You have a two year old…
“Let the (toddler bedtime) gamessssssss, BEGIN!”
You see your toddler yawn and rub her eyes. Glancing at the clock you realize bedtime is on its way.
You decide to get her to pick up her toys by “making it a game” like the last parenting blog you read had suggested, but it only results in you playing the “game” alone as she starts to dance around you.
After bath, she proceeds to run around naked while you desperately try to get her dressed. Finally catching her you get her PJs on in a manner that you imagine it would be like to dress a goat.
Next comes potty time. You’re getting more tired and it’s not even your bedtime, but she seems to have even more energy-how is that possible? But you see her rub her eyes again.
Bedtime snack follows. She complains about it and starts crying. And yawns again. You quickly get her another snack and then take her to her room.
There (and after finally getting her to stop jumping on the bed), you think your work is done. But you hear;
“One more story“
“I have to pee”
“Why is the sky blue?”
“I need a hug”
“I have to pee again”
After honouring all the requests, you leave the room.
Collapsing on the couch, you marvel at your child’s ability to stall. Putting your feet up, you turn on the TV and hear her door open. You meet her in the hallway and decide that it may be easier to just lie down with her.
“It’ll only be for a few minutes” you say to yourself, but aren’t able to leave until forty-five minutes later.
Did I just describe your nightly ritual?
Most of the parents I help experience some, if not all, of the previous scenario during bedtime. The good news is that this can be a thing of the past.
Change Your Frame of Mind
When I help parents, the first issue we work on, is mom and dad’s mindset.
They have been stuck in a cycle of doing all the work during their toddler’s bedtime and (understandably) truly believe their child needs 37 glasses of water and 24 songs, in order to fall asleep.
But there is a difference between a need and a want. The child doesn’t need the water, they want it.
Because the parent has (out of love and desperation) regularly been accommodating their wants, the child begins to expect it each night, and it quickly develops into what is called asleep association.
To be able to fall asleep independently though, without the sleep associations, parents must believe that their child is capable of learning this valuable skill. Before they can change their child’s habits, they must change their own.
The transition from constantly helping a baby, to, stepping back and allowing a toddler to be more independent, can be a little scary and let’s be honest; a little bittersweet. But the good news is that parents don’t have to do all the work anymore. Their child can start to take ownership of bedtime.
When mom and dad are able to trust in their child’s ability, we see amazing progress in a very short time. Children begin to feel their parents confidence. So set the bar higher and be amazed when they rise to the occasion!
If you find yourself worrying that your toddler can’t sleep without you, or without all the “stuff” you’ve been doing for her, ask yourself these two questions;
“Does my child behave differently for me than for other family members?”
“Does my child go to sleep easier for another caregiver such as a daycare worker, grandparent or relative?”
95% of the parents I work with say yes to one or both questions. Why is that? It’s not that your child likes them better, that they are more skilled or have a magical formula.
- your child feels the most safe with you (really, her tantrums are a compliment 😉 ),
- she knows what buttons to push (It’s not manipulation, it’s nature. Toddlers are hard-wired to test limits.) and
- your child is incredibly smart by this age and understands cause and effect
To begin, start working on your mindset when it comes to your child. Every time you catch yourself thinking “my child needs me to….”, reframe the sentence to “my child wants me to…”.
As simple as it sounds, by consciously thinking about the situation differently, your brain will begin to frame your thinking about bedtime differently. too. It will give you the clarity in the moment, stopping you from responding on autopilot.
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Next, make a list of all the things your toddler can do. If they can follow instructions through the day, list that off, if they can play independently, write that down. Whatever it is, even the smallest task, make a note of it.
Third, review it and see how those skills can transfer to bedtime.
Recognize that if your little one usually is able to get their shoes or jacket out when you ask, they will also be able to get their toothbrush out when you ask.
If they can choose a shirt in the morning, they can choose their PJs or a stuffed animal to sleep with at night.
Finally, pick one or two areas that your child can start doing and implement that each night. Not only will this give your child some ownership, but it will help you to see how quickly they can learn a new skill.
Understand, Acknowledge and Deal With Your Fear
“Wait, what?!? I’m tired, not scared.
Well, maybe I’m scared I’ll never sleep again…”
Ok, so hear me out.
Often we feel that there are many external reasons why our children aren’t sleeping well such as;
- Not enough outdoor time,
- Weren’t at daycare that day and aren’t tired out
- Were at daycare that day and are overstimulated
- Company stayed late,
- Another sibling/parent/friend revved them up.
The list goes on.
But as much as we want to blame external factors, most of the time, it’s because of us.
And I lovingly say this without judgement because I’ve gone down this road, too and speak from experience. But us parents are usually the main reason why bedtime spirals out of control. And the reasoning lies deeply-seated, almost unconsciously in fear.
The fear of the unknown, of our child’s outburst, of other parent’s judgement of us, of resistance, but most of all, fear that our children will stop loving us.
It can be hearbreaking to think we may do something to lose the love/bond/attachment that we have with our children and from that, stems the inability to set and enforce limits.
However, as crazy as it sounds, children feel MORE secure and MORE loved, when there are clearly defined limits. They feel confident in our abilities and that reduces their need to test them.
Think about this; who would you trust more to fly you through a storm? A pilot that was nervous, skittish, and indecisive or, one who was confident, had a concrete plan and was secure in their decisions?
Our children are the same way. If they see you as a nervous pilot, they are going to be nervous travelers who are going to question your every move.
Take some time to think about what is holding you back from enforcing limits around bedtime and through the night. Then find ways to deal with that fear.
If your child’s potential to tantrum is scaring you, then seek out and research parenting experts that can put your mind at ease. If you’re worried about others’ opinions of your parenting style, then this isn’t the time to post your intentions on social media.
