As your baby transitions into being a toddler and beyond life get more comfortable and more difficult in equal measures. Toddlers can walk, run, shout, scream, turn their bodies fluid-like and then stiff as a board in defiance of the most innocent requests. They can plead, yell and fight when it’s time to say goodnight and go to bed.
There are some reasons why your toddler may start to refuse to go to bed and different solutions you can put into place. It might take some weeks to get bedtimes on track, but stay consistent, stay strong and know that even on the most challenging nights, sleep is an essential and vital part of your child’s life.
Bedtime Battles – Procrastination and Tantrums
One more kiss, another cuddle, I need a drink, I’m hungry, I’m scared, just one more story, please…
As parents, we’ve heard every excuse under the sun when it’s time for your little one to go to bed. After a long day at work, making the family dinner, bringing the washing in and getting everything organized for the next day the last thing you have the energy for is a bedtime battle.
Then when you get your child into bed, they keep popping back out and asking or ‘needing’ something else. Your patience begins to run thin, and it’s easy for frustration and even anger to settle in. Unfortunately, your anger and frustration can only make things worse.
Worse than procrastination is a fully fledged tantrum. It is when your toddler/child is actively fighting and resisting going to bed. It can create a stressful environment for the whole family. It’s exhausting and upsetting for everyone concerned.
There are many different reasons and explanations for your child’s bedtime refusal and many great strategies that you can quickly implement to make bedtime a calm, happy and comfortable time.
10 Ways to Solve Bedtime Battles
1. The 4 M’s of Marvelous Sleep
What tasks does your child need to complete before heading to bed? These are their bedtime manners. Have a chit-chat with your child during the day and work out what we need to do before and explain why (for younger children you can pre-prepare the poster and let them decorate while you tell the steps).
We need to put on our pajamas after our bath, so we are nice and clean when we go to bed. Also, we need to brush our teeth to clean them and keep them healthy. We say goodnight to our family because we love them. Then, we hop into bed, close our eyes ready for asleep. We need to sleep so that our bodies can grow and learn about all the wonders we things we did that day.
It’s essential never to tell a child they have to go to sleep or put on their poster ‘Go To Sleep. It can be a tough concept and can create some anxiety for the child if they are worried that they can’t go to sleep. It’s simple enough to say get into bed and close your eyes. Visual schedules are great for helping your child feel calm and in control of the situation.
Practise makes perfect, and it’s the same with bedtime. During the day role play games with your child and their favorite toy. Get your child to act out being the parent and put their toy to bed.
They can go through your routine with their toy: putting on PJs, brushing teeth, reading a book, and kisses and cuddles before putting their toy in bed to sleep. It is a great way to help your child understand what will happen at bedtime and why they need to go through each of the tasks.
You can also role play where you are the child your child plays the parent – this is a beautiful way to create empathy and understanding of what is happening at bedtime.
There are times that we need little help in the motivation area. Even as adults we may need help and rewards to keep on track and target. It’s the same for kids; they loved to be praised and rewarded for their behavior.
Create a sticker chart for your child’s bedtime and be sure to be enthusiastic each time your child receives a sticker. They can get one for putting on their pajamas, brushing their teeth, giving a kiss and cuddle goodnight and lying in bed.
When they reach a certain amount of these stickers, they get a reward. This reward might be an extra play date, pancakes for breakfast, a special mommy and son date, ice-cream before dinner, anything that they will like and be a special treat.
With rewards charts, it can be tempting to use them as bribery, “If you get into bed mommy will give you a sticker.” It’s important to try and not use it in this way as this can negatively impact the positive connections of the rewards poster.
You should also never take stickers away. Once earned, they always have it. If you start to take it away the rewards chart becomes a very negative experience.
Moving Back to Bed
Once you have created your bedtime manners poster, a role played bedtime, given stickers for tasks completed and your child is in bed, the procrastination might begin. They might try to keep popping out of bed. Every time they get out of bed you silently move them back to bed. It’s essential that you don’t say anything, this way you’re not giving your child any attention in this matter.
Children love to receive attention, and it doesn’t matter if it is positive or negative. Don’t reward your child for getting out of bed by giving them attention. Silently moving your child back to bed is also a great way to help keep your own emotions in check as well. When you are constantly repeating yourself it easy to get upset and angry, be prepared the first night you move them back to bed, it may take an hour or longer.
Each night this process should get shorter and shorter. Be sure not to give in and let them sleep on the couch or in bed with you otherwise all your hard work will be undone. They will know you’re not that serious and it will be even harder to start again. Stay consistent and firm, a little bit of hard work for a few nights is going to help in the long run.
