You want some sleep. Just a little. More than 3 hours at a clip. Or maybe you’re dreaming of 30min or an hour of time to yourself at night after the kids go to sleep. Ok, maybe “dreaming” is the wrong word. It implies that you’re sleeping..
I completely understand. I’m writing this post on my cell phone while I lay next to my napping toddler. We’re visiting family, and while he definitely does not need anyone to sleep next to him to nap, I know if I stay here he’ll sleep longer. A longer nap = higher likelihood of a more enjoyable afternoon together. Which brings us to tip #1:
You can read all the books and watch all the YouTube videos, but toddler sleep is a little different than infant sleep. And while I’ll discuss infant tips in a different post, older children (aged 15-36 months) don’t have the same supports that can help an infant settle. Bottles and pacifiers should be gone and breast fed babies are in the process of being weaned. As the get closer to 3 and older they’re too big to rock in a rocking chair. They go to sleep later. Their books take longer to read. These children went through a lot of different patterns during their first 12 months, which should prepare you for MORE change through early preschool years. The more you can look at your child’s bedtime need objectivity, the better you’ll see the pattern. Do you remember the 3D image posters from the 90s?
The trick was to bring it so close to your face that it was blurry, and then pull it away slowly until the image became clear. The further away you went, the more clear the hidden image became. This is your life with toddler sleep trouble. You are soooo close to the image that it’s completely blurry. You are not a terrible parent AND your child is not trying to defy you. Step away slowly to see the whole picture. Be prepared to do things people haven’t said you should do, be open to trying things you said you’d never do, etc etc. Before you can solve this problem with your child, you have to let go of other people’s agendas. Which brings me to tip #2:
Discipline Before Tucking In
If you’re beyond frustrated with ANYTHING related to parenting your child, please allow yourself to have this feeling and push past it. Carrying that edge into a bedtime routine will guarantee failure from the start. Even now my older son will get up after being put to bed or will wake up extra early if I’ve acted annoyed or frustrated during our bedtime routine. So who have I helped? My child knows he’s supposed to do XYZ in the evening and he obviously knows he hasn’t met my expectations that day. Instead of dealing with it either after dinner or at bathtime “hey, this isn’t right, don’t do that again” or “you’re in trouble for doing xyz here’s how we will fix this problem”, I keep it bottled up then tuck him in without a lot of patience or tenderness. Now I’ve set him up for restlessness, which only robs ME of my time! This applies to working Moms and SAHM’s, because whether you’ve been with a child who’s been pushing boundaries all day or you’ve picked up a child (after a long day at work) and the report you get is they had a “bad” day, your reactions by 7pm are going to be the same. 🤯🤬😡😭
Get to their eye level before getting to their bedroom and share your frustration without shaming them for their behavior. Literature supports collaborative problem solving and simple boundaries over generalized statements and negative feedback. Its the same between parents and toddlers as it is between a boss and their employees. Here’s a recent example; “I’m so frustrated. You can’t make fart noises + jump backwards off the couch while the insurance lady is talking to me. That was rude. If something is wrong you have to tell me. You cannot interrupt adults while they’re talking”. I did not say “You are rude”, I said the behavior was rude. I didn’t say “You were acting crazy” (though I wanted to) because that’s name calling, it’s not constructive. I’ve worked very hard to remind myself a young child’s behavior is their first language, and when they struggle it’s the only language they know. Like in tip #1, be objective and don’t take their behavior personally. At this age it almost never has to do with you, and everything to do with their needs and their emotions. If you can correct/redirect/discipline/coach your child before it’s time to pull up the covers, you will both reap the benefits.
Rock Solid Routine
I understand I told you to be flexible upfront. This flexibility does not extend to your child (sorry). A lot of bedtime resistance comes from a toddler’s trouble with transitions. Heck, some adults have trouble with this, but for those with only 1 or 2 birthdays under their belts it means gently proving play time is over through your actions. ACTIONS. Not words. Saying it’s bedtime will not be enough. Thus, The Bedtime Routine. It should include 3-5 steps in a 30/45min window. Whenever possible keep these steps consistent across caregivers and be ready to rearrange or replace a step that isn’t working for either you or the child. Essentially this includes washing up, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, reading a book, and a short cuddle. I figure washing up/going to the bathroom/brushing teeth are one “step” and putting on PJs/changing a diaper/pull-up are another “step”. Once diapers and pull ups are done you’ll want to have the child use the toilet before washing up and one more time before reading books because who wants an accident? The idea is to group activities together in each space they occur. Don’t wash up, go into the room for books, come back to brush teeth, etc. Moving through the home to end at books and bedtime mean less opportunity for distraction and keeps the amount of time spent on the whole routine to a minimum without feeling rushed.
