Bridging to the next connection is an attachment-based strategy for separating from a child in a way that reduces anxiety and resistance, and respects a child’s developmental and emotional ability to separate. The concept of bridging to the next connection was developed by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Developmental Psychologist from British Columbia who co-authored the book “Hold Onto Your Kids”, and whose Neufeld Institute runs courses on understanding the emotional and attachment needs of children. Bridging is a strategy for separation that I have used as a parent, and have recommended at my workshops and private consults. It can be a tricky concept to get the hang of, and so I am describing it below so that parents who feel their child is ready for separation at bedtime have a developmentally-sensitive and attachment-oriented way to nudge their toddlers and preschoolers towards more independent sleep.
Bridging is a strategy that can pave the way for all sorts of separation situations including the separation to school, for a sleepover at grandma’s house, time with a co-parent, and even getting yourself out the door for much needed solo time. I’ll focus here specifically on using bridging as a strategy for solitary sleep in toddlers and older children but have included two children’s books in the resource list that address a broader idea of separation. Despite its usefulness in a number of scenarios, bridging is a particularly useful strategy for parents who are working towards leaving their child’s sleep space while their child is still awake, with the expectation that the child will stay in the bedroom and fall asleep on their own.
The premise of bridging to the next connection is that by focusing on being with, rather than leaving, you help your child relax because they trust you will return. The focus is on reconnecting, not on leaving. Children are more likely to fall asleep alone when they can relax in the knowledge that you will return before they need you. They will, in effect, not be chasing your attachment literally right out of the room when you get up to leave.
Although the concept works well in practice, it is somewhat difficult to explain and does require hitting a bit of a sweet spot in the yin and yang of meeting a child’s nighttime needs. So here are some ways to approach bridging, and ideas on how to implement it with your three year old or older child.
To pull off this bit of bedtime magic effectively, be in a place of surrendering to the present: you are in your child’s room, so bring your brain and future self back upstairs and be there with your child! I know this is easier said than done, but when your thoughts are on dishes or the email you need to return, or the thirty minutes you will relish when you finally can kick up your feet and watch TV, your child will know you are not fully in the room with them…And they may not relax enough to fall asleep.
When you are in the room at bedtime and are fully present and focused on being there, do not check your phone, or check the time. Fully suspend the thought around how soon you can leave! After finishing off any bedtime routine in ways that bring joy and calm to both of you, it is now time for you to leave. But the focus is on coming back. Yes. Just when you are feeling so close to escaping from the room after a very touched-out day, focus instead on when you will return. Tell your child you are going to step out of the room for one minute, and describe to your child what you will say when you come BACK (“I’ll come in to tell you I love you”) or what you will do (I'll tuck you in again, I’ll cuddle with you till you fall asleep). Tell them to listen for you to come back and that when you do you will be so glad to get one more hug before they fall asleep.....Then leave for as short as you need to (10 seconds? A minute? Five minutes if they -and you- are good at this) without her calling out for you. Return before she worries you aren't there. Then build from there.
What will you do while you’re gone? Go pee. Wash one dish. Tidy the bathroom counter. It’s likely worthwhile staying away from email (we know how time magically disappears when that happens!). Do anything that is short, is verifiable (they hear you), and is easy to end early (a good long pee aside). Then return before they call out! Return early as a way of shoring up their trust in you, and as reinforcing your promise to return. They may not be sure you will return initially, especially if bedtime separations have been rough in the past or they have never fallen asleep on their own. But build slowly (step into the hall to blow your nose every night if that will help) and over time you can grow their trust and help them relax in the knowledge you are coming back.
How does this actually look in practice? When our son was three and our second born was still an infant, we were desperate for a bit of separation from the bedtime routine of staying in his bed until he drifted off. I would like to say we wanted that time to relax together, but truth be told we were thrilled by the idea of cleaning the kitchen together which, I’ll point out, was actually a wonderful way for us to work together and connect at the end of the day. I had just completed Gordon Neufeld’s Making Sense of Preschoolers online course and the idea of bridging to the next connection made so much sense in terms of his development (separation anxiety was high!) and his needs (he had a great deal of difficulty falling asleep without us there).
We went through the regular routine and then I, not without trepidation, said “I’m popping out of the room for a glass of water. I’ll be right back”. And then I left. It was short, and I returned before he called out.
When I returned, I stayed with him as usual until he fell asleep. The next time, I left twice, and attempted to leave for more than a minute. It worked!
Until it didn’t. The third night I was over zealous perhaps, and thinking of what I could get done after I left. Or perhaps he just needed me more that night. Regardless, I was staying out of the room too long, and he was not relaxed enough to fall asleep, even coming out of the room before I got to the end of the hallway. And so, as we continued working on this separation gradually, we ebbed and flowed with the idea that some nights would be easy peasy, and on other nights his need for our presence would be high. When these higher-need nights happened, we suspended our expectations that this was a straight trajectory. Nothing in parenting seems to be, except the straight trajectory of our child following us out of their room when we want them to stay in bed!
I gradually, and with various excuses, left the room for progressively longer time. Within the first week, I was leaving the room for about 5 to 10 minutes at a time, and returning to a kiddo who was awake but calm, in bed, and happy to see me. I recall there being a joyful “you came back!” look on his face, happy that his faith in me returning was warranted. By about the fifth visit (and occasionally the eighth or ninth), he had drifted off to sleep, confident I would return as promised.
There were nights, in the coming weeks, that he called out soon after I left. There were other nights when I forgot to return, and he would call out wondering where I was. Yet more and more frequently, he would not call out at all, I would return once or twice, and be pleasantly surprised to find a peaceful sleeper with nary a peep of protest.
On the nights that he drifted off to sleep and I remembered an hour later that I hadn’t returned, I made sure to pop up and peak in on him, and to tell him in the morning how nice it was to come in and see him sleeping so soundly, and to whisper I love you. “Did you hear me in your dreams?”, I’d ask him? He never did, but I like to think that his knowing I came to check on him reaffirmed his feelings of safety and love we wanted to give him.
We have continued to use this approach for all of our kiddos, sometimes with great success, and other times not so much. When it hasn’t been working, it usually has been for one of two reasons:
We were already “out of the room” before we left, and our kids knew we were not present and focused on them.
Their needs were higher on a particular night (impending illness, a rough day, overtired, wound up) and we hadn’t adjusted our night time routine to accommodate that.
When it wasn’t working, we didn’t throw the idea out the window. We did our best not to become authoritarian and threaten separation (“You HAVE to stay in that room or I am not coming back!”) —that, if you didn’t notice, is about the polar opposite of what bridging is trying to do.
To this day, when the boys ask us to stay with them to fall asleep we know that for some reason they need us more that night, and we do it (mostly) with an open heart. But more nights than not we can check on them a few times after lights out and find that like candles burning themselves out, the boys quietly fall into a relaxed sleep at some point when we are not in the room; even when they are certain they are not the least bit tired and will still be awake when we come check on them.
And that, for us, is a parenting win.