We have been helping a lot of parents with toddler sleep lately and one common thing that we are hearing is “my child used to be a fantastic sleeper and now, she is awake until 9:00 pm every night finding every excuse to not sleep! Bedtime has become a nightmare!” This right here is why toddler sleep is so much different than baby sleep. They are becoming vocal but can’t always fully express themselves but most of all, toddlers are all about control. They crave it and will look for opportunities to gain control at every turn. They are learning their world at a great speed and are testing the limits to see what your response is as well as what they can and can’t do. At bedtime, they are looking for engagement which can be difficult for some parents because you may not be sure how to respond to them! So, although it was hard to narrow down our list (because we have SO much advice to share!) here are our top tips for toddler sleep:
1. Set those limits and don’t waiver!
This is probably THE biggest key and it goes for all ages (even babies) but it is especially true for toddlers. They need to know what the expectations are. If you are giving them a different response every night, they genuinely don’t know what you would like them to do so they cannot do it! In order for your bedtime routine to be effective and not drag on for way too long, you need to set some limits during the routine as well. If they are resisting every aspect of your pre-sleep routine, you might use a timer or set a limit on what you are asking them to do. Ex: “We have already read 2 books, we can read more books tomorrow. Right now, it is time to have our cuddle.” Then you have to follow through and hold that limit!
That is for the routine, but what happens when they stall at bedtime and make 1,000 different requests? You also need to set boundaries there as well.
For example, if you let them have 5 glasses of water one night, 5 teddy bears the next, tell them they can’t have anything extra the next night and on the 4th night you give them 4 blankets because they keep asking for more, they will push the limits even harder because they do not believe that you will hold the limit that you have set. The end result: you have a toddler that stalls and fights bedtime night after night! Without the consistent follow through, you will have a harder time achieving success.
Setting limits is not easy because it does come with some upset but it is so important for children to have boundaries so that they can feel safe and secure in their world. You can help them through that upset, hear them but still stick to those limits and within days, you will notice a huge improvement when you stay consistent!
Note: You will want to ensure that you practice setting limits during the day as well so that they are not struck out of the blue when you set them at bedtime!
2. Don’t over engage
Along with testing limits, bedtime stalling and behaviour comes the potential for parents to over engage! I know, it is so hard not to because you just want them to go to sleep so badly that you feel that they need constant reminders or constant talking to. You really want to balance setting limits with being mindful of how much you are responding and engaging them. Remember, they are looking for a reaction from you, so the more you react, the more they try! As hard as it is, pick your battles and determine what is important for you to set limits on and what you can let go of because they are just doing it to get you to respond. We usually say, if they are hurting you, themselves or damaging items around them, that is when to step in but some of the other behaviours would be things that you could let go-depending on what they are.
3. How they fall asleep
You can still achieve some healthy sleep habits with some toddlers that need parental assistance to help them fall asleep or have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep when they need a parent to be with them to get to sleep in the first place.
If your child is waking multiple times at night or is still taking a long time to fall asleep with you in the room with them, it might be time to start thinking about working on independent sleep. This will give them the skill and the confidence to fall asleep faster at bedtime and to fall back asleep on their own if they wake at night. It can be stimulating to have someone with them or they may keep themselves awake anticipating your departure so sometimes needing you to be there as they fall asleep can keep them up longer! Not to mention that it can be stressful for parents to have to stay in the room with your child until they fall asleep when you know that you have a list of other things that need to be done. Sometimes they can feel your stress and that can keep them up longer as well. Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could get your evenings back?
4. Give them a heads up for transitions
They are enjoying themselves and often do not want to move to the next thing. Especially when it means bed! So when it is getting closer to bedtime, let them know it! In 3 minutes, it is bedtime. “We will go upstairs and start our routine.” You can do the same thing when they are in the bath, book time is coming to an end, etc. Think about how you feel sometimes when you are in the middle of something and someone asks you to stop. You would not be happy either if it was an abrupt end to your activity!
5. Routine charts
Routine charts can be a very powerful tool to help you set limits and to help your child understand what is coming next. Children are visual and need to see things paired with verbalizing. The routine chart can also be an interactive way to get them involved in bedtime. It does not have to be anything really pretty or involved, just some pictures that represent each part of the routine so that you can go through it with them. They can check off each part of the routine that they have accomplished or put a sticker beside it for added effect.
6. Connection time before bed
One thing that we are very big on is allowing your child to connect with you and talk with you before bed. Children have a lot going on in their day with frustrations and big feelings. At bedtime when they are in a quiet space, this is when they are processing all that happened during their day. They might want to talk more and we may see it as stalling but they just need to connect with us while being able to process.
Setting up a special time for them to sit and cuddle while talking about whatever they want to talk about can be so helpful for them to be able to shut down at bedtime but also for them to have that last emotional and physical connection with the ones they love before going to sleep on their own. With younger toddlers, you would likely be asking them a lot of questions during this time as their language might be limited. As they get older, the idea is to give them the floor. They have 10 minutes (or the number you choose) to talk about whatever they would like and you are only listening. Perhaps you can ask some questions to engage in their conversation but they are in control.
*This can also help with older toddlers or children to verbalize things that might be bothering them that they may not have mentioned when you asked them about their day earlier.
7. Consider daytime sleep
Although we really like to encourage and hang on to naps until closer to 3 years of age, there does come a time where too much day sleep with toddlers can contribute to bedtime battles. If you have already worked on and mastered the setting limits, your little one is able to fall asleep on their own and you have followed the other tips above and your tot is still up super late, it could be that they are getting too much day sleep which is keeping them up later at night. We prefer not to cut naps out altogether unless absolutely necessary but a great first step is to cut down the amount of day sleep. So if your 2.5 year old is having a 2 hour nap, you can cut it to 1.5 hours for a week or so and see if that helps and go from there.
We hope you found these top toddler tips for sleep to be helpful. Just remember: a big part of toddler sleep has to do with setting limits. A big part of setting limits is that you are following through and speaking with confidence. Our goal when working with families (especially with toddlers/preschoolers) is that we help you gain confidence in how and when you are setting those boundaries. Your child needs to believe you and if you don’t believe yourself, it is very difficult for them to trust the process. If you could use more guidance with setting limits confidently, check out our online Parenting Program here.
If you would like easier bedtimes and would like to set and stick to some limits but just don’t know where to start or would like someone to tell you exactly what to do step by step with daily support along the way, this is exactly what Pam and Elisa can help you with! Book a call now so that you can take control back and have an easier bedtime which would give you more time for yourself!