Bedtime on the best of days can feel long and draining. You are at the end of your day and, while you love your children deeply, you cannot wait for them to get to sleep. So, there is nothing more satisfying them a smooth bedtime, ending in a kiss goodnight and silence.
But when your toddler now decides that bedtime is just not for him, what can you do to convince him that it most certainly is. The ideal scenario is that he agrees, and then bedtime goes back to normal. The end.
While I wish it were that easy. It certainly isn’t as hard as you may think. Our toddlers are growing into real people, learning how to use their voice, think about how they feel about certain things, and are much more aware of their surroundings. All it means now, is that you must reevaluate and rework bedtime habits and daily behaviour to meet their new needs and reinforce important boundaries.
For more, check out Three Common Reasons for Toddler Sleep Regressions
Establish a bedtime routine: A bedtime routine is one of the best ways to cue our child's mind and body that it’s time to sleep. If you don’t already have one in place, decide on the steps and stick with them every night. For example, bath, brush teeth, PJs, Storytime, cuddles and bed. The flow of these steps will be predictable for your child, which in turn is comforting and familiar, and will prevent push back. Doing this every night signals to your child that the routine does not change, and the assumed boundary will simply be understood. Even on the tougher days, keep with the rhythm, and you will see that your toddler will stop the fight when he’s reminded that the boundaries are set in stone.
Incorporate your toddler in bedtime steps and decisions: A way to give your toddler some of that control they are craving is to make bedtime a collective effort. You can create a bedtime routine chart with images, put it up in your child’s room, and let them guide you through the steps of the routine. You can also give them some decisions within the routine, but make sure the choices are simple, between A and B. If you ask them to pick their PJ’s, the choice may seem endless, and they’ll be heading to bed in last year’s Halloween costume if you let them. “Pick from the blue PJ’s or the red PJ’s” is less boundless, and reinforces expectations around bedtime (and really, anytime).
Address any changes in routine with time and extra support during wake hours: Is your child now attending daycare? Is a parent back at work? Is there a new sibling? Changes like these can feel really tough for your child. They may feel a separation anxiety from a parent who is not around as much or dividing attention between them and a new baby. The anxiety can often come up at bedtime in the way of refusal to sleep, when actually they are missing you and feeling anxious during this time of quiet.
The best way to address this is by providing that quality time with your toddler outside of bedtime and nighttime – at more appropriate wakeful hours. Carve out special time with your little one. It doesn’t need to be long, while I know how busy each day can get, and you don’t want to feel stressed or rushed when you are taking this time. It’s the quality of it that will make it meaningful. Take 15 minutes of time together to fill your toddler's bucket. It will likely fill yours as well. These transitions take time, so implement quality time, stick to routines and boundaries, and give it a few weeks to settle in.
Address any discomfort: Is your child having new fears at night? Is there noise or light coming into the room around bedtime hours? Make sure your child is comfortable in their space and that the environment is conducive to sleep. If fears are becoming an issue, make sure your child isn’t being exposed to fearful shows before bed. Try to get to the root of it by observing daily behaviour. If there has been a major change, the separation anxiety could be kicking in (see point above). Getting over fears can take time, and a comforting space, a comforting stuffy, routines, and meaningful/supportive time with you can make all the difference. While getting through this, try to avoid introducing sleep props to routines and bedtime. Taking your child into bed with you or lying with them to get to sleep, can create an even bigger problem than what you started with.
Keep it calm: Too much action in the evening can make your toddler way too stimulated by bedtime. Watching TV, playing very active games, and even having sugary snacks before bed can inhibit your child from settling down come 7-8pm. Keep it calm in the evenings with quiet activities. Even start dimming the lights an hour or so before getting to bed. This kicks in the production of melatonin (the sleepy hormone), which is triggered in response to darkness. This will help your child naturally get into sleep-mode.
Get to bed on time: Most likely, if bedtime is causing you problems, your child is ending up asleep later than you intended. This can lead to a cycle of overtiredness that is simply perpetuating the bedtime issue. Your child is overtired by bedtime and therefore more irritable and fussier. Start bedtime earlier, by at least a half hour. Implement your routines and stay firm with boundaries. The earlier timing will catch them before they are too overtired. Keep at it for a few weeks until they can settle better and then get back to your previous timing if it was between 7-8pm. If you are simply starting your bedtime too late, like 9pm or later, move it up. You might also be starting bedtime too early – push a little later, as your child may not be tired enough come bedtime.
Encourage independent sleep: Is your child getting to sleep on their own? You may be having trouble because your child can’t seem to get to sleep without you there. Work on your child’s independent sleep skills, so you can run through the bedtime routine, say goodnight, and send them off to dreamland. Sounds grand!
This stage is definitely on the rougher side. I've had four toddlers of my own and I see the power struggle in full view with all my toddler fams. Collaborating with a toddler has a special place in my heart. If you're in the thick of it and can't see the best way out, let's chat. Book a free chat with me, and we'll discuss what sleep looks like in your home and how I can help make it great!
Want more on Toddler? Check out Three Common Reasons for Toddler Sleep Regressions