Toddler Fighting Sleep? 20 Peaceful Sleepy-Time Tips
[By L.R.Knost, author of Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages, Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood, and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
Toddlers are infinitely curious little dynamos that may seem like clones of the Energizer Bunny…they keep going and going and going and…well, you get the idea! Even little ones who were supposedly ‘good’ sleepers in infancy often seem to lose the ability and/or the desire to sleep once they reach toddlerhood. Add a baby sibling (or one on the way!) to the mix, and you can find yourself right back to that zombie-mama state you thought you’d left behind after those first few exhausting newborn months. So what’s a zombie-mama to do? Here are a few tips to try and recapture some precious zzz’s for both yourself and your little one(s) and to turn those dreaded bedtime battles into peaceful bedtime snuggles:
- Stop stressing. Sometimes we get so focused on the latest study or research that tells us that the average child needs ‘x’ amount of sleep for optimal brain development, or how many naps the average child needs, or what time the average child should go to bed or wake up that we forget we aren’t growing an ‘average’ child. We’re growing a unique individual who may need more sleep or less sleep, or may be an early bird or a night owl, or may naturally sleep in long stretches or may sleep in shorter spurts. There is a wide range of normal, so try to stop focusing on the latest research and start focusing on discovering the normal sleep rhythms and needs of your own perfect little person!
- Speaking of sleep rhythms, start keeping a log of your little one’s sleep patterns. You may be surprised to find that they are getting more sleep than you think they are! For two weeks, write down what time your child falls asleep for naps and bedtimes, what time your child gets up, what activities precede nap and bedtimes (play, tv, bathtimes, books, etc.), how long before falling asleep those activities take place, how long the bedtime routine takes each night, how long it takes your child to fall asleep, etc. Keep in mind, the more detailed you make the log, the more information you’ll have to work with in addressing any sleep issues you’re having.
- Once you have a good idea of where you are, you can decide where you want to go. If your sleep log reveals that your little one is getting enough sleep (which, believe it or not, is normally the case since children are typically quite adept at knowing what they need and following their body’s cues!), you can relax and go with their own unique flow. Sometimes, though, when you have other children or need your child’s sleep patterns to fit your work schedule better or if your little one has adopted some sleep habits that are making life a bit difficult, you might want to tweak your little one’s sleep rhythms to fit more easily into your lifestyle. If that is the case, remember that tiny changes make for an easier transition than big ones.
- If you do need to tweak you little one’s sleep patterns, start by making a list of priorities. Do you want them to go to sleep earlier? Do you want them to sleep for longer stretches? Do you want to shift their naps to a different time of day? Write down the changes you want to make in order of importance, then write a specific plan to work with your child’s rhythms and personality to try to implement those changes.
- If your little one is taking forever to fall asleep at night, look at your sleep log and see if there is anything that could be contributing to the problem. For instance, if they’re watching tv in the evenings it may seem like they’re settling down in preparation for going to bed, but in actuality all that stillness combined with the stimulation of the lights and sounds are building up a kinetic energy in their little body that’s likely to come out in a burst of activity just when you’re ready for them to go to sleep! Other things that may be contributing to bedtime battles are hunger, a too-short or too-stimulating bedtime routine, a too-late nap, over-tiredness, or even just not being tired that early in the evening.
- To eliminate hunger as a contributor to bedtime battles, and also to help your toddler sleep for longer stretches, try adding a late snack with sleep-inducing foods rich in tryptophan and calming magnesium such as almonds, sunflower seeds, milk, yogurt, bananas, apples and peanut butter.
- A consistent bedtime routine isn’t just about performing the same rituals in the same order every night. It’s far more about starting bedtime consistently at around the same time each evening. Look at the log you created to find clues as to whether you’ve got a night owl or an early bird on your hands, and take your little one’s natural rhythms into consideration along with your own needs (i.e. getting up early for work, needing time with your spouse, etc.) when establishing their routine.
