Toddlers are notorious for finding ways to delay bedtime. Whether it be for one last hug, another pee or a drink of water. And if they aren’t delaying bedtime they could be putting up a fight when it is time for bed or coming out of bed numerous times when they should be concentrating on sleeping. All these things can make for extremely stressful bedtimes for parents.
I’m here to tell you though, that it doesn’t have to be this way. Toddlers love to try and assert their independence when they can, so this bedtime behavior is pretty normal, but it doesn’t mean parents need to give in to it. We still need to provide limits and boundaries so that we can reclaim bedtime and make it into a stress-free, calm and relaxing time.
Check the sleep schedule.
Sometimes bedtime battles happen when there is something in the sleep schedule that is off – especially if it is leading to overtiredness. This is especially so if the bedtime is too late. A too late bedtime leads to a higher state of neurological arousal which makes it more difficult for a toddler to fall asleep at night. Shifting to an earlier bedtime can help, not only to repay the sleep debt, but also to prevent a second wind happening each night.
If a toddler is at an age where he might be skipping naps – whether because he’s experiencing a nap strike or because he’s dropping the nap; it is always important to shift bedtimes to compensate. It is not unusual for parents to think that they should keep bedtime consistent every day, but I always suggest it be a moving target until a toddler has well and truly dropped to no naps (and even then you might move it early sometimes to compensate for an extra busy day or an unexpected late night).
Provide transition warnings.
Toddlers can find it difficult to transition from having fun playing or quality time with parents to getting ready for bed and the impending separation that comes with bedtime. Providing warnings means that a toddler is prepared for the change, instead of a sudden abrupt stopping of one activity into another. This will lessen the likelihood of battles and protests. You can provide warnings not just that you are about to do the bedtime routine but also during the routine (e.g. after this book it is bedtime and mommy and daddy leave).
Discuss sleep changes as a family.
When parents make a decision to address the bedtime battles it is important to do it as a family. By the time a toddler is 2.5, they are well and truly at an age to be part of the sleep changes. Having them understand your goals, what your going to do to make changes and why they are needed will help them become invested in the process. When a toddler understands and is invested then success is much more likely.
Sitting down with toddlers means discussing what has been happening and why changes need to be made, the importance of sleep, sleep goals, and the steps needed to make the changes. Decide together on the new sleep rules. Parents can have an idea on what the rules should be before sitting down with their toddler, but it is useful to give them a chance to suggest solutions – if they have any. Parents need only agree to the solutions they find workable.
Once parents decide on the rules, writing them down on a poster can be a powerful way to help a toddler remember. They can name and decorate it and make it their own. Once it is written down parents need to be firm and clear about the rules, because toddlers are smart and they’ll find loopholes or test the limits to see where the boundaries are.
Re-think the bedtime routine.
I always say that bedtime routines are wonderful! They act as a sleep cue, are wonderful for spending special time with and to just relax and wind down. But sometimes there can be things that happen in the bedtime routine that either make bedtime battles more likely or alternatively reduce them.
It is important to let toddlers make some decisions during the bedtime routine process but these need to be ones that are acceptable to a parent – like what pajamas they wear or whether they brush their teeth or hair first. But letting them choose to have 1 more book is not as acceptible because toddlers need to know where the limit is. If they can have one more book one night, they’ll potentially expect to ask for 2 or 3 more other nights.
If a toddler is the type to call parents back for numerous requests then having a warning close to the end of the bedtime routine can be useful. Let them know that it is there last time for a request, a drink or to go to the toilet and that any other requests will be ignored after that. And then parents need to remember to be consistent with ignoring the callbacks once they’ve left!
Provide going to sleep strategies to a struggling toddler.
Sometimes when a toddler has struggled with falling asleep for a while due to too late bedtimes or lengthy bedtime battles they can feel like they don’t know how to fall asleep quickly or independently. Parents may know that their toddler has had independent sleep skills in the past, (and that is a great thing because then they can have confidence that their toddler will get back there); but for toddlers, they don’t need parents to tell them that they are ok or they can do it. Instead, toddlers need their parents to show they understand, to validate their feelings, but also help them learn new strategies for handling bedtime. Parents can talk to their toddlers about what to do while they are in bed trying to fall asleep e.g. instead of getting up or calling out they can take deep breaths or wiggle their toes. In this way, parents are teaching their toddlers relaxation techniques that will help in the falling asleep process but also teaching appropriate behavior at bedtime.
Provide consequences, when appropriate.
It won’t always be appropriate, but consequences can be an important part of making sleep changes with toddlers. When parents have been very clear about rules regarding sleep – e.g. staying in bed all night or not calling out for ages at bedtime, then a consequence for not following them can be useful. There are however some stipulations I like to make regarding consequences. They should never be arbitrary (e.g. no Ipad because you got out of bed 10 times), but should instead be logical and impactful for a toddler. As an example, if a toddler is used to having their door open then shutting the door might be an appropriate consequence, Another example is, if they spent too long calling out or getting out of bed perhaps they are too tired for a planned activity the next day.
Parents can have consequences in the back of their mind but I suggest not advising a toddler about it in advance because then a toddler will likely misbehave just to check if that consequence does happen.