Why can't you just go to sleep??
Let’s talk toddler sleep for a minute - this is a common question that I get about changes that happen to our growing humans. Are you one of those moms that sleep trained your child as an infant and they have slept through the night for past year and a half and all of a sudden stopped? Or maybe you never did sleep training and now your 2 year old is still in your bed and you’re 6 months pregnant and feeling overwhelmed? Guess what, you’re not alone. I see this all the time in mommy groups and with my own friends - their sweet baby has grown into a toddler and now they’re not so sweet anymore. Now they’re not (fill in the blank) anymore. There’s a reason why you’re not alone - it’s completely NORMAL.
Take a moment to remember that when a child is not sleeping like they used to (and this can apply to anything), there is a good reason for it. Some common reasons at this age are welcoming a new sibling, working on a new skill, dropping a nap, transitioning to a new bed, they’re potty training, or are otherwise uncomfortable. Sometimes their awake window is too short, and then sometimes it’s been too long and now they have a second wind. What is even more important to remember is the level of stress and anxiety that the person who is putting them to bed has. This is crucial, especially during toddler years. What used to be a sweet time for end of day snuggles and comfort has suddenly turned into a power struggle, and guess what? You’ve lost.
First and foremost I recommend taking a step back and remembering your overall parenting goals. Do you value a strong attachment and bond to your child? Do you want bedtime to be a positive experience? The attachment and comfort level of your tiny human depends on their level of trust with you. Having a stressful bedtime routine full of threats, broken promises, and tears does not support that trust. First let’s look at what is happening developmentally for toddlers.
As your toddler begins to play more independently, you’ll start to notice that they are doing more than stacking blocks. Perhaps they are pretending those blocks are a castle and the princess is going to sleep inside. With this play comes imagination as children begin to visualize things that are not present, and having fun with those scenarios. While this includes dinosaurs, unicorns, superheroes and the like, unfortunately there is also a dark side to our imagination, often an antagonist to the story they’re creating. Again this is normal, but can creep into their dreams at night as well, which leads to nightmares. A child's feelings of fear need to validated and we can provided them with ways to cope with these feelings. Perhaps they can cuddle their lovey, take a deep breath, or come into mom's bed for the night.
The other event that tends to happen at this age is the transition from a crib to a toddler bed (or twin/full/queen sized bed with rails). This has to happen eventually, but typically the toddler is attempting to climb out of the crib, is potty training, or the crib is needed for the addition of a new sibling. This is a huge change for your toddler - it is a complete transformation of their current sleep space, which is somewhere they spend at least half of their day in. So not only can this produce a heightened level of anxiety, but also comes with freedom to move about their room. Although it is tempting to simply lock them in their room after the 15th time they've come out, this can harm the trust and attachment you've built with your child. I have experienced this for myself in an act of desperation, but NEVER again. If you've done it you'll know that it just doesn't feel right, and there's a reason for that. How would you feel if you were locked in your room all night? You'd never dream of it, enough said. If boundaries become necessary, perhaps a baby gate or closing off rooms that are potentially dangerous for the child to enter unattended.
So what can we do to improve toddler sleep and alleviate bedtime struggles? Remember that being a mom is a selfless act and we are not meant to control every behavior our child engages in. Be mindful of the changes that are happening for your toddler and acknowledge how difficult that must be for them. If you think you can control your toddler you will have these bedtime struggles because children (humans) are not meant to be under our control. Our job as parents is to provide them love and comfort and guide them through this journey of life. Every single time I have been frustrated with my girls it’s because I think I need to be able to control their behavior, and I can’t. Once I remember (and I need a lot of reminders) this, I can step back and see my girls for who they are and come back to the situation much calmer and ready parent.
Set the stage for a calm routine. If you can, start preparing for bedtime about an hour before by dimming the lights and engaging in calmer activities. Avoid screens during this time as well - that blue light really does negatively impact melatonin production. Perhaps you do some coloring activity as opposed to jumping on the trampoline.
Buffer the transition. In the behaviorist world we call this “priming” but essentially you want to warn your child of an upcoming transition as opposed to telling them it’s time to stop, removing their activity, and expecting them to be okay with that. Would you be okay if you were on a phone call and your partner came and hung up the phone because it was time to get ready for bed? It’s as simple as “10 more minutes and then we’re putting on pajamas” and repeating at 5 minutes and 1 minute. Timers are extremely helpful with this and it takes the blame off of you and onto the timer. In our house we’re constantly saying “Alexa, set the timer for 2 minutes!” and I’m telling you it works like a charm.
Go over the routine with them and know your limits. If they can read 2 books, then they can only read 2 books before bed. If they notoriously ask for “one more sip” of water, let them know when they can have their last sip and stick to it. A visual bedtime schedule can be helpful where the child can see what activities are a part of the routine and cross them off as they go (think laminated paper and dry erase marker).
Offer choices within that routine - do you want to wear the dinosaur or cupcake pajamas? Should we use the strawberry or mint toothpaste to brush your teeth? In these scenarios you are in control of the activity (changing into pajamas and brushing teeth), but they get to choose how they do it. It’s a win-win.
Invest in an Okay to Wake clock - these are found on Amazon and the clock will turn green when it is “okay to wake” for the day. My daughter's is set for 7am which is the time she normally wakes up. It can help with early rising and again switching the “blame” off you since the clock isn’t green yet.
Give yourself enough time to get through the routine before they should ideally be asleep. Don’t fall into a pattern where you are rushing the routine because that is stressful.
Relax. Try and remember this is a phase and it too shall pass. You may have to put in some extra time right now (walking toddler back to their room and reminding it’s time for sleep 20-50 times a night) or even staying with them as they fall asleep while they make this transition into a new bed. But the time you put it will be worth it because they will have a continued positive experience.