4 Steps to Help Manage Parental Preference at Bedtime

Written By

Jess VanderWier
December 21, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Parental preference (and the parent guilt often accompanying it) is super common!

Do you ever have it where your child really wants you to put them to bed, but you can’t?

Your partner tries to put them to bed, and they scream, “NOOOO!! I only want Mommy!”

This often happens when a new baby is born or during other big transitions in a child’s life.

Your child may be used to you doing bedtime, and suddenly, you can’t. You have to care for your new baby, and your child is upset.

The first thing I want you to do is release yourself from guilt. It’s not personal. It is very common for toddlers to have parental preferences. 

Common Reasons Parental Preference Happens 

They Prefer the Way a Certain Parent Does Bedtime

Imagine being a child whose parents take turns putting them to bed. One parent does songs, snuggles, and books, and tucks them in. Their brain is stuck on how delightful it feels to have this parent put them to bed; they want this every single night. The other parent does their best to replicate the same routine…but something is different. Maybe it was the octave they sang the lullaby or the voices they used for the characters in the storybook. 

So, they get upset and protest. This is hard on the non-preferred parent, and there are constant power struggles. If the non-preferred parent is now angry or irritable during the bedtime routine, it can make the child fight back and crave the delightful feeling they had even more.

They Have Less Time During the Day With One Parent

A child who is with one parent all day might prefer this parent to put them to bed. This doesn’t mean they love this parent more, but it means that their brain is used to spending time with them and is craving the routine and comfort they’ve become accustomed to during the day. 

Alternatively, the preferred parent might be the one who isn’t home with them during the day. They may miss this parent and crave to have closeness and connection with them after a long day apart. 

They May Be Seeking Control

Imagine your child has a bucket over their head labelled “power.” Throughout the day, every time they’ve been told to do something, whether at home, daycare or school, it takes a drop out of their power bucket. By the time bedtime rolls around, their power bucket might be completely empty. 

When a child has an empty power bucket, they will do whatever it takes to fill this bucket back up. This can often look like power struggles around things like which caregiver puts them to bed! 

Remember this: parental preference at bedtime is NOT about them loving one parent more than the other, and it’s typically not something that lasts in the long term.

Related Post: The Ultimate Guide to Toddler and Preschooler Sleep Struggles

Use our FREE checklist to help identify why your child struggles with sleep!

How to Deal with Parental Preference When Your Child Is Upset

Here are four steps you can take when your child is upset about the other parent doing bedtime.

Step 1: Acknowledge Feelings

When your child prefers one parent to another, it’s important that they know that you see and understand this desire. They aren’t trying to be bad or hurt your feelings. Their brain is simply stuck on wanting one parent. 

If they feel that they are not understood, they will get louder and louder to make sure they are heard. Instead, by welcoming and acknowledging their feelings, you are making sure that they know they are heard. This can lessen meltdowns and big reactions. 

“I hear you want Mom to put you to bed. It’s my turn tonight. I can handle it if this feels tough for you.”

Step 2: Set the Boundary

It’s important to know that even when a child protests and asks for the same parent every night – it’s okay to say no.

In fact, it can be powerful for a child to know that you will hold your boundary, and put them to sleep even though they are asking for the other parent. It shows that your love doesn’t waver even when they are angry at you. It can help them feel safe, and rest in your boundaries. 

“Mom can’t put you to bed tonight. It is going to be me. I get that it’s tough. I know you love that time with Mom.”

Step 3: Collaborate

When your toddler prefers one parent at bedtime, it’s important to include your child in the problem-solving process. Get curious – why do they prefer this parent? Maybe they do something at bedtime that the child really enjoys, maybe they spend more time during the day with this parent, or maybe they need you to introduce something special into your routine.

To collaborate with your child you might say:  

“I hear you miss bedtime with Mom. You really like it when Mom puts you to bed. I wonder what it is that you like about Mom putting you to bed. Can you help me understand?”

Step 4: Add in Playfulness

Playfulness can help diffuse tantrums, take some of the pressure off the situation, and it can really relieve stress for both you and the child!

For example, if your toddler prefers their mom at bedtime, you can use silliness to diffuse the situation: 

“I get it. You only want Mommy. I love spending time with her, too. She’s soooo much fun. But can she do this?” (Make a silly face.) 

The non-preferred parent could try creating a special handshake or ritual to boost the playfulness in the routine. 

How Long Does Parental Preference Last?

