Bed ranks high on the list of places toddler would least like to be – right up there with the changing table and the doctor’s surgery. Most toddlers are happiest when they’re on the go, and coming to a screeching stop at bedtime can be distressing. Going to bed not only requires leaving his toys and his family for ten or twelve hours but also resigning himself to ending his exploits for the day. Add to that what may be budding fears of the dark and of being alone, and it’s not surprising that many toddlers make a fuss when bedtime approaches.
To get your toddler into a more sleep-accepting frame of mind at bedtime, set up a regular bedtime routine, which will help him unwind. Be sure that naps don’t interfere with your child’s ability to fall asleep. Also try to determine if the scheduled bedtime is unrealistic. The average eighteen month-old needs one-and-one-half to two hours of napping during the day plus eleven to twelve hours sleep at night. Pushing a child who’s not tries to sleep could lead to bedtime rebellion. If fears are a problem. You can also:
- Avoid using your toddler’s room or his bed as punishment; if you do, he will have a difficult time seeing bedtime as pleasant.
- Explain that sleep is necessary for healthy growth, and to be able to play and run and have fun. Remind him of all the other people who sleep at night (friends at day care or nursery, cousins, grandparents, even parents).
- Consider a later bedtime. Putting a toddler to bed before he’s sleepy is an exercise is futility. If he takes an hour or more to fall asleep, try pushing his bedtime back half an hour or so.
- Set a timer to go off about ten minutes before you plan on beginning the nightly bedtime rituals, so that your child will be able to prepare himself. And, in the half hour or so before bedtime, be sure he doesn’t get involved in a lengthy project that he won’t want to be dragged from. Don’t insist on your toddler’s going to sleep immediately if he says he isn’t tired. You can lead a child to bed, but you can’t make him sleep. Allow him to listen tapes in a darkened room, or look at some books while he gets drowsy, if he likes. But insist he stay in bed.
- Offer your toddler a comfort objects at bedtime. This will ease the transition from being awake and with you to being asleep without you. The object can be anything that works and is safe to leave in the cot, including a teddy or other stuffed animal (an old favourite or a new special-for-bed-time treat), a toy, an old T-shirt of yours.
- Beware of becoming the comfort object yourself; resist staying with your toddler until he falls asleep. If you relent even once, he may begin to demand your presence every night.
- Anticipate his special requests. Have a small cup of water waiting on his nightstand and everything else set up the way he likes it (closet door closed, night-light and burning, comfort object at hand, bed covers arranged in an inviting fashion). Also be sure he isn’t too warm or too cold, too wet or too hungry. Skipping dessert at dinnertime and serving it as a bedtime snack will help avoid if it’s not high in sugar.
- If your toddler cries when you leave the room, don’t return immediately. He may cry himself to sleep. If after ten minutes or so, he’s still at it, return and reassure him with a few soft words (‘Shh, go to sleep’) and a pat on the back; then promptly leave again. If the crying continues, keep repeating this process at regular intervals until sleep overtakes your toddler. Once you’ve begun, persist. Don’t give in after half an hour and pick him up to rock or feed him – you will give him the message that if he cries long and hard enough he will get what he wants: you.
- Retuck as necessary. If your toddler stands up in his cot or gets out of bed, tuck him back in when you return to his room – with a few words and as little contact as possible.
- Praise him when he settles down easily. Many toddlers enjoy a sticker chart and getting gold stars for every night they retire without a fuss. When two rows of gold stars are collected, a reward may be in order.
- Don’t lose it. The more imperturbable you stay in the face of repeated trips you’ll ultimately end up making.