By: Michelle Nortje
My nephew has just entered toddlerhood and he really struggles to fall asleep.
It takes what seems like hours to get him settled and sleepy. “Just one more story”, he says, with heavy eyelids. He frequently wakes up during the night. And this can impact on his sibling by waking him up as well.
I’m sure that this sounds like a familiar bedtime if you are the parent of a little toddler. Is your toddler also struggling to sleep?
Many toddlers struggle with initiating sleep or staying asleep. This might be because they have night-time fears or they need something or someone to go to sleep with. These kinds of experiences can be incredibly draining for caregivers. It impacts on their own sleep time routines, daytime productivity and mood. All children are different and have their own temperaments and needs. However, here are a few general ways to understand sleep time with your toddler to make sure the whole family is getting enough rest!
The Value of Sleep
Sleep is an important building block for young minds to grow and develop. In general, toddlers need to sleep for about 12 to 14 hours over a 24-hour period, including daytime naps of roughly 1 to 2 hours. So, if children don’t get enough sleep it can impact on their energy levels, mood and learning.
Screen for physical causes of sleep problems
Children can sometimes struggle to sleep if they are unwell. For example, a toddler with an ear infection is going to struggle to have consistent sleep throughout the night. Your GP will be able to screen for illness to make sure this is not playing a role in your child’s sleep problems.
Sleep as a Separation
For some toddlers, sleep is experienced as a long separation from their parents. They may fear of missing out on what happens after they go to bed. This can fill them up with worry or restlessness. One reason some children may resist sleep is because they don’t want to be away from their caregiver. They may demand the parent to remain with them while they fall asleep. Or they may try to delay bedtime. Some separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate at this age, as toddlers start to learn that a parent may leave (for example, to go to work), but that they also return again.
Routine and Consistency Improve Sleep Quality
Parents can use predictable routines to help their toddler feel safe. Then the separations of sleep doesn’t feel so scary. Therefore it is beneficial to have an established bedtime routine. Caregivers can use cues to help remind children when the bedtime routine is about to start. For example, a warm bath, reading a book together, holding their transitional object (a teddy or special blanket) or saying good night to siblings are cues that the bedtime process has begun.
Other Ways of Building a Healthy Bedtime Routine
Some other tips for building a healthy bedtime routine include:
- setting a regular bedtime
- keeping the bedroom relatively dark and quiet
- avoiding sugary food and drinks
- ensuring a regular morning wake time
- limiting screen time.
Remember to include your toddler in the bedtime process. Give them some control over small choices like which pyjamas to wear or which book to read.
Turn-Taking at Bedtime
Bedtime rituals can be a demanding time of the day, especially when parents are tired after a long day at work. It can be helpful for parents to take turns putting their toddler to sleep. This helps to:
- keep parents energy and patience levels up;
- build secure attachments for both parents;
- and share parenting responsibilities.
Regulating Your Own Emotions
Emotional bedtime routines and red-faced tantrums can be awful for parents to tolerate. You may feel like you want to start crying and falling to pieces just like your toddler! This is such a normal response to sitting with a dysregulated child as they struggle to sleep. However, if parents can help themselves to remain calm in the face of their child’s tears, it can make the bedtime process much less tumultuous. Remember to take a time out or ask for support if you feel like you are becoming overwhelmed.
If you notice that your child’s sleep is impacting on their ability to play and engage during the rest of their day, it may be helpful to reach out to a psychologist who can assist in implementing these and other personalised strategies.