Ever wish you could get back all those naps you refused as a child? As adults, we crave and appreciate sleep, but as children, it’s common to fight against this natural need. The battles over sleep is particularly notable during the earliest years of your child’s life.
Whether your first child is on the way or you have a full house, finding a bedtime routine that works for your entire family isn’t easy. With different sleep schedules, it can be difficult to get the proper amount of sleep. Mattress Firm recently conducted a survey of 2,000 parents about the challenges of being a first-time mom or dad. We weren’t too surprised to find that when asked about the biggest challenge of being a new parent, loss of sleep came out on top (48%).
Young children who are used to playing and exploring all day can naturally want to avoid the lack of excitement that comes with bedtime. After all, nothing fun happens while you sleep. Couple this with a toddler’s desire to exert independence, and you may have a nightly battle on your hands.
Better Bedtime Sleep Training Tips
Although it may be difficult to know when to start sleep training your child, generally, the earlier, the better. Particularly, it’s crucial to note that sleep is incredibly important for toddlers due to the critical brain development during these early years. So what can you do to sleep train toddlers that are stubborn and fight sleep late into the night? Thankfully, there are some effective sleep training tips and methods to ensure these little ones get the sleep they need.
1. Thrive on Routines
Children thrive off of routine and predictability during the day, and the night is no different. A good bedtime routine lasts around 20 minutes and consists of three or four calming activities, performed at the same time and same way each night leading to bed. The brain automatically starts winding down for sleep when nighttime routines are well established, making the bedtime transition a bit easier.
2. Establish Limits
Once the nighttime routine is complete and it’s time to leave your toddler, it’s not uncommon for requests and demands to begin like: “I need another hug,” “Tell me one more story,” or “Can you get me another glass of milk?”
Know that most requests at nighttime from children are delay tactics and they will quickly figure out exactly what to say to keep their day going just a little bit longer. Toddlers will test their strategy on different caregivers and once they’ve found a weak spot, they will attack.
Just started potty training? Your toddler will suddenly develop the urge to use the bathroom right as you try to turn off the lights, despite going just 10 minutes prior. Picky eater? The child may request that full plate of veggies they so adamantly refused during dinner time.
Once the nighttime routine is over and the delay tactics begin, parents should be sure not to give in or else the toddler will catch on to his or her success and whip the tactics out more frequently. Please note that tantrums are not uncommon once children realize their delay strategies are not getting traction, but giving into tantrums will essentially guarantee nightly tantrums. The key is sticking with the plan. Finish the routine, kindly deny any requests and then leave the room.
3. Become a Robot
If you’ve made it past the demands, ignored the tantrums and are able to finally leave the room, the first half of the battle is over. The second half begins when your toddler follows you out the door to start the next round of demands or tantrums.
To change this behavior, your response to the toddler leaving the bedroom needs to be consistent and persistent. With every attempt to leave, take the child immediately back to bed, and, like a robot, repeat the same boring line each time you lay your child back down. Something along the lines of, “I love you. It’s bedtime. See you in the morning,” will typically suffice. The line should be stated with minimal emotion. No arguing, no begging, no pleading. Simply return the child to bed with each attempt to leave and repeat the line.
Children are incredibly persistent, so this may take 50 or 100 attempts on the first few days! But just remember that consistency is the key and any emotional response (either positive or negative) can be reinforcing to the child. If you’re getting angry, the child will know the tactics are working. Stay neutral. If you are consistent, the arguments should usually decrease after day 3 of using this technique.
4. Reward the Good Nights
Toddlers love rewards. Sticker charts can work wonders for changing behaviors. If bedtime has become a battle, simply let the child know that he or she will get a sticker on the chart for every good night. Once a certain number of stickers are accumulated, the child can get a small, non-food reward.
With a full day of work and play, sometimes it can be challenging to fit in a solid night’s rest. Although it’s not at the top of everyone’s to-do list, sleep gives both you and your children the energy you need to tackle another day.
For the majority of children, the combination of using a routine, setting limits and rewarding good behavior will be the keys to a good night’s sleep for your toddler. But if you’ve tried all of the above to no avail, or you worry that your child may have an underlying medical or psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, please be sure to speak with your pediatrician.
About The Author
Dr. Sujay Kansagra Sujay Kansagra, MD is an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center and is Mattress Firm's Sleep Health Expert. He is also the Program Director of the Pediatric Neurology Residency Program and Director of the Duke Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program. Dr. Kansagra is double board certified in both Child Neurology and Sleep Medicine. He has published over 30 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals and is the author of numerous book chapters and books on the topic of sleep, including My Child Won’t Sleep. He’s been featured on Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Bustle, SheKnows, Thrillist, CNN, and Reader’s Digest, among others and can be found regularly discussing sleep, medicine and education with his 129K+ Twitter followers via his accounts, @medschooladvice and @PedsSleepDoc. Best Night’s Sleep: Not just a sleep expert, but also an expert sleeper, Dr. Kansagra can sleep almost anywhere, thanks to years of sleep deprivation during medical school and residency call nights. But his best sleep is at home with his family, on a mattress he purchased at Mattress Firm long before he joined our team. He recently upgraded it with an adjustable base.