Toddlers don’t seem to have an off switch. Often, when they’re tired, they just reverberate faster, like an over-wound toy, until they crash.
Toddlers need adequate sleep to rise to the developmental challenges that fill their lives, from controlling their temper on the playground to staying on top of their own bodily functions. Even the stress of saying goodbye to Mom and Dad when the babysitter comes can be handled more resourcefully by a rested toddler than a tired one. Your toddler doesn’t know it, but he needs his sleep.
The bad news is that some kids seem to be born “good” sleepers, and some aren’t. After all, many adults are insomniacs, and while some of them are certainly influenced by environmental factors, some of our ability to sleep easily seems to be innate.
The good news is that falling asleep is a matter of habit, and all kids can learn it. While some kids have a harder time falling asleep than others, all children do start sleeping through the night most nights. It may take some time to develop that habit, but your busy toddler can learn to put himself to sleep, and to stay asleep, eventually. Here’s how:
1. Start the wind-down process early in the evening. Toddlers who’ve been racing around the apartment can’t simply switch gears and decompress when you decide it’s bedtime. The last few hours before bed should be calm and quiet.
2. Follow the same evening routine every night, if possible. Your goal is a sense of calm, safe, inevitability. Dinner, then a bath, then stories, then kissing and tucking in all the stuffed animals who share the toddler’s bed, then prayers or blessings, then lights out while you sing to your little one, is an example of a common and effective routine. Beware of too elaborate a routine, because they have a way of expanding to take more time. But don’t think of bedtime as a chore that’s taking too much time. Think of it as the best part of the day, when you get premium quality time with your little one.
Toddlers who are showing oppositional behavior may resist moving along with the bedtime routine. The best way to sidestep this is to have the clock, rather than you, be the bad guy. Create a chart with photos of your child doing all the steps of the bedtime routine, with a clock time next to the photo. Then point to the photos as you go through the routine every night. Over time your kid will begin to move herself through the routine.
Even better, with a routine your child sees you as her advocate. “Look, it’s 7:15! If we can get out of the tub now and brush your teeth, we’ll have time for an extra story before lights out at 7:30!” That way, you’re on his side, and he doesn’t need to rebel against you. He also begins to learn about responsibility and making smart choices. And, of course, allow plenty of time. It won’t exactly settle your child down if you get impatient or angry.
3. Help your toddler set his “biological clock.” Toddlers need a set time to go to bed every night. Most toddlers do better with an early bedtime; between 6:30 and 8 pm. You’d think a later bedtime would help them fall asleep more easily, but when they stay up later, they get over-tired, and stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol kick in to keep them going. Then they actually have a harder time falling asleep, wake up more during the night, and often wake early in the morning. So keep moving bedtime earlier until you find the time before your little wind up toy starts getting wound up.
Dim lights in the hour before bedtime, as well as slow, calm routines, help kids’ bodies know that it’s time to sleep. If you can take him up to his bath at 6:00, be in bed at 6:30 for stories, and turn the lights out at 7:00pm, he’s much more likely to fall asleep than if you put him into pajamas at 7:25 and snap the lights off. The key is to watch for those yawns that signal he’s getting sleepy. If he kicks into “overdrive” mode, getting him into bed will be much harder.