End toddler bedtime struggles: Tips from Chicago-area pediatrician

BEDTIME –This one word can cause much stress and frustration for so many parents of toddlers. We might expect our young whirlwinds to be exhausted at the end of the day and to easily and willingly drift off to a blissful night’s sleep. Unfortunately, children often have difficulty getting to sleep but there are a few tricks to helping the process along.

The Secret of Structure

Anyone who has parented toddlers knows that they are smart and determined to do things their own way. Their desire to be independent combined with greater physical and verbal skills makes parenting them a challenge. But developmentally, as whimsical as they may appear, toddlers actually thrive in and even crave a structured environment. They love the security of knowing what to expect.

If you visit a preschool you generally see the daily structure and routine well at work: arts and crafts followed by clean-up, then snack, then story-time, etc. The children mostly follow the teacher’s rules and regimen without much fuss.

For bedtime, parents can use this idea of structured routine to create a safe and warm environment for getting a child to sleep. I advise parents to set aside about 20 minutes for the bedtime routine and stick to the same order each night! Most parents will do some combination of toothbrushing, toileting/diapering and storytelling/singing. I strongly advise against two things just before bed. First, screen time (TV or computer) is known to stimulate our brains. This is counterproductive when we are trying to wind our children down. Second, food and drink should not be part of the bedtime routine. A hug and kiss goodnight should end the routine, with the parents leaving the child to fall asleep on his own.

The Skill to Self-Soothe

Of course, reality is often different than the ideal and toddlers often refuse to fall asleep without a struggle. There are several reasons for this problem, but the most common cause is that the toddler has been “trained” to fall asleep with the parent present. These children have never learned how to soothe themselves to sleep, and usually the parent must be either in the same room or more likely, on the bed next to the child in order for them fall asleep.

Teaching a toddler to fall asleep on his/her own is not easy. As mentioned earlier, toddlers like their routines, and making a change will likely cause some distress. I suggest gradual changes. If you are used to lying with your child at bedtime, then make a change to sitting on the end of the bed. If you are sitting on the end of the bed, then make a change to sitting in a chair next to the bed. If you are sitting in a chair next to the bed, then make a change by moving the chair away from the bed. At some point, move to the door, and then sit just outside the door, etc. Having a discussion with your child about what is going to happen is fine, but have the talk during the day, not right at bedtime. Most toddlers won’t really understand and, for some, discussing it with them will cause more distress.

The Emotional Tug of a Crying Child

Resisting a crying child is truly difficult for any parent. Try, however, to remember the crying is not due to pain, suffering or hunger. It is a tired child who wants to go to sleep. For perspective, I remind parents of a common scenario. While standing in line at the grocery store checkout, the toddler who is used to getting candy will cry if it is not given to her. The parent, who wants to quiet the child, gives in and buys the candy, thus teaching the child that crying gets them the candy. The toddler who is never given candy may ask for it and may even cry, but will quiet down quickly knowing that crying longer or louder will not work. Bedtime is similar. Relenting and staying with your child until they fall asleep sets a similar expectation.

The Curtain Call Kid

What about the child who goes to bed alone, but then emerges from their room 15 minutes or so later to find the parent, ask for a drink of water, or request help using the toilet? Like the cast of actors in a play, they appear over and over after the production is over. This child should immediately be taken back to the bed and the parent should leave the room quickly without much conversation. In the future, the child should be told that after the lights are out there will be no more drinks or toileting and that she is not allowed to leave the bedroom at night. A toddler wandering the house in the middle of the night is a huge safety concern. If you have a child who repeatedly leaves the bedroom, you may need to put up a temporary, child-safe gate for the short time it would take to make a habit of staying in bed.

Parenting a toddler is difficult and exhausting. Remember consistency is key no matter the challenge and that the bedtime rules you establish are most effective when followed with love!

If your child is still having trouble with falling asleep, please contact your pediatrician for more advice.

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