfectionism and how she won’t care if you perfectly stayed in the lines or not. None of those questions or comments are bad, but they all require something of our kids.

And the goal of this special, one-on-one time is not teaching, rule-following, or self-control. The goal is to fill that piggy bank!

So that when you say, “Alright, time for bed! Go potty and get your jammies on, I’ll meet you upstairs!” NO PROBLEM! That bank is so full that those directions don’t make your child think twice.


Like I said before, what I am not saying is that your child has a hard time sleeping because you’re not having one-on-one time with them. What I’m also not saying is that by having set one-on-one time every day, those bedtime battles will be a thing of the past.

What I am saying, however, is that one-on-one time with our kids is powerful! It makes a huge difference in behavior across the board, including when it comes to their sleep.

So give it a try!

And if you’re still left stuck and just don’t understand why the bedtime routine is still a headache and they still get out of bed all night long no matter what you say or do, don’t worry – we’ve got you!

Our resources and services will meet you right where you are:

The Bedtime Routine Chart and Boundary Cards– These FREE printables might be the structure you need to help make bedtime happen!  

Big Kid Sleep from A to Z– This online sleep class will help if you’re not necessarily looking for personalized help but want a better understanding of your little one’s sleep, their sleep needs, and what changes could be made, so you feel confident moving forward with a DIY plan.

Personalized Sleep Plans– If you’ve tried all the sleep tricks you can get your hands on and something’s still not clicking, and you’re exhausted and so frustrated and just need guidance, these plans are for you. Or maybe you know what to do but you want accountability as you do so, we provide that!

We’d love to come alongside you to help your whole family get the best sleep possible!

With Grace,