If having no plan is scaring you, then let’s work together to create one that suits your family.
Whatever it is, consciously acknowledging and accepting what is preventing you from getting your child on a solid sleep routine is an important step towards seeing success. Don’t let fear stop you from what needs to be done.
Spend Quality Time Together
Sometimes parents find themselves feeling guilty at bedtime. It can stem from many areas, but a common one is when a new sibling enters the picture.
We can’t avoid it-newborns require a lot of attention. And it’s normal to worry that the older child may feel displaced, left out or ignored.
However, when parents allow guilt to dominate their decision making at bedtime, problems can emerge.
As the stalling begins or the requests are made, parents feel obliged to honour them which they hope shows their love. Unfortunately this leads to reinforcing the very patterns they are hoping to change.
To get out of this loop, first focus on spending quality time with your little one during the day. It doesn’t need to be long, just twenty minutes of dedicated one-on-one time can help strengthen your bond.
It also doesn’t need to be complex outings; just sitting together and reading a book, taking a walk, doing a puzzle, or playing with toys is enough to strengthen the bond between the two of you.
But quality time, means quality time.
Be present in the moment. Focus on them without any interruptions. Put away the electronics.
They are little people, but like us, they like to talk, share, complain to an active listener. They don’t always need you to solve their problems, but they do need to feel like they are being heard.
Second, when you are talking with your child, don’t shy away from discussing how having a new sibling makes them feel (or whatever the issue is). Listen and empathize. It’s normal for the older siblings to not love the changes, and like us, they want to feel validated.
If they say they hate having a new sibling, empathize; “Yes, having a new baby in the family is hard.”
Although our gut reaction is to try to convince them that they don’t really mean it, by empathizing, we allow space for their feelings and show them that we respect and honour what they’re going through.
Crystal Clear Expectations
Have you ever had a boss reprimand you for not doing your job properly, even though expectations were never clearly explained?
If so, then you can relate to how your toddler may feel about bedtime.
Many parents mistakenly assume that their child knows what is expected in the hour leading up to sleep. But you know what they say about assuming. 😉
Sometimes parents aren’t really sure either, and this is like a personal invitation for a power struggle to develop.
Toddlers can find our triggers quite easily, namely the “Big Three”;
- saying they are hungry/thirsty,
- needing the washroom and
- needing love (hugs, kisses).
Children can sense the indecision, and as soon as that door is cracked open, the pleading and negotiation begins.
So, what does your perfect bedtime routine look like? Does your child know this? Have you ever specifically told them what you expect? If not, now is the time to start.
Begin by having a short, positive, and encouraging conversation about sleep; why your child needs a good night’s sleep, why *you* do as well (it’s important for your child to understand that mommy and daddy need rest, too) and how each member of the family can help support each other in achieving this.
Clearly and with love, communicate your expectations around bedtime for your child so they always know what to expect. Ask for their suggestions too, which encourages and empowers them to take ownership of their sleep routine.
Talk about how bedtime should go and what each person’s job or responsibility is such as;
- Dad finishes up the cleaning the kitchen
- Mom starts the bath,
- Kids pick up four toys each and then brush their teeth
- Have bath and start wind down routine
- Read two books
- Cuddle for five minutes
- Parent leaves room by 7:00pm
Make this into a fun chart and post it where everyone can see and follow it.
Remember to only commit to what you feel comfortable doing though, because it’s vitally important that you are able to follow through.
If bedtime is 7:00pm but your toddler has taken fifteen minutes getting their PJs on and there is only time for one book, then one book it is.
Will there be protests? You bet.
But that’s normal, so take it in stride. Don’t take their protests personally or engage in a power struggle. Empathize, encourage them to move faster tomorrow, but don’t go back on your word. The more consistent you are in following the expectations, the more they will be too.
Watch the Clock
If you go back and read the opening scenario, you will see that as the night routine moves along, the child continues to shows sleep signs, but yet is hyper and energetic. This is a classic over-tired sign in toddlers and preschoolers.
When children become exhasuted, their body will begin to produce extra stimulant hormones to fight the fatigue. This is why in theory they should be tired according to the clock, yet are doing cartwheels and somersaults in their bedroom.
Avoid creating a sleep debt like the plague! Sleep debt/exhaustion/sleep deprivation; different terms to describe the same thing. Kids that are over-tired. You can read more about how over-tiredness impacts children here.
A bedtime that is too late.
Most two and three year olds, can only handle about four hours to four and a half hours of awake time after their nap has ended. Meaning a mid-day nap that ends between 2-3 pm, places bedtime by 7:30pm at the latest.
However for children who have been chronically over-tired, they may benefit from an evenearlier bedtime for awhile.
Moving bedtime earlier helps to capitalize on how the brain cycles through sleep. Since there are more deep NREM sleep cycles in the first part of the night (the kind the body needs to rid itself of the sleep debt), early bedtimes provide more opportunity for this restorative type of sleep.
Children whose bedtime is too late, lose out on the maximum amount of this deep sleep because the brain doesn’t replace it later on in their sleep cycle. Even if they sleep in (which is not common unless extremely sleep deprived), the quality of sleep is not the same.
You Can End the Toddler Bedtime Battles!
You really can. Don’t be scared of your child’s big emotions. Change your mindset, face your fears and put a plan into place that gives your toddler structure and limits. As crazy as it may sound at first, one of the most loving things you can do as a parent is to say “no”.
Sleep is essential for your child’s development (not to mention your sanity), and by allowing them to get to sleep more independently, you are taking care of their most basic and fundamental need. You got this!
Have a question about your toddler’s bedtime routine? Feel free to ask it during one of my FREE Q & A sessions on the Baby Sleep 101 Facebook Page, most Wednesday nights between 8-9pm CST.