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How to Win the Toddler Bedtime Battle: Expert Tips for Parents

Written by: Aileen Dunbar, Pediatric Sleep Coach

If you have a toddler, I'm sure you are familiar with the following scenario. You have had a long day and are looking forward to getting your little one to sleep so you can have some downtime and watch your favourite show. You have done the steps of the routine with your toddler: had a snack, read books, put on pyjamas, and brushed their teeth. Then, just as you turn out the lights and tuck your child in bed, it begins, "Mama, I'm thirsty. Can I have a glass of water?" So you get them a glass of water, then tuck them back in. Then another request: "Mama, my pyjamas feel itchy. I want different ones". So you give them different pyjamas and settle them back in bed. Then, you are thinking this must be the last request. Then a little voice says, "Mama, I don't want this stuffy. I want my other stuffy." You feel your frustration rising. But don't worry, it doesn't have to be like this! I have some tips to help you make bedtime go more smoothly!

What are examples of toddler bedtime battles?

1) Lots of extra requests at bedtime, as shown in the introductory story

2) Continually coming out of their room after you have put them to bed

3) Crying and having tantrums when it is bedtime

4) Taking a long time to fall asleep (more than 30 minutes)

For each example, why are we seeing this, and what can we do to prevent it?

1) Lot of extra requests at bedtime

In this case, toddlers are testing limits to see what they can get away with. They must understand there are clear boundaries both during the day and at night and that we will stick to setting these limits, even if it involves some upset from them. Set expectations around bedtime by discussing them during the day. To involve your toddler in this, you could make a bedtime chart with everything they request. This chart should include all the elements of the routine and the order in which they will happen. You could post in their room with visuals and refer to it throughout the routine. Within this chart, make sure to include the things the child has been requesting (ex. glass of water, particular stuffy, back rub) so that you are showing them you will meet their needs as their caregiver and to avoid them making extra demands to delay bedtime. Furthermore, make it as specific as possible to avoid battles. For example, decide how many books you will read and stick to that each night. The child may protest and request extra things. You can support their emotions around it (Ex. I know you would like to read one more book, and I can see you are upset. We need to stick to the routine and can read more books tomorrow.") If they are used to you giving into their requests, it may be extra challenging the first few nights. If you are consistent with not giving in, they will learn to accept the new way of doing things over time.

2) Continually coming out of their room after you have put them to bed

This, again, relates to setting expectations around bedtime and sticking to them. It may help to also think of this from the child's perspective. Bedtime represents a long period of separation from their primary caregivers, so it makes sense that they would be seeking extra connection at this time and may protest this separation. So, there are two key ways to deal with this. The first one is similar to the solution for the extra requests challenge. It is essential to have a discussion during the day with your child about the expectations around bedtime. If you expect that once you have tucked them in, they stay in their room and go to sleep, you can reiterate this with them during the day. If they still leave their room at night, kindly walk them back to their room, remind them of the expectation, and support their emotions around it. The other strategy relates to the fact that bedtime represents a period of separation, as I mentioned earlier. To help with this challenge, you can focus on the next connection. Here are a few examples of how you can do this: you could give the child your shirt or another particular item of yours to keep until morning; tell them you will see them in your dreams and then talk about these dreams in the morning; create a little bag and tell them you will put paper hearts in the bag every time you check on them (you can fill the bag before you go to bed); take a photo of your child sleeping and show them in the morning to show you have checked in on them. All of these things should help reduce their anxiety as it keeps them feeling connected to you throughout the night.

3) Crying and having tantrums when it is bedtime

The reason why children cry and have tantrums at bedtime is similar to why they leave their room at night--bedtime represents a long period of separation. To avoid this, I recommend filling up their connection cup before the bedtime routine begins to prevent the meltdowns when you announce it is time for bed. One way to do this is to spend as much connected time as possible together after work and before bedtime. For example, focus on making a simple meal for dinner, and you could even involve your child in preparing it (e.g., mixing ingredients, using kid-safe knives to help you cut vegetables, helping you set the table). If you don't feel comfortable having them involved in the preparation, could you let them do another activity while you cook, such as painting, colouring, or reading a book? Involving them and spending as much connected time together also applies after dinner. Can you go to the park together, play a game, and involve them in the clean-up or preparation for the next day? Try to avoid using your cell phone so you are as focused on them as possible during these times.

4) Taking a long time to fall asleep

When it takes longer than about 30 minutes for your child to fall asleep once they are lying down, we may want to examine what is going on. One key reason is that they may need to be more tired. For example, if they are still napping at daycare, they may need to build more sleep pressure to fall asleep quickly. Here is an example of average wake windows for toddlers to give you an idea:

For example, if your 3-year-old is having a nap at daycare from 12- 2 p.m. and you are trying to get them to sleep at 7:30 p.m., they may not be tired enough to fall asleep quickly. I would recommend delaying bedtime until later to see if it helps. The other benefit of a later bedtime is having more time to be connected before bed. Another possible reason it takes them a long time to fall asleep is that they require more time outside and physical play throughout the day. If they are in daycare, they should ideally get time outdoors unless the weather is extreme. If they are at home with you, prioritize getting lots of time for free play indoors and outdoors. Based on different children's sensory needs, some toddlers may even seek physical play right before bedtime. For example, you could do pillow fights or playfighting with them, which provides proprioceptive input that is very calming for some children. Try this and see if it helps reduce the time it takes for them to fall asleep.

I hope this blog post provides you with some strategies you can try to prevent toddler bedtime battles! Book your free Discovery Call here if you are looking for more individualized support with this or any other challenge.

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May 14
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great article😊

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