Sleep is an ever-evolving thing when it comes to babies and toddlers. Just when we think we’ve got it all figured out then something else happens to put us off track. So many things can affect sleep at this age – developmental milestones, life changes, what happens day to day, that it can leave us scratching our kids sometimes. Toddlers can especially struggle with sleep because they have a much bigger concept of the fact that going to bed each night means separation from us for a very long time, which can cause issues either daily or just on particular days when they are feeling it more. So today I’m going to give some advice on how you can help a toddler who has separation issues at bedtime.
Why is separation such a big issue in toddlers?
Toddlers are beginning to find their sense of self. You probably notice their drive for separation and independence during the day – with their request for “me do it” or the constant “no” that gets thrown your way. But while they are learning to separate, they also learn that there are times when they want to be super close to us as well.
Why is separation at bedtime often the hardest?
Bedtime is the biggest separation of the day because they are on their own in their crib or bed for up to 12 hours on their own. That’s a big chunk of time for such a little person! Not only that, but at bedtime, they are very tired and because of that their emotional reserves are at the lowest, making it harder to cope with the separation coming their way, even if internally they know that you will be right there beside them in the morning.
Sleep can be affected day to day by life changes both big and small. If they have had a hard day, or something new and unexpected has happened, this can affect their ability to separate smoothly come bedtime.
What can you do to help?
Make time for special 1:1 time during the day to fill up your toddler’s attention bucket. I always suggest that this be child-led play. Do something that your child suggests doing and make it electronics-free time.
Have a calm, relaxing bedtime routine that involves lots of positive attention. This can include sitting together in quiet play, splashing in the bath, or reading books, and singing lullabies.
If you start to see some resistance and power struggles in the bedtime routine offer some choices. “Would you like your green pajamas or your read ones?” or “Which book shall we read tonight, “How to Catch a Star or Goodnight Little Monster?”.
If your toddler is upset because he needs you with him as he sleeps, it is okay to let him know that it can’t happen, but validate his feelings so that he knows you understand that need, even if you can’t fulfill it. Some toddlers will also be okay with having a special object that reminds them of their mom or dad – a special teddy, picture, or just some sweet kisses left on their cheeks.
If there is stalling behavior to keep you in the room, then this is where limit setting will be needed, but follow-through is important. If we spend a lot of the day negotiating with our toddlers instead of setting firm and fair limits, then we will often have lots of problems at bedtime. If you know what things they’ll use as stalling behavior, then you can definitely work that into the bedtime, or you can have the opportunity for one last request before you say good night and then ignore any subsequent ones.