The 4 M’s are a great way to help get your child used to going to bed again and help to make the process something fun and enjoyable again. Using the 4 M’s is also an excellent way to spend some good times with your children around the idea of bedtime, which is a great way to ease some of the tension that may have been building.
Spending quality time with your kids during the day even if it’s only ten minutes can vastly improve their connection with you and help to soften the upset that may have been occurring between you both at bedtime.
2. Bedtime Routine
A stable, predictable and consistent bedtime routine is your best defense against bedtime battles. Although your habit will change slightly as the years roll by, consistency is vital in all aspects of parenting.
It comes with the feeling of safety, and knowing what to expect helps your child cope with a world that is always changing. Too much change and no consistency can lead to your child feeling overwhelmed, overstimulated and consequently feel the need to release anger out as they don’t know how to deal with the raft of emotions they are feeling.
It’s never too late to start a good bedtime routine. If you’re going to begin a new bedtime routine and you have an older toddler ask them what should happen in their bedtime routine. Give them some control and choices over their habit. With consistency over a few weeks, your child will grow to love their new practice.
Bedtime routines can include reading books, singing a song, have a little chat about the day, giving cuddles and kisses, play the ‘I Am’ game. Anything special to you and your child put your chosen routine on your bedtime manners posters and reward your child with stickers for doing a great job with their bedtime.
3. Daytime Routines and Sleep Needs
Always check what is going on during the day for your child. Daytime activities and naps can affect bedtime and your child ability to go willingly to bed. Have a look at their sleep needs, are they getting too much sleep during the day.
For example if your 3-year-old is having a 2 or 3 hours nap during the day, and then you’re trying to get them to go to bed at 7 pm (which is an age-appropriate bedtime) and expecting them to stay in bed till 7 am, that is a total 14-15 hours sleep a day which is too much sleep for a three year old. They may genuinely not be tired at bedtime.
The same can goes with dropping that last nap too soon, and if your child feels overtired from not getting enough sleep during the day, this can again make bedtime an issue. What happens when your child is overtired is their bodies release extra cortisol the stress hormone and adrenaline.
Even though they may seem very awake, they are super tired.
Check your child’s routine and make sure it is still appropriate for their age. Make sure you get your child out in the sunlight in the afternoon. Having a good run around expels excess energy and is a positive way to influence a great bedtime.
Also, sunlight has a positive effect on the brain, mood, and sleep. Sunlight increases the release of serotonin which helps your child be in a better mood. It also helps your child to feel calm and focused.
Serotonin is also a precursor to the production of melatonin which is a sleep hormone that is stimulated by darkness. Get your child outside in the afternoon to enjoy that sunlight so they can enjoy the dark at bedtime too.
Being active is an excellent way to get a little quality time with your child, go and kick a ball for 15 mins or play the game Follow the Leader, or have an afternoon snack and chat outside.
4. Food Glorious Food
Look at your toddler’s diet during the day. Toddler and small children can be notoriously picky eaters. It is useful to give them food that helps sleep and foods high in tryptophan such as eggs, dairy, chicken, fish, lamb, beef, nuts, seeds, oats, and lentils.
Mix these moods with carbohydrates to give the best effects for sleep. Include protein at every meal and give low GI carbohydrates to keep blood sugar stables during the night. Seek out a child nutritionist if you think your child picky eating could be contributing to bad sleeping.
5. Meeting Your Toddlers Need – Choice Theory
There is a beautiful concept called Choice Theory by William Glasser. If you are a teacher, you will probably have studied this at university. In a nutshell, Choice Theory is that for people including children to behave they need to have their basic needs met. These needs are Safety & Security, Connection & Belonging and Freedom and Autonomy. Your toddler is no different; they have these needs as well and can be demanding about them.
Our brains always want to feel safe first and foremost and I’m not just talking about danger or getting hurt. Safety can mean reliability and understanding as well. It is why children love routine, structure, and procedures.
It helps them to feel safe, and they understand immediately what is going on and what to expect. When children feel safe, comfortable, and in control their brain is free to act on a higher level.
As humans, we are naturally friendly, and we need connection with others. It is the same for you and your child. Sometimes bedtime can become a battleground because your child is craving connection and experience with you.
Life gets busy with work, housework, children, running errands, cooking, washing, the list is endless. Sometimes we can easily neglect to spend quality time with our children, not through design but though busyness and exhaustion.
Even just 10 mins a day one on one times can make a difference at bedtime. You can incorporate this particular time as part of your bedtime routine or any time during the day. You can even set a time and a timer for your time together. It doesn’t have to be any big activity, just 10 mins of total time focused on your child.
