Have you ever noticed how young children become extremely creative at bedtime? All of a sudden they have a zillion questions about life or how the universe works!
I suppose that children have been trying to delay bedtime since time began. They also have an uncanny knack for waking up a little earlier than mom and dad prefer!
I have been coaching families to gently teach their children to go to sleep and stay asleep using my step-by-step gentle method for twenty years. As I (and now my personally trained coaches) work with a client I always aim to set them up for success as they train their child to go to sleep on their own. Here are a few of the things you can do to help your toddler get to sleep, stay asleep, and then stay in bed till it’s time to get up.
Be sure they are well-fed.
If your child tends to mention hunger as an excuse to stay up before bed it may be true that he needs a little more to eat before bedtime. Make sure he gets a planned, healthy snack before the bedtime routine begins. Once the bedtime routine begins, the kitchen is closed!
Make sure they are well-napped.
Good sleep breeds good sleep. If your child still needs a nap, and most do till they are 4 years old, then working on getting a restorative nap is one of the best ways to help him fall asleep and stay asleep at night. If your child is particularly resistant to naps, then work on him having a consistent quiet time for 30-45 minutes a day.
Set a sensible and consistent bedtime.
Bedtime for a young child should be between 7:30 and 8:30pm depending on their age and what time they have to wake up in the morning. If he begins to nod off during the bedtime routine move bedtime up by 15 minutes until you find the sweet spot for his age. The more consistent you are with bedtime, the more easily his body will settle down for sleep. The body’s natural biorhythms and production of melatonin will help him get to sleep before he catches that second wind.
Develop a soothing bedtime routine.
Take 20-30 minutes with your child before bedtime with a focus on getting ready for bed. This time will include brushing teeth, going potty, getting one last sip of water, putting on pj’s, reading a short book, maybe a song, and snuggles and kisses. I would do as much of this routine in their room as possible. Don’t start the routine in the living room and then move to the bathroom and then bedroom. You want to keep it as streamlined and calm as possible.
Be present for your child.
Something that is not easily put on a checklist is the need your child(ren) have for some emotional bonding with you. This is the special ingredient that is essential for your child to relax at bedtime and go to sleep. It doesn’t guarantee their immediate nodding off to slumberland, but without it your child will more often call out for you or get out of bed to find you. So, turn off all electronics and spend some time talking with your child about their day.
Make a plan to gently disengage when the stalling questions arise.
By questions I mean “Can you read just one more book, please?” or “Where did stars come from?” At bedtime you will want to keep calm and pleasant but be firm about the limits you have set. If the rule is lights out at 8pm then when they ask for another book, tell them the clock says it’s 8pm and it’s time for lights out. If your child wants you to tuck him in two hundred times, just do it once or twice. Tell him what you expect of him, when the “last time” will be, and then stick to your guns!
If your child asks big, abstract questions tell him what a great question that is and that you can discuss it at breakfast (or dinner) tomorrow. Good questions like that are for discussing earlier in the day.
If your child is genuinely scared then take some time to sincerely address his fears. Check under the bed, close the closet doors, close the curtains, etc. Assure him that there is nothing in his room that can hurt him and that you will always be close by in your home at night to protect him.
If you choose, you can come back to his doorway in a few minutes to quickly praise him for following your bedtime directions. After you’ve praised and reassured him, leave before he starts trying to engage you all over again. If you find that it makes matters worse to return and praise him then just leave this off. You will just need to do a little trial and error and find what works best for your child.
Some parents use a gate if the child continues to get out of bed over and over. If you do this, you might say that you are using the gate to remind him of his sleep manners and need to stay in bed quietly and that you will no longer need the gate when he can remember to stay in his bed quietly.
Let Ooly do some heavy lifting for you!
It can be really helpful at bedtime to “blame it on the clock”, so to speak. This is a great opportunity to let Ooly do some heavy lifting for you! As Ooly turns red (or the bedtime color you choose) you can tell your child, “Look! Ooly changed colors. It’s time for bed!” If you want to, you can even add, “We will have to start bedtime earlier tomorrow if we want to do an extra book.”
Then, remind him what color Ooly will be when it is time to get up in the morning (such as green) and not to get out of bed until then (unless he needs to go potty at night, of course, and then he can use Ooly in the “lantern” mode).
Implement some sleep coaching, if needed.
If falling asleep is hard for your child or your child is dependent on you in some way, then it may be a good idea to do some gentle sleep coaching. Here are a few steps to take.
- Have a family meeting where you discuss the change you are going to make at bedtime, namely, that he will be learning how to go to sleep by himself but that you will be with him while he learns. Let him know that whatever the sleep challenge is, you will be making a change (not letting him in your bed at night or not lying down until he goes to sleep) but supporting him through learning this new skill. After all he is not going to understand why you have decided to changes things now and he may not be sure how to put himself to sleep and back to sleep without you if you have been doing it for him for months or even years.
- Introduce a sleep manners chart with a few positive expectations or goals that will encourage the change you are looking for. For instance “Lay quietly in bed, Put self to sleep without Mommy laying down with you”, etc. Review the sleep manners at night and in the morning. Don’t belittle him for not doing well. Just assure him he can do it tonight when given another chance.
- Implement gentle sleep coaching. Read about how to do The Shuffle for your child’s age (the name of my gentle sleep coaching method) in my book, The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight. Then when you are ready and your child is healthy and well-rested (well-napped), sit near your child as he goes to sleep and every few days move further away from him (middle of the room, at the door, outside the door), assuring him that he can get to sleep while you are nearby. You can find all of the details in my book and lots of helpful articles on my blog.
I wish you success as you help your toddler get to sleep and learn to stay in bed!
Author: Kim West, LCSW-C
Aka The Sleep Lady. Family therapist for 25 years, sleep consultant for 20 years and author of 3 gentle baby sleep books.