“May we lie down in peace at night and rise up in the morning to life renewed.”
—From the Hashkeyvenu prayer

created at: 2013-09-30Going to bed can be one of the sweetest times of the day, but it can also wreak havoc and create stress. Most parents have experienced both—sometimes on the same night! Creating routines helps to create predictable behaviors and reactions. Brushing teeth, washing and cleaning up, changing into pajamas and reading a story helps kids to settle mentally and physically.

Bedtime rituals culled from Jewish tradition can help to soothe the child’s inner sense of being on a spiritual level. A ritual assists in moving spiritually from one place or status to another place or status. For example, a wedding allows for a couple to change their status from being engaged to married under a chuppah (canopy). A baby-naming ceremony provides the movement of the child into the greater community through the recognition of a name and in the presence of the community. A bedtime ritual has a similar effect. We pray to “lie down in peace and contentment and wake up to life renewed and refreshed.”

How does one then design the ritual? I divide bedtime rituals into three parts: Preparation, Action and Resolution.

PREPARATION: This is the moment when you shift from physical preparation to the spiritual and inner life of your child. In Hebrew, the same word for breathe—neshamah—is the word for one’s soul. So breathing helps get in touch with that inner part of ourselves. Taking deep breaths also helps one relax. Any or all of these breathing activities can help to engage and to calm.

  • It is sometimes fun to see if you can breathe in with your mouth and breathe out through your nose.
  • Make it a counting exercise: Count to five. Count five breaths in another language.
  • Put your hand on your belly and feel how your breath fills your body and makes it move up and down.

ACTION: “Words from the heart enter the heart,” so says the Talmud. When my middle son was 2, we would sing, “Happy Birthday” to every family member (in absentia) during this moment. I knew it was helping him see himself as part of a larger, loving family. With my other son, I found that praising one positive behavior he had done helped to remind both of us about good things that happened during the day. Finishing a sentence, offered potentially by both parent and child, helps to create awareness about feelings and the effect of actions on others. These are some examples of sentences to complete:

  • “I love when you…”
  • “I was surprised today when…”
  • “I didn’t know about…until today”
  • “I’m proud that I did…today”
  • “Tomorrow I’m going to…”

Notice how all of these are formatted in the positive. Opening up moments for positive reinforcement creates internal stability for children.

RESOLUTION: This brings it all together. The act of going to sleep can be a scary time. Kids are left alone in their bed, even if they share a room. Allowing them to close their eyes while you are still present in the room reminds them of your presence, even when they can’t see you. It is the moment to offer the Sh’ma (see prayer below). These moments convey to your child to make the final transition into sleep. And then in the softest whisper comes the words, “I love you.”

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ, יְיָ אֶחָד.

Sh’ma Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad!

Listen, Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!

It may not all work in perfect harmony every time, but don’t give up. Keep at it. I hope these moments create a special time for you and your child to share and to savor together.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher has served as a member of the clergy of Temple Israel since 1990. As part of her rabbinate, Rabbi Zecher oversees a program that has made Judaism accessible to members and unaffiliated families with children in the neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain, Back Bay and the South End.