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 need to go to the toilet/feed the cat/get in your pyjamas (whatever excuse seems realistic) and you will check on him in two minutes (He won’t really have a sense of how long this is so keep this time very short at first to help him manage this little break). It is important to keep this promise and return so that your child relaxes, knowing you will be back soon. As you return to check on him, you can either give him a kiss and leave again for another couple of minutes, telling him you will be back to check or you can stay with your toddler until he falls asleep.
Gradually as your child begins to relax knowing you will always return, you can extend the time you are out of his room. Soon he will fall asleep before you return and you will be able to say, ‘I will come and check when you fall asleep’.
Of course, if you enjoy lying or sitting with your little one, this is absolutely lovely – you know your child best and what support will help him sleep soundly without creating battles over bedtime.
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!) – 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 and separated from you during the 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.
For more helpful toddler tips, check out my book ‘Toddler Tactics’ (Penguin Random House), and if you don’t have time to read, it is available as an audiobook too. I have recorded interviews with specialists in toddler development too. Check at this link .