It's the end of a long day and you have finally sat down to unwind after getting the kids to bed when suddenly you hear that familiar patter of little feet. Oh no, you know exactly where this is going… "Mommy, I can't sleep."
Your first thought probably is, "You've only been up there for 5 minutes, no one falls asleep that fast. I just got on the computer/started watching my shows/etc... PLEASE go to bed." But you know that kind of reason doesn't resonate with a toddler. It's time to go into bedtime combat role.
For many parents, getting their toddlers to sleep can be a challenge. And, yes, sleep can be a challenge well-before that age. But you are now dealing with a little person who isn't trapped in their crib and has more independence and mobility so they can practically get out of bed anytime they want. What is a parent to do?
If you are not interested in co-sleeping with your child and want them to stay in their own bed at night there are things you can do to encourage good sleep habits in your child.
There are a lot of articles on helping your toddler sleep (trust me, I've looked at a lot of them!) and almost all of them seem to agree on some very basic premises.
1. Establish a Routine
Routines are important because the child will come to expect certain things happen at certain times. A child knows that soon after waking up in the morning he/she will have breakfast, so why can't a nighttime routine work as well? Determine a time that you want the child in bed (I always thought of this as what time I wanted mommy/daddy time to start.) Then, work backwards from there. You cannot just announce from out of the blue, "Okay, go to bed," toddlers don't work like that.
Healthychildren.org recommends a routine they call the "4 B's of Bedtime" - Bathing, Brushing, Books, Bedtime. These are calming, soothing things that also establish routine. So, if you want Junior in bed at 8, plan on starting the "4 B's" about a half an hour beforehand.
2. Quiet Time Before Bed
Quiet time should not be watching TV or having interaction with electronic devices. This should be at time where your child can unwind from the day. This can be books, baths, songs or a back rub. Once again, this becomes part of your routine, so the child can learn to predict that soon after this time it is time to go to sleep.
3. Reassure and Support
Yes, it's probably scary for kids to be in the dark wondering where you are and if they don't feel safe, it's tough to fall asleep. But, eventually they will have to learn that this is just part of normal everyday life. Let the child know that they will be fine and that you will be close by. And, if part of that support is allowing them to have a toy or favorite thing to comfort them in bed, by all means, let them have it!
In this ParentSavvy article Dr. Greg Severson, from Methodist Physicians Clinic - HealthWest, offers "For a child to sleep through the night in his/her own bed, the child must learn to put himself/herself to sleep…and be confident the parents are close by if needed, even when the child cannot see them."
4. Be Consistent
Make sure bedtime is at the same time every night (or almost every night.) Again, this is part of the routine and it enables them to come to know what to expect every night. If bedtime is delayed, make sure to follow through with your normal routine in a bit more abbreviated manner.
5. Respond, but Don't Give In
If your child cries or calls out for you, give it a minute. Reassure them that they will be fine and that you are there and that it is time to sleep. Do not pick them up or give them an indication that they might be able to escape. Your calm voice and consistent message will eventually get through to them.
If you have a bed escaper, calmly lead the child back to bed and tell them to go to sleep.
It is important with this to remember to not lose your cool. Yes, you may be tired and cranky, you may feel like it's never going to end. But if you get angry or visibly annoyed or threaten punishment, the child will only become more agitated and have more difficulty falling asleep. Just keep thinking as you are going through the cries that everything takes time and the sooner you get through getting them to fall asleep, the sooner you will be able to relax and get some sleep too.
In another sleeping article Dr. Severson says, "The parent must be more stubborn than the child. With patience and time the problem will resolve."
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that children in the toddler age range (1-3 years old) should get 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. This article also provides sleep guidelines for children from infancy to teen years. And, reminds us that "sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development." We all know how as adults we feel and function without a good night’s sleep, kids are the same way.
The bottom line is, parents, don’t feel alone. We've all been through it in some form or another. Remember, some kids just seem to be better sleepers than others. That's okay. Keep in mind that your persistence and patience will pay off — someday sleep fights and sleepless nights will just be memory. (Oh, okay until you are up waiting for your teenager to come home, that is an entirely different article in itself!)
Other Great Resources
ParentSavvy: Helpful Tips for Sleep Habits
Psychology Today: Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep - Preparing Success
HealthyChildren.org: Help Toddlers Form Good Sleep Habits
ParentSavvy: Ask an Expert: Getting Toddler to Nap
American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child's Sleep by American Academy of Pediatrics
Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber
Sleep: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Dr. Rachel Y. Moon