Better bedtimes with a baby and a toddler

“Is bribery OK?”

Amy, mum of a newborn and a three year old was discussing her toddler’s bedtime. Amy’s husband is a FIFO worker so wasn’t home to help as Amy was torn between helping her toddler to settle at bedtime and attending to her baby.

One night, after stories and cuddles for her three year old and needing to feed the baby, Amy bribed her toddler to stay in bed and go to sleep with the promise of a ‘lolly’ in the morning. The ‘lolly’ was actually a gummy vitamin and after a few nights, Amy’s older daughter quite happily snuggled down and forgot about the morning bribe.

I reassured Amy by asking her, ‘is it safe? Is it Respectful? Did it work without stress for you or your little one?’

Sometimes the reality is, as parents we get desperate and we think on our feet. The solutions we come up with aren’t always politically correct or ‘according to the rule books’ but if they save some stress and frustration for us and for our child, we can relax.

Getting a toddler to bed can be tricky enough without adding a baby into the mix and it can be a huge concern for parents who are expecting a new baby, especially if you have a younger toddler who needs a lot of support at bedtime. There is no point being harsh and pushing your toddler beyond his capacity to cope when he is already tired – this can result in tears and clinginess and more bed-time delays. Nor is it kind to suddenly change the rules when you have lovingly parented your little one to sleep up until now.

And, just in case you are considering bribery, it won’t work with a toddler who is hardly verbal, let alone mature enough to have the cognitive skills or impulse control to co-operate with postponed ‘promises’. Besides, support at bedtime is a genuine need for most little ones: consider, from a toddler’s perspective, when they fall asleep, they are temporarily leaving you. So the need for you to ‘stay with me’ can be due to separation anxiety, not simply a form of manipulation. Your toddler can’t simply ‘grow up’ to make life more convenient for you so it’s better to try and see bedtime as an investment in your relationship with your child.

If you are wondering (or worried), how you will manage bedtimes with a newborn and toddler, here are some tips from real parents:

Make changes gradually, with love:

Baby steps at a pace your toddler can manage will be the most successful way to make lasting changes and it’s best to start making any changes (from cot to bed or getting partners more involved with the bedtime routine) at least three months before you have your next baby.

Victoria is thirty-seven weeks pregnant with her second baby and the mum of a 21 month old. She has been implementing gentle changes over the last few months. She says, “initially I sat on a stool and patted him until he went to sleep. Then we started getting dad to do bedtime books and I just went in when it was sleep time. We’ve found having a little debrief about ‘what did we do today’ helps him to calm down, a special toy to tuck under an arm, tuck his blanket In, tell him that it’s sleepy time and every night I give him a reason why I need to leave ( ‘Mummy needs a drink,’ ‘Mummy needs to have dinner’) and promise that I will come back, even if he is asleep. It all seems to have come together in the last week or so – he seems to have gone through a big developmental leap and now he is nattering on about the concepts of ‘later’ and ‘come back’ .

Kyra, a mum of two little ones made changes differently with each of her children and says, “ I moved my son to a toddler bed at 21 months and would sit next to him in a tub chair till he fell asleep (he didn’t need patting or anything else, just me there). He went from being cuddled to sleep every night to doing this in 3 nights. I moved my second son to a mattress on the floor at 15 months so I could lay with him when he needed me.

Stagger bedtimes:

You don’t need to be rigid about bedtime but a gentle rhythm with a predictable routine encourages co-operation and will help your toddler feel secure. Rather than trying to settle a baby and a toddler simultaneously, it can work well to get the baby settled first, then devote your attention to your toddler. Danni, mum of a five week old baby cuddles her twenty month old daughter to sleep. She says, “it’s hard but it’s ‘our special time’. Her bedtime is after our new-born’s and her nap time is when he is sleeping too. I found when the baby arrived, she wanted me more, so having that time alone with her is helping her adjust.

Snuggle them both:

If your baby doesn’t yet have a predictable bed-time or needs to cluster feed during the evening, so there isn’t a break to attend to your toddler separately, it can work to simply all snuggle together on the big bed. Jessica has a two year old and a newborn. She is also recovering from a c/section. She says, “we lay in bed together to go to sleep at night. Then my husband transfers our toddler to her cot once she is asleep. I enjoy the rest and I can breastfeed the newborn if he needs. There are no tears, so it’s a win for us all.”

Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised breastfeeding expert and gentle parenting advocate. She’s an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), mum of five (so she has had her fair share of sleepless nights) and best-selling baby-care author of Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying and Parenting by Heart (Penguin Random House). See Pinky’ s books, baby massage DVD and recordings HERE.   

Don’t have time to read? Pinky’s books are now available worldwide as audio books  or check out Pinky’s seminars for parents here