Your toddler’s delaying tactics at bedtime – needing a drink, one more kiss, a lost toy – are her way of saying, ‘I really want you to stay with me.’ From a toddler’s perspective, it may be difficult to relax and fall asleep if she feels stressed about being left in her room alone, especially if she can hear adults having fun (talking, watching television) in another part of the house. Consider also if this is the only time of her – and your – busy day that your little one has your undivided attention. If this is the case, try to spend more one-on-one time with her during the day so her needs aren’t so intense at bedtime. If she spends her day in child care, try to have some special time together when you pick her up.
A consistent bedtime routine with specific rituals is important to enlist your toddler’s co-operation and help him feel secure. If your child seems especially clingy at bedtime, one way to help him is to tell him the story of his day so that he can process the emotional ups and downs and ‘let them go’.
Once your toddler is closer to three, you can begin setting limits at bedtime by telling him how many stories you will read before you start and to minimise delaying tactics and calling out, try to anticipate his needs: before he gets into bed, let him get his toys in order and perhaps choose a soft toy to sleep with, place a lidded cup of water within his reach (juice is not good for tiny teeth) and, before you settle down to read, ask him, ‘what is the one last thing you need to do before stories?’ Help your child stay in bed until he is sleepy by sitting in his room with him.
If you have things you need to do or you are moving to the next stage of helping your child get to sleep by himself (he will probably need to be close to three years or older before this will work), you could tell him that you will check on him in a few minutes ( make this a very short period at first and gradually increase as he manages to stay in bed and wait for you to return). It is important to keep this promise so that he relaxes, knowing you will be back soon. As you check on him, give him a kiss and stay with him until he falls asleep. Soon you will be able to just check in then leave again for another few minutes. If your toddler gets out of bed, try not to get upset or yell or you will wake him up even more. Simply take him by the hand, lead him back to bed and tuck him back in then, (depending on your child’s readiness), either tell him you will check on him in a few minutes or sit with him until he is settled and falls asleep. Gradually he will relax, and fall asleep with less and less help and you will soon be saying, “ill pop in and check on you when you are asleep.”
Please try and see this time spent with your toddler at bedtime as an investment in your connection with him rather than an imposition and consider that like all toddler development, sleep is a process that can take two steps forward then on or three steps backwards depending on what is happening in your child’s world.
If you have a baby as well as a toddler, see this blog for tips to manage both little ones for calmer bedtimes.
Food for sleep
Restless sleep can be related to sensitivity to additives in processed foods and soft drinks – don’t feed your little ones any drink that contains caffeine such as ‘coke’ ( even diet coke!) or guarana – day or night! This will hype up behaviour and prevent your child from being able to sleep well, if at all. Some sensitive children may be affected by naturally occurring chemicals such as salicylates in otherwise healthy foods like grapes, oranges, strawberries or tomatoes and, as well as causing behaviour changes, these can affect sleep.
Rather than becoming stressed over foods ( as well as your child’s sleep), it could help to simply reduce the amount or combination of foods – say, instead of giving your child grapes and strawberries for dessert after a spaghetti with tomato sauce dinner, stick to the mantra ‘all things in moderation’ and try these foods separately in smaller amounts.
Bedtime snacks can also affect sleep, either positively or negatively – for instance, high protein foods can trigger the production of dopamine, a hormone that will keep you ( or your child) aroused while a banana for instance will help boost tryptophan levels, the substance needed to make the mood stabilising (calming) chemical serotonin and this will encourage sound sleep.
The relaxing effects of a bath work at a physiological level as well as a psychological one. One of the triggers for sleep is a slight drop in core body temperature. A warm bath temporarily increases the core body temperature, then as this temperature lowers after a bath, we feel drowsy – this is why timing of the bedtime bath matters. For example, it is best to have a quiet play before your child’s bath, then dress her warmly and take her to bed, drowsy from the bath, for the remainder of her bedtime routine.
A few drops of lavender mixed with vegetable oil or milk or a baby bath product that incorporates the effects of aromatherapy can be added to the bathwater for extra soothing effects. Please be careful, though, about using bubble-bath products. While some infant and child bath products will create bubbles and only contain natural ingredients, including essential oils, read labels carefully and use all bath additives sparingly as these can cause skin and genital tract irritation that may have the very opposite effect you are aiming for – itching and sleeplessness, rather than relaxation.
Bathing with your toddler can be a special fun and bonding time for you both, especially if she is in childcare all day or, if you prefer, you could take a shower together.
A magic touch
If you can get your wriggly toddler to keep still long enough to allow you to massage him, silent nights could be at your fingertips: research from Miami University showed that infants and toddlers who were massaged daily for one month, for fifteen minutes
prior to bedtime, fell asleep more easily by the end of the study. Massage reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and releases hormones such as oxytocin, endorphins and melatonin that make your child feel relaxed –and drowsy.
Remember to always ask your child’s permission to massage him and respect his response. This way you are teaching and reinforcing to him that his body is his own and he has a right to refuse any unwanted touching. Often, rather than a ‘formal’ massage, simply stroking your child’s forehead or rubbing his hands or back when he is lying in bed, can help him ‘wind down’ and relax.
Read me a story
Even if you love reading and are happy to read several stories at bedtime, it is good to use the same story as the ‘sleepy story’. For instance, many toddlers love listening to a combination of ‘Where is the Green Sheep?’ followed by ‘Time for Bed’ ( both by Mem Fox). As you read to your child, the calming effects of reading together are increased if you cuddle as you read – while a story will help engage the frontal lobe of your child’s brain and this will inhibit motor impulses, body contact during cuddles will encourage your child to release sleep inducing hormones. Also, dim lighting such as that from a bedside lamp (not with a bright overhead light) will stimulate melatonin, the sleep inducing hormone.
Pinky McKay is an IBCLC lactation consultant, mum of five and bestselling author of Toddler Tactics and Sleeping Like a Baby (this covers birth to 3 years) . See Pinky’s books and recording packages plus interviews with early childhood professionals about aspects of toddler development and behaviour here.