Toddlers want to show their insistence for freedom, choice, and doing things on their own. They can become very independent and very demanding little creatures much to our frustration. It’s important that as parents we find a place where they can have the freedom to choose and decide for themselves.
They might choose what clothes they want to wear, what pajamas to wear to bed, what snack to have in the afternoon, where to sit for dinner, what toy they would like to play with, you can let them put their toothpaste on their toothbrush.
Even if it takes longer, is messier and possibly a bit annoying – aim to make them have more choices around the house. If your toddlers feel like they have some control and options in their life, they will feel happier and less prone to fighting you all the time.
6. Don’t Use Sleep as a Punishment
Have you heard yourself utter the words “If you don’t clean this up right now you’ll have to go straight to bed!” or “If you don’t stop hitting your brother you’ll go to bed right now!”
I’m sure we’ll all guilty of having said these statements, or heard them, and remember them from our parents. But making the bed and sleep a form of punishment or a consequence can cause bedtime problems. If bedtime and going to sleep is negative experience anxiety can built, and it can become confusing and unpleasant for your child to go to bed.
Use other methods to help your child with boundaries such as time-out, the naughty step/corner and taking the time to get down on their eye level and speak firmly and calming about the behavior you would like to stop.
7. The Magic of Pop In’s
Once you have your toddler in bed, the procrastination can start. They need a glass of water, another kiss or cuddle, or they want just one more story. You know the drill. Pop In’s are a great way to deal with a toddler who keeps ‘needing’ to get out of bed for one reason or another. It is also an excellent strategy for a child who doesn’t want you to leave the room.
Put your child to bed, read them a story have a kiss and a cuddle. Then if they don’t want you to leave you can say something like, “I’m just going to check that daddy has done washing up, then I’ll be back to check on you.”
In a minute or two, return into the room and check on them. Then say, “I need to put some washing on otherwise we won’t have clothes for tomorrow. I’ll be back in a few minutes. You close your eyes so I can put a sticker on your chart.” Then go out and wait for a few extra minutes.
You keep finding excuses to leave the room and make sure the time before returning becomes longer and longer. The hope is that your child will fall asleep during one of these periods when they are waiting for you to come back. Make sure you give them a lot of praise, stickers, and rewards the next day for going to bed so well.
8. The Sleep Fairy
Sleep Fairy is one of the favorite stay-in-bed strategies of mine, and I love to use it with children. Let your child know that if they stay in bed all night the sleep fairy will visit them. But they have to be in bed all night, or the sleep fairy won’t check on them.
Before you go to bed, sprinkle their bed with some glitter so that when they wake up in the morning, they see all the glitter. You can also write a letter to the sleep fairy before bed and leave out a little treat.
The next morning the ‘sleep fairy’ has left a return letter and perhaps a little surprise for your child for staying in bed all night. You can have a lot of fun with this and your child.
9. Monsters and Things that Go Bump in the Night
Sometimes our children can genuinely be afraid to go to sleep or be scared of the dark. Talk to your child about what is scaring them and try your best to alleviate their fears. It might take a few nights of chatting through about it. Try to dismiss what’s scaring them as silly, but listen and offer solutions or suggestions. The Pop In strategy is a great tactic to use with bedtime fears.
Having a small night light can help if your child do not like the dark. Work out with your child what it is in their room that scares them and then gets rid of it. Is it a toy that looks scary when the light is off, do the shadows fall funnily.
Spend some time rearranging the room to alleviate the fears of your child. White noise and lullabies can help to mask scary sounds during the night.
10. The Late Bedtime
Using this technique will be my last resort. If after trying everything above and using multiple strategies you are still finding that bedtime is stressful and exhausting for everyone, give this one a go.
Take a few nights and assess what time your child is falling asleep. Maybe it’s at 10 pm. Then the next day their new bedtime is 10 pm, but only for a while. Then play games, do some drawing, anything except watching TV until 9:30ish and then get them ready for bed using your 4 M’s. The idea is that bedtime drama decreases at this time of night.
Go through the bedtime routine that you have set up. Then every three nights bring bedtime forward by 15 minutes until they are going to bed at a much more age appropriate time.
Continue with your bedtime manners poster and rewards chart but you must make sure that you keep their wake up time at 7 am. There is no sleeping in with this strategy. If you let them sleep in, they will prefer a later bedtime and later wake- up time. They might be a bit grumpy for a few days, but it’s a great way to try and avoid bedtime dramas.