It is 10:00 pm, and your toddler insists on playing horse with her father. When the two of you finally convince the bundle of energy to go to bed, you can only groan when you feel a tug on your sheets, what seems like seconds after you have closed your eyes. You look through bleary eyes at the clock – 1.00 am – and try not to groan as your little darling tells you, “Mummy, pee-pee!!”
If you are like many parents, you may believe that you can finally get some reprieve from those late nights of night feeding and comforting your crying baby once your child enters her toddler years. However, you soon realise that you have just moved on to another phase of Parenthood: the Sleepless Years.
There are many possible reasons why your toddler does not seem to have an “off” button. Some toddlers give their parents a hard time during bedtime due to separation anxiety (as their parents often leave them alone for a while to complete their chores), while others may just be that way naturally, taking a while before they fall asleep. Some adults take a while to fall asleep while others drift off to dreamland the moment their heads hit the pillow – toddlers are like that too.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to establish a routine with your toddler, so that she would go to sleep at a reasonable hour and let you go to work the next morning without looking like a cranky zombie.
Wind your toddler down before bedtime.
Your toddler will be less likely to fall asleep when it is bedtime if she is an excited bundle of energy. Therefore, a few hours before bedtime, slow things down around the house. Keep a calm and quiet environment, make her put away her toys and switch off the TV or iPad ahead of bedtime, dim the lights a little and let her enjoy some low-key activities such as story time. As your toddler’s energy level slowly ebbs as bedtime draws near, you would have an easier time getting her to fall asleep.
Establish the “3B” routine.
3B stands for bath, book and bed. Each day, leading up to your toddler’s bedtime, establish a fun routine comprising bathtime, a bedtime story and then, tucking your toddler in, pulling the covers over her. You can also try singing your toddler to sleep if you need a break from reading her favourite story for so many times.
It may be a challenge to get your toddler to stick to this routine, so use the creativity and even, sneakiness that every parent instinctively has. For example, you can offer rewards such as an extra story if your toddler follows the routine without much fuss.
Initially, your toddler may call you to come back to read her another story or just to be with her a little longer. Break this habit gently by telling her that you need to be away for a while so she needs to stay in her bed, and you will check on her 5 minutes later. If she keeps calling you to come back, wait a longer time each time before you check up on her again. Once your toddler realizes that you are never far away, she will feel safe enough to fall asleep on her own.
Your toddler will also come up with other tactics to delay being sent to bed. Something will always need to be done right away, or a toy will be missing and you need to help her find it. You can anticipate these requests in advance and incorporate them into the daily pre-bedtime routine. For instance, placing your toddler’s favourite water bottle next to her bed will stop those repeated requests for water. You can also allow her one request before you leave her to sleep. This way, she will feel that she is getting her way and will be more inclined to go to sleep.
Let the toddler make some choices.
Toddlers love to feel important and that they are getting their way, so play to your toddler’s inner diva by offering her some choices in certain matters, such as her choice of pajamas and the story she wants you to read to her. The trick here is to offer only 2 options, options that would make you happy regardless of whichever your toddler chooses. Yes, this seems sneaky, but parents are allowed to be sneaky when it comes to their children.
Be firm, hold your ground.
Like everything else in parenting, you have to be resolute and stick to your decisions despite the tears, pitiful begging, wailing and blubber your toddler throws your way. It may be tempting to give in just that once and let your toddler watch the iPad a little longer, but every time you cave in, your toddler becomes more confident of her power over you and subsequent bedtimes will continue to be power struggles.
However, try to be patient as well, as losing your temper will only make the situation worse.
Have a comfortable bedroom.
Toddlers, like most adults, sleep best in dark and well-ventilated bedrooms. Make sure that your toddler sleeps on a comfortable mattress, and if she tends to kick off the sheets while she sleeps, let her wear some socks should she get cold at night. Also, make sure that sounds of the TV or other distractions cannot be easily heard from the bedroom. This will allow your toddler to continue sleeping while you sneak out to catch up on your favourite TV shows.
If your toddler is scared of the dark, try comforting her by telling her that you are close and she is safe. You can also leave a small light on to assure her. If she manages to sleep well, praise her for her courage. Avoid belittling or mocking her fears, as this will only intensify her anxiety. In the meantime, try to find out possible reasons for her fear. She may be watching things that she finds frightening on the TV or iPad.
Who’s afraid of bedtime?
Some toddlers are afraid of the dark, sleeping alone or whatever they imagine is hiding under the bed – or sometimes all 3 at once. This is because, at their age, toddlers have yet to learn how to differentiate between what is real and what is not.
Eventually they will outgrow such fears, but there is a possibility that such fear can cause lingering psychological damage if handled poorly by the parents.
If your toddler repeatedly brings up her fears during bedtime, try the following:
- Be supportive. Even if the idea of a giant monster hiding under the bed may seem absurd to you, humour your toddler and comfort her by making a show of checking under the bed and saying loudly that there is nothing there before you tuck her into bed. If she is scared of the dark, keep a small light on or let her sleep close to you so that she can feel your presence nearby. If you have to leave her alone for a short while, keep the bedroom door slightly open so that she can see that you are still close enough to her.
- Avoid frightening situations. Avoid subjecting your toddler to violent or scary stories – this may include some popular fairy tales! Keep a calm, quiet and soothing atmosphere around the house in the evening leading up to her bedtime to help soothe her nerves. You can also read her bedtime stories of children overcoming their fears to inspire her to overcome her own fears.
Another tip you can try is to offer your toddler a symbolic talisman – such as a small torchlight for a toddler who is terrified of the dark, or a favourite doll for one who is scared of sleeping alone – so that she can hold on to it and find some comfort while she tries to sleep.
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