When a parent is struggling to navigate parental preference, they often wonder: “Will it be like this forever?” 

This question makes sense. It can sometimes feel like the parental preference will never end. Although there is no exact age when kids will stop preferring one parent at bedtime, we can use our understanding of child development to gain some insight. From a developmental perspective, there are three factors to consider when answering this question.

Regulating Emotions

Parental preference, and the resulting tantrums, are common for children who haven’t developed skills for emotional regulation. The ability to self-regulate takes time, practice, and development. It’s typical to notice signs of self-regulation around the age of 5-7. This might look like:

  • Fewer tears when mom doesn’t sing the bedtime song the same way as dad.
  • Shorter tantrums when mom is away and dad does the bedtime routine.
  • Less protesting at bedtime when the preferred parent isn’t doing the routine.

Understanding Logic

Young children don’t have the ability to understand logic. When they’re upset because you don’t do Princess Belle’s voice the right way, and sing the wrong words to “You Are My Sunshine”, it won’t help to try and offer an explanation.  

Unhelpful statements: “I’m reading the exact same book that mommy reads to you… There’s no reason to be upset.”
Helpful statements: “Daddy isn’t reading the book the way you like it. I bet mommy does Princess Belle’s voice the way you like! Can you show me how she does it?!”

Unhelpful statements: “I don’t know all the verses to “You Are My Sunshine”, it’s been forever since I’ve sung the whole song, so how would I know all the words?”
Helpful statements: “You are upset because I don’t sing the song the same way mommy does. I get that. You love it when mommy sings.”

Tolerating Mixed Feelings

Kids don’t have the brain development to hold two feelings at one time. They have a one-track mind, which makes them “this or that” thinkers. 

Example 1: I’m either letting Dad put me to bed, or I’m not going to sleep.
Example 2: Either mom puts me to bed, or I won’t feel safe.

As children get older, around 5-7 years of age, they begin to tolerate inner conflict. They become “both-and” thinkers.

Example 1: I’m both upset that my dad can’t put me to bed, and understanding that my baby sister needs my mom right now.
Example 2: I can feel scared when mom is away, and safe when dad does the bedtime routine.

When children show signs of “both-and” thinking, you can anticipate less frequent and intense parental preference power struggles at bedtime. 

Helpful Reminders in Challenging Moments

It can feel like a personal attack, when a baby or toddler doesn’t prefer one parent at bedtime. It can also feel like this happened overnight, while also feeling like it will last forever. In these challenging moments, remember:

  • Your child preferring a different parent does not mean you are doing a bad job. It means your child feels safe enough to release their big feelings and express their desires to you.
  • This is not a personal attack against you.
  • This feeling your child has won’t last forever.
  • They are allowed to feel this way, AND you can still move forward with bedtime.

If you’re struggling at bedtime, we can help! Packed with easy-to-digest lessons and practical bedtime tools, our Solving Bedtime Battles course dives deep into parental preference, early morning wakings, night wakings, room sharing, nighttime fears, separation struggles, and soooo much more.

Grab the course today!

Key Takeaways

  • Parental preference at bedtime is common, especially during major transitions, and is not a reflection of a child’s love for one parent over the other.
  • The child’s preference can be influenced by factors like the way a certain parent does bedtime, the amount of time spent with each parent during the day, or the child seeking control.
  • It’s important for parents to acknowledge their child’s feelings and express understanding, even if they can’t accommodate the preference.
  • Setting boundaries, even when the child protests, can be powerful and help them feel safe.
  • Collaborating with your child and problem-solving together can help understand their preference and possibly introduce new elements to the routine.
  • Adding playfulness to the situation can help diffuse tantrums and relieve stress.
  • There’s no exact answer for how long parental preference will last, but as your child ages and show signs of “both-and” thinking, you can anticipate less frequent and intense parental preference power struggles at bedtime.
  • Remembering that this situation is not a personal attack and won’t last forever can help parents handle these challenging moments.

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    Article By

    Jess VanderWier
    Jess is a seasoned Registered Psychotherapist with a deep commitment to enhancing emotional well-being in children and families. Holding a Master's in Counselling Psychology, Jess has extensive clinical experience in guiding parents through their children's intense emotions, sleep struggles, anxiety, and other challenges with empathy and understanding. In addition to individual sessions, she is known for her work educating parents on social media through @nurturedfirst. Outside of her professional life, Jess enjoys the peace of nature hikes and spending as much time as possible enjoying her family.