Bedtime at my house has become an elaborate ritual that surely only I and my children can follow. It starts with a five-minute time check, during which time my son, nine, and daughter, seven, brush their teeth, go to the toilet and get themselves a drink of water to take to bed, if they want one.
It then involves us gathering in my children's shared bedroom and me reading a chapter or two of whatever book we're into at the moment. I sit on the bed of whichever child was in bed first – which creates a surprising but delightful amount of urgency for my kids to get into bed.
Then we get into kisses, cuddles, high fives and secret handshakes to say goodnight – the intricate sequencing of which has been honed over years of "good nights". The whole process takes 15 to 20 minutes if I'm lucky – but that's when the need for a deep and meaningful conversation often rears its head.
For some reason, at the end of our long and involved goodnight ritual, when the end is in sight and I'm imagining myself falling into my own bed and reading my own damn book, one of my kids wants to tell me something incredibly personal and important.
As frustrating as this moment is, though, child sleep and behaviour consultant Mylee Zschech told Romper that this is not a stalling tactic to avoid going to sleep. Rather, she says it's the perfect time for children to open up.
"The bedtime routine brings a feeling of intimacy, of closeness with your parents, which can make a child feel more inclined to open up," Zschech said. "The other aspect is that while children are doing something else, for example, getting on their PJs or having a bath, they might feel more comfortable to open up because they aren't feeling like eyes are directly on them, which lessens the likelihood of feeling self-consciousness."
Australian children's wellbeing expert Dr Maxine Therese says it's natural for children to take a while to process their thoughts and feelings, and that it's important for parents to listen to children's concerns.
"At the end of the day when we are winding down and transitioning into sleep we unconsciously review the events of the day," she says. "Children need space to process anything that has come up for them during the day. The idea of going to sleep without a worry is comforting for everyone."
Dr Therese says the best approach for parents is to build this extra time into the bedtime routine so children feel like they can open up.
"Show interest, be available knowing that this is an important time of the day," she advises. "We need to make the space so that children's concerns can surface so that they feel safe to express and not rushed or ignored."
Even those children who seem to be just stalling or chatting about nothing in particular are telling us something important, says Dr Therese.
"Any child that stalls bedtime generally feels that they have not had enough time either to themselves or with the family," she says. "If the child feels that they haven't connected they may stall their bedtime. Even a child not going to bed is communicating that they need more connection."
Of course, we all get tired and over it sometimes at bedtime, but Dr Therese says when children are reaching out and asking for our attention, it's important to be available.
"If we can hold the space [for our children], it means it gets attended to in the present moment and doesn't become a residual emotional pattern," she says.
"Resetting the way we attend to our children's needs requires that we pause and attend in the present moment. Shutting down any open communication means we are mising an opportunity to connect with our children."
Dr Therese advises parents that regularly feel too tired or triggered by listening to their children's feelings take some time to work out why, and try to find a solution.
"Otherwise your child may feel like a burden and stop opening up to you," she says. "Open communication is an important foundational need of all members of the family."
Of course, it's ideal if children feel like they can open up at other times, and not just at bedtime. Dr Therese says this helps our children's emotions not to build up.
"If our children know that we are here for them they will naturally open up and will begin to discuss things openly as they occur for them rather than holding onto them until bedtime," she says.