- A slow nighttime routine is always better than a speedy one, and toddlers tend to respond better when they have some semblance of control over their lives, so slow down in the evenings and give your toddler some control over their bedtime by cutting out colorful pictures of each element of the routine and pasting them on magnets or ping-pong balls, then let your toddler arrange the magnets in the order they want to do bedtime or pick the ping-pong balls out of a jar for a fun element of surprise.
- If there’s a particular element of the bedtime routine that your toddler resists, such as tooth-brushing, move that element entirely out of the routine so your toddler doesn’t relate it with bedtime. Try some of these toddler tooth-brushing tips and brush your little one’s teeth at least half an hour before starting your bedtime routine.
- Too little outside time and not enough rough-and-tumble play is a big contributor to sleep issues, so make sure that your little one is getting a daily dose of sunshine along with plenty of free play time to run and climb and jump and explore. Don’t forget to join them with some tickles and giggles to get those delightful belly laughs going and to fill their little lungs with healthy doses of oxygen and their little hearts with healthy doses of love.
- Another thing your sleep log may reveal is that your toddler just isn’t tired at the time you are trying to get them to sleep. If your log shows a consistent, quiet bedtime routine that your toddler enjoys and participates in, but they still don’t fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes of laying down, try shifting bedtime later in 15 minute increments to see if that helps.
- If naptime is a problem, first check your daily routine to see if it’s just too busy for your little one to have enough time to relax and go to sleep easily. Remember that, while we may be able to work with our little ones to help their sleep patterns to fit our lifestyles a bit better, we can’t expect these tiny people who are so new to the world and have so many needs that may conflict with our plans to be the ones to do all the compromising!
- To shift the timing of your toddler’s nap, first look at your log and see if it’s reasonable to expect them to go to sleep earlier or later based on their current bedtime and wake time. It may be that you need to gradually shift their bedtime and/or wake time before you begin to try to shift their naptime. Any changes you want to make should be done in no more than 15 minute increments, and you should wait a several days between each shift for your child time to adjust.
- If you are making adjustments to your child’s sleep routine and they start resisting, slow down. You may even need to take a step or two back and wait a bit before moving forward again. Remember, the objective is to work with your child’s natural sleep rhythms and personality. If they resist, they are communicating their needs to you, and, as the adult, it’s up to you to ‘read’ your little one’s behavior and respond to the needs they don’t know how to articulate any other way so that you can make sleeping a peaceful part of each day instead of a daily battleground.
- Don’t discount the value of darkness to lull little ones to sleep and white noise to block out ambient noises. Also, make sure to use dim reddish or orangish lights for nightlights. Blue lights have been shown to suppress the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin.
- If you have an infant whose sleep rhythms you’re juggling as well as a toddler with sleep issues, start by creating a log for each of them. Follow the same suggestions above for your toddler as needed while letting your spouse have some one-on-one time with your infant. If you don’t have help, try wearing your baby in a wrap while going through your nighttime routine with your toddler or putting your baby to sleep before your toddler’s bedtime, if possible.
- If you have issues with getting your infant to sleep because of your toddler’s noisy interruptions, try putting together a basket of quiet time toys that only comes out when it’s your baby’s bedtime to keep their novelty value for your toddler.
- Remember, often what parents interpret as a toddler (or an infant) fighting sleep is actually them fighting separation from their primary attachment figures. Nighttime can be a dark and scary time for a little person, and being forcibly separated from the people they count on all day to take care of their needs and comfort them when they’re afraid merely compounds the issue. Laying down with your little one and softly humming or telling a quiet story or simply being near can allay those fears and help them to drift off to sleep more quickly and peacefully.
- If you’ve been cosleeping and are ready to transition your toddler to their own space, try these gentle transitioning tips.
- Last, but certainly not least, keep in mind that these early days of childhood will pass quickly and your little one will mature in their sleep rhythms as surely as they will grow in stature and independence, and soon they won’t need the same time-intensive parenting they need now, though they’ll always need the same intense love, just in different ways.
Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.