Parental preference (and the parent guilt often accompanying it) is super common!
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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 who has two parents who take turns putting them to bed. One parent does songs, snuggles, and books, and tucks them in. The other parent does the same thing, but maybe it feels just a little different. There was something they preferred about the way the first parent smelled, acted, or snuggled them. Now, their brain is stuck on how delightful it feels to have this parent put them to bed; they want this every single night.
So, when the other parent tells them to go to bed, they fight back. This is hard on the non-preferred parent. Now, it becomes a power struggle. 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.
How to Respond 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
It’s important to collaborate with your child and problem-solve together if they want the same parent every single night. 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!
“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.)
Helpful Reminders in Challenging Moments
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.
- 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.
- Remembering that this situation is not a personal attack and won’t last forever can help parents handle these challenging moments.