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Prepare for Battle! Toddler and Preschooler Bedtimes


Is your toddler making a million requests at bedtime to keep you coming back? Have you fallen asleep in your toddler’s room more than once this week? Here are some strategies for making bedtime a little smoother:

  • Make sure you are asking your toddler to sleep when she’s ready to sleep. Recent research finds that a toddler’s circadian rhythm drifts later with time. In addition, children are more sensitive to light than adults and evening light exposure drives sleep later. If you try for bedtime at 7:00, but your toddler never falls asleep until 9:00 it’s possible that you are asking your child to sleep at a time when her body is telling her to be awake. To complicate things further, the strongest drive to be awake happens before bedtime, so your toddler may be fully charged and ready to battle you. Try moving bedtime to your child’s fall asleep time to compensate for this biological drift. Also, be sure to keep the lights dim in the evening, because light resets the biological clock.

  • Anticipate your child’s needs during the bedtime routine. If your child requests water or the potty after your bedtime routine, then make sure you have these needs built into your bedtime routine. It’s impossible to be consistent in enforcing bedtime if you haven’t provided your child with everything she needs to be comfortable.

  • Avoid abrupt transitions. It may be tempting, but don’t run out of the room as soon as you turn off the light. Toddlers don’t do well with abrupt transitions, so layer your response – turn out the light and then sing a song together in the dark (as a defined part of your routine) before you make your exit.

  • When the routine is over, it’s over. Make sure your child understands the routine, by creating a chart or book describing what you do in your routine. Have your child check things off as you complete them and have a clearly defined end.

  • Don’t give in. Toddlers do best with clear rules. You want to allow your child to understand that once the bedtime routine is over the expectation is to lay down and sleep. When you respond to some requests, but not others you are giving your child a reason to keep asking. Giving in occasionally might not seem like a big deal, but intermittent rewards are actually the most powerful way to reinforce behavior.

  • Start with a realistic goal. If you know that you will not feel comfortable leaving the room and staying out, then plan to make small adjustments that fit your parenting style and your child’s needs. For example, you can use all of the tips that we suggest while making a small change within your child’s room. If you currently lay with your child until she falls asleep, then start your plan using these rules, but sitting on her bed rather than laying next to her. Move to a chair once she’s ok with you being on the bed and leave the room after she’s ok having you in the chair. There can still be rules about what happens before and after the routine even if you are staying in the room with your child.

  • Don’t say ‘no.’ When your child makes requests, you don’t want to say ‘no,’ because that is a trigger for battle. You also don’t want to engage in conversation (e.g. “you just had dinner, so I know you aren’t hungry”). Instead, pick a simple phrase that lets your child know what you expect. For example, to every request simply say, “good night, I love you, I’ll see you in the morning.” Stay calm and boring, so that your child loses interest in asking.

  • It will get worse before it gets better. If your child is used to having you respond in a certain way and you start to do things differently, she’ll probably try everything to get you to do what you used to do. It’s very important to be ready for 3-4 rough nights before your child accepts the new way of doing things. This will be true even for very small changes.

  • Don’t move your child to a toddler bed until age THREE. Really. Seriously. Don’t do it. Two year olds do not have impulse control and there is no incentive that you can provide that is better than seeing you! This means that you will probably have a bunch of regressions where your child gets out of bed to find you whenever there is a minor life disruption (late bedtime, travel, meeting new cousins etc.). In order to avoid these regressions and having to do unpleasant intervention, hold off on the toddler bed until your child can understand why she needs to stay there.

References

LeBourgeois, M.K., Wright Jr, K.P., LeBourgeois, H.B. and Jenni, O.G., 2013. Dissonance between parent‐selected bedtimes and young children's circadian physiology influences nighttime settling difficulties. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(4), pp.234-242.

Higuchi, S., Nagafuchi, Y., Lee, S.I. and Harada, T., 2014. Influence of light at night on melatonin suppression in children. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 99(9), pp.3298-3303.

Davis, K.F., Parker, K.P. and Montgomery, G.L., 2004. Sleep in infants and young children: part two: common sleep problems. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 18(3), pp.130-137.

Simpkin, C.T., Jenni, O.G., Carskadon, M.A., Wright Jr, K.P., Akacem, L.D., Garlo, K.G. and LeBourgeois, M.K., 2014. Chronotype is associated with the timing of the circadian clock and sleep in toddlers. Journal of sleep research, 23(4), pp.397-405.

Akacem, L.D., Wright Jr, K.P. and LeBourgeois, M.K., 2018. Sensitivity of the circadian system to evening bright light in preschool‐age children. Physiological reports, 6(5), p.e13617.

Akacem, L.D., Simpkin, C.T., Carskadon, M.A., Wright Jr, K.P., Jenni, O.G., Achermann, P. and LeBourgeois, M.K., 2015. The timing of the circadian clock and sleep differ between napping and non-napping toddlers. PLoS One, 10(4).

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