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Counting Stars: Ways to help toddlers who resist sleep

Count yourself among the rare and lucky if you are a parent of a toddler who willingly—maybe even eagerly—hops right into bed for a peaceful night’s sleep, because most families with toddlers experience bedtime challenges. In fact, it’s part of the delightful package called toddlerhood!

It’s so common, that it’s estimated that one in three children under the age of 5 either takes a long time to fall asleep; refuses to go to their bed; cries at bedtime; gets out of bed frequently; or has night waking either from bad dreams or night terrors.

In this article, we’re going to look deeper at a common challenge for many parents with toddlers: resisting bedtime.

Why aren’t you tired?!

It’s evening. Your toddler has been playing all day. You know they are exhausted. And yet, they have no interest in going to bed. There are several reasons your toddler might be resisting bedtime:

  • Your toddler has a hard time with transitioning from being active to being still.
  • Your toddler doesn’t want the fun of the day to end; toddlers have a hard time thinking beyond the now — they don’t realize they can play again tomorrow.
  • Your toddler wants to be near you or your partner. They may need lots of reassurance that you are there even though they may not see you.
  • Has your toddler switched from a crib to a bed recently? It’s possible they are not thrilled with their new setup. Beds are more wide open than cribs, and they may not feel as safe and secure without the rails. Or it could just be that it feels different.
  • Starting childcare, separation, a move, new sibling . . . changes like these affect children in various ways, including their sleep patterns and behaviors.
  • Before a toddler masters a new skill it is common for them to fall apart more easily; it’s the stress of integrating this new milestone into their repertoire.

Toddlers need around 12-14 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period. Although all children are different and have unique needs, aiming for 12-14 hours, split up with 1-2 naps and evening slumber is a good number to aim for. But what do you do when your toddler doesn’t want to sleep?

Ways to help your toddler

Despite your toddler thinking they have superhuman abilities to stay awake all night and day, we all have to sleep—it’s just a fact of life. There are things you can do to help your toddler get into a sleepy state-of-mind. This first step is creating an easy-to-follow bedtime routine for your toddler. For example:

  • Use the toilet
  • Brush teeth
  • Say goodnight to the family (pets, too!)
  • Read books
  • Go to bed at a set time
  • Snuggle for a few minutes
  • Stay in bed until morning

Thirty minutes before bedtime, remind your toddler that it is almost time for bed. A visual timer is sometimes helpful for young children, as is a picture chart that shows them their bedtime steps. During this time, start your bedtime routine of brushing teeth and using the bathroom. Remind your toddler again at the 10-minute mark that bedtime is nearing. When you are ready to say goodnight, make it short, sweet, and decisive. Snuggle for a few minutes, give one last hug, then make your exit.

When you do the same thing, in the same order every night, you meet your child’s need for security, and they begin to know what comes next. When you give choices, it helps them feel more in control, and meets their desire for independence. For example, “Do you want to say goodnight to mommy or kitty first?” “You can choose a book you want to read,” or “Do you want the hall light or your night light on tonight?”

Then, when morning comes, be ready with the praise. Your toddler wants more than anything to be a “big girl” or “big boy.” Ask them how they feel about being able to fall asleep on their own. Encourage them to be proud of themselves. If they had a rough night, talk about it, and just like everything, they can try again tonight. Express your confidence in them that they can do it.

Other sleep strategies to consider:

  • Stick with a consistent bed/nap time and wake up time.
  • Create a calm bedroom environment. If your toddler is constantly getting out of bed to play with toys in their room, consider making their room “just a place for sleep.” Keep toys in bins, which can be easily stored in a closet or another room during bedtime.
  • Limit sugary food or drinks after dinner.
  • Turn off digital devices at least one hour before bed, including TV, video games, or the computer.
  • Engage in calm, quiet activities before bed: reading, drawing, puzzles. Tell stories to each other or sing songs together. Snuggle on the couch with your pet if you have one, and if not, with a favorite stuffie. Investing in this close connection time will help build their tolerance for being alone in their bed.

Books about sleep

There’s nothing like a good book to put you in the mood for sleep. Here are some great books for toddlers about sleep:

Get down to the root cause

Many toddlers view sleep as the enemy because life is all about fun—and sleep is “boring.” Or it may simply be a matter of transitioning from active play to resting, and from being with you to being alone. Your bedtime routine will help with this transition. For other toddlers, there may be more complex issues they are working through, such as teething, nightmares, fear of the dark, or maybe it’s that they no longer need a nap during the day so they are ready for bed at 8 pm and not midnight. In addition to incorporating the techniques above, take some time to observe and listen to your child to find how you can best help them—and you!—get a good night’s rest.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).

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