Sleep issues are one of the biggest reasons why parents of toddlers seek help from therapists, doctors and other experts.
It is 7pm. You have bathed your toddler, dressed them in clean pyjamas. The story has been read, you are tucking them into bed. You kiss them goodnight tenderly and switch off the light. Just like in the movies, they will now fall peacefully asleep right? Do I hear you laughing hysterically? Probably.
Very few toddlers go to bed like this every night. Most of them wake up a few times, calling out for mom because they are thirsty or hungry or something is bothering them. Many will get out of bed right away, saying they can’t sleep and aren’t tired yet. Some may wait a few minutes, to let you think they fell asleep calmly and quietly, then creep up on you while you are in the kitchen. Others will immediately start crying and wailing for you to stay longer, sing one more story or lie down with them.
All of this is normal toddler behaviour. Like in all other aspects of their life, toddlers try to shape the world according to what suits them and what they want. They have to learn that at night, like during the day, there are rules and these have to be obeyed for everyone to be happy.
Many parents make the mistake of giving in too quickly when it comes to bedtime drama. They are tired and don’t want to fight with their child after a long day. So they get into bed with their toddler, supposedly until they fall asleep. Of course, the parent ends up falling asleep too, usually waking up at around 11pm, to stumble bleary-eyed around the house. Other moms allow their toddlers to snuggle in bed with them. This usually results in a terrible night for everyone, as the child kicks the blankets off, elbowing dad in the face while taking mom’s pillow. Sound familiar?
Most parents go through various parenting manuals, taking advice from friends and relatives before finding a way that works for them. Rest assured that no parent of a toddler has great nights, not twice in a row, and if they do – well, they are a very, very lucky and select few.
Your toddler needs to sleep properly otherwise they will be grumpy and even more difficult to control. The rule of thumb is 10-12 hours at night and a nap of 1 to 2 hours during the day. If you have trouble getting your toddler to sleep at night, try shortening the daytime nap.
To improve your nights with your toddler, there are a few tips:
1. Follow a set routine
As with everything else in their lives, toddlers like to know what will be coming next. Routine provides stability and security. After bath time comes bedtime and a story, for instance. Your toddler should be in their own bed and should learn to fall asleep by themselves. Stay with them until they are quiet but not quite asleep. Then leave them. If they come out, take them back into their room. If they come to you during the night, take them back to their bed. The earlier you do this, the better, as you need to set up good sleeping habits for your child.
2. Find helpful props and aids
If your child claims to be scared of the dark, get a night light. If they don’t like being alone, buy them a teddy bear to keep them company. You can play them bedtime music, soothing tunes to help them fall asleep. Sometimes it can help to have a cat or a dog lie with them for a bit. Some children fall asleep better if they have weighted blankets or white noise in the background. It is all about finding things that can help settle your little one.
3. Find something that works
Most experts advise versions of controlled crying to help you deal with a child that keeps crying that it wants to be with you. This involves you taking the child back to their room, waiting each time a bit longer before going back in to comfort. Some experts say you don’t go back at all or you wait at least 10 minutes. Not everyone has nerves of steel. Some parents find it easier to put an extra mattress in the room for their children to sleep on if they want to come to them during the night.
Once bad habits are formed, it can take a long time to break them. In the meantime, your health and your partner’s health will suffer. Sleeping poorly is physically and psychologically detrimental and will not improve your parenting ability either! This is why it is important to start early and be as firm as you can when laying down the bedtime law.