It’s bedtime again…. By John Burton

In 1980, when I was working with some local authority children’s homes, the borough’s training officer handed me a scruffily typed and photocopied anonymous article called “Bedtime”. I was trying to get the staff to understand the importance of a bedtime routine and he thought this article might help me. I didn’t have to read for long to realise that this was my article, previously published in “Residential Social Work” in 1975. While I was a bit miffed that it had been copied and circulated without my name on it, I was pleased that at least it had been read and was being used.

One of the first of many lessons that I had to learn when I first started residential work in the 1960s was the importance of establishing benign and therapeutically “containing” routines, and to understand the difference between them and the imposition of regimes of mere control that are anything but therapeutic. In those days, residential staff really were resident, and although you might be kept awake at night sometimes, you were truly “sleeping in” and “on call” every night you were there. (Far from being paid for it, we even had to pay a small amount for our “bed and board”.)

Now, fifty or more years later, with much more learning from practice (and from mistakes) with many different homes for different ages of people, I am still trying to help residential teams to understand the importance of bedtime routines.

For a long time now, it has been common in children’s homes to have “waking night staff”, and for some of the residents to be awake and active during the night and very reluctant to get up in the morning. I know in some homes for older people with dementia, staff change into pynjamas and dressing gowns in order to give the message that it is time for sleep. And in one of the children’s homes that I currently work with, the staff have tried “sleeping in”, making it clear that they are preparing to stay overnight and will be getting up before the children in the morning. They reported that it conveyed a helpful message that their home was preparing for sleep, and some of the children liked the idea. Well, of course they did.

Having only “waking night staff” makes it much more difficult to establish the sort of peaceful and reassuring atmosphere that we all need for a good night’s sleep, whether we are wrestling with all sorts of fears and anxieties, and the traumas that many children bring with them into care, or we are just finding it difficult to sleep. The house itself needs to go to sleep with trusted grown-ups on hand to read stories, talk quietly, reassure . . .  going to bed, sleeping, and getting up the next morning to wake you for the day to come.

This, of course, takes us to the design of the rota and the need for staff to provide “bridges” from night to morning, and morning to coming back from school to the evening. These are the rhythms and routines of a therapeutic home.

(See Rhythms, Routines and Rituals, Chapter 6 in A Guide to Therapeutic Child Care, Ruth Emond, Laura Steckley and Autumn Roesch-Marsh, JKP 2016.)


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