I’d like to mention security items here, because I think they’re misunderstood. We’re told to wean our babies from certain infant sleep supports, like bottles and pacifiers and eventually the evening nursing, but there isn’t enough said on what you can replace these pieces with! I sometimes feel like families will hold onto unhelpful and even unhealthy sleep habits because they don’t want to deprive their child of the security these crutches provide. Don’t guilt yourself into this. One important item you can choose for your child and offer at every nap and every bedtime is a security item. These go by many names, and often you can look back into your childhood and identify yours. (I had Mr. Ted) A few toddlers will gravitate towards a certain doll or blanket but I took the kind advice of those who have gone before me and chose the item for them. Enter Angel Dear, the company that created “A Pair and A Spare”.
I’m a fan because they’re a reasonable size and I can wash them ad nauseam. Pro tip: pick a grey or brown style. I’ve seen pastel lovies look super gnarly with a few months of use. Our older son has had his for over 5 years (brown owls) and they look great. Whatever you or your toddler chooses, keep it in the crib/bed every night and let your child know the _____ is there to keep them safe and help them sleep.
You will see there isn’t any mention of TV or shows here. It’s not uncommon for families to have even small children (15-18months) sit and watch a show after they’ve washed up. Medically, this is a mistake. Blue light waves emitted from most devices (TVs, tablets, phones) suppresses natural melatonin release. Basically a show before bed will act as a stimulant, delaying the onset of natural sleep by inhibiting our number one sleep inducing hormone! Move screen time to a different part of the day. I highly recommend the part of your day where you’re trying to make food and can’t watch them at the same time. Shows should really have no part of bedtime, for all the science-y and practical problems it causes. If they’re leaving their room to watch something you’ve distrusted the flow of the routine. And if they’re watching a show IN their room? Ugh. It’s setting them up for a bad habit. As you’ll see in tip #4…
They Can Only Fall Back to Sleep the Way They Fell Asleep
If you take away nothing else from this post, let it be this! You’ve washed up, brushed teeth, got the water bottle, got the lovey/blankie/bear, read the books, turned on white noise, shut off the light. WHEW. We’re almost there!! Almost. Some children are done at this point, meaning you can give them a kiss and walk out of the room. Most need a little more reassurance and attention, esp if you’ve just recently stopped being able to rock them. Now you’re sitting at the edge of the toddler bed or, if the child is still in a crib, you’re sitting in the room near them. Maybe you sing or talk quietly for a few minutes. That’s fine. Then stand up and say good night. Please do not stay in the room until the child falls asleep.
Please do not stay in the room until the child falls asleep.
No no no. Nope. Don’t do it. Yes, for some this means they’ll start crying. Or maybe they’ll come out looking for you if they’re in a toddler bed. That’s ok, it’s a short season of learning to self-soothe if you can stick to this boundary. After a few minutes of crying (or 30sec. Just not more than 5min) go in and reassure. Wipe their eyes. Fix the blanket. Whatever it is, but do your best not to make eye contact or actually say anything. And for the love of all good things, do not pick them up. The goal here is to provide them with the security of your presence (meaning: we don’t ignore a crying child), but that there isn’t a reward for the crying, which is removal from bed. Do this on a weekend when you don’t have to work the next day, because you may have to go into the room to reassure many times an hour for a few hours if they’re unused to this routine. That’s ok! It will improve over a few nights.
A child learns to fall asleep like any other skill. Eating, walking, talking. It is up to us to provide support and love while encouraging them to do the skill ON THEIR OWN. Here is why: if a child cannot fall asleep on their own, then there is no way for them to fall back to sleep on their own when they wake a night. It would be unfair of you to even suggest they could. They haven’t learned how. Imagine if you and your husband went to sleep together, but something woke you in the middle of the night and when you roll over he isn’t there. What would you do? Most likely you’d get up and look for him! Or check your phone 😉 then maybe go look. Either way it would be hard to go back to sleep until you knew where he was. It’s no different for your child. If you’re with them when they fall asleep, can you imagine the panic they must feel when they wake up and you’re not there? No thanks. There’s a better way. This applies even if you room share or co-sleep. Give them the skills they need to rest comfortably, even in your absence.
These tips only brush the surface!