Sleep deprivation: it’s the one thing every man, woman and dog cheerily warned you about when you were pregnant.
You may have smiled and nodded vaguely, acknowledging your acceptance of the fate that awaited you. But in all honestly, unless you previously worked the graveyard shift or had experience caring for very tiny babies, you probably had no idea how truly exhausting and relentless it could be.
The reality is that none of us do, until we become a parent and are living in the thick of it, snatching handfuls of rest between 1 and 3am and wondering how we ever possibly complained about sleep B.C (before child). And yet, while we’re never quite able to fill our sleep tank in the first few months after bringing a new baby home, we’re able to soldier on in the knowledge that ‘this too shall pass’.
After all, every baby learns to go to sleep on their own eventually – don’t they?
So say all the experts, who confidently trot out statistics reporting that “most babies can self-settle and sleep through by 12 months of age”.
This was a golden nugget that I desperately clung to for months and months on end. I believed it after devouring book after book, reading article after article, and watching one sleep whisperer after another on YouTube, as I was attempting to find that one ‘magic solution’ that would deliver my baby and I a swift, uncomplicated bedtime routine, once and for all.
Eventually she got there. But as she approached her second birthday, her sleeping habits began to regress.
Before long, I had a hefty toddler on my hands who hated bed time with a passion. She resisted going to bed, couldn’t fall asleep if she was on her own and if, God forbid, she awoke during the night, it was impossible to resettle her back to sleep in any bed other than my own.
I’d somehow ended up in that special kind of sleep hell that parents of tired toddlers know only too well.
But, we made it to the other side. After making a few small but significant changes, she began going to bed without complaint – and just as importantly, she stayed there until six or seven the following the morning.
So what did we do? If you’re struggling to get your toddler into a simple, swift bedtime routine, these are the five proven tips I followed to help encourage better, more consistent bedtime habits.
Be militant with your night time schedule
Sleep training and strict bedtime routines are the domain of parents with newborn babies, right? Yes – and no.
Yes, in the sense that babies generally thrive when they’re given consistent, regimented sleep-time cues. But toddlers thrive under this regime, too. If your little one is resisting bedtime, it may be time to return to the rigid and predictable routines parents use when their babies are new to the world.
In this regard, it took a blunt, no-nonsense chat with a very good friend for me to appreciate that I was just as much a part of the problem as my toddler was in creating a harmonious bedtime routine. When she asked me what we did in the lead up to lights out, I replied, “Well, it depends.”
Some nights she had a bath; some nights a shower; sometimes nothing at all.
Sometimes my daughter was allowed to snuggle in bed with me and watch cartoons on TV for 20 minutes before bed, during which time she’d almost always fall asleep. Other nights I was too busy for snuggle time, so she was offered an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on her tiny portable DVD player instead.
Every night she had story time, although the number of books we read varied between one and four, depending on how late it was, how tired we were and whether a new episode of The Walking Dead was waiting for mummy and daddy to devour in the living room.
In other words, her bedtime routine was all over the place. No wonder she was confused and reluctant to go to bed – every night we presented her with a smorgasbord of options, some more fun than others.
“You know what you have to do,” my friend told me firmly. Her message came through loud and clear: stop taking the easy route out with TV-related distractions and establish a clear and consistent routine.
So, that’s what we did. Bath-time became a non-negotiable nightly appointment and after telling her the DVD player ‘broke’, we initiated a three-book rule. Her bedtime routine became predictable and everyone’s expectations of how the night would progress were established upfront. This meant there was less room for negotiating, distraction and delay tactics.
I didn’t think she would give up TV time so easily, but the first night she followed our lead without complaint… and she did the same on the second, and the third. It was truly a sleep miracle.
Be consistent to the point of obsession
As well as returning to a strict nighttime routine, we also followed the mantra of “being consistent” as if our life (or more realistically, our sleep-induced sanity) depended on it.
This meant going through the sequence in the exact same order every night: run bubble bath, go to the toilet while water is running, play in the bath for 30 minutes, get dressed into PJs, brush teeth, rinse mouth and have a drink of water, hop into bed, read three books with mummy and/or daddy, choose a bedtime toy to snuggle…
And then go to sleep.
If we altered the routine in any way – by brushing teeth in or before the bath, for instance – it had the potential to throw off the rest of the night’s proceedings.
So, we followed the schedule as prescribed. It was as simple and as complicated as that. And amazingly, it worked.
Introduce a snuggle toy or blanket
If you haven’t already, giving your child a special bedtime toy or blanket to help them calm down and get ready for bed is a proven and time-honoured strategy for helping little ones go to sleep, and then stay there through the night.
Baby and toddler sleep whisperers are generally big advocates of sleep comforters – not to be confused with the much-maligned sleep aids, which generally require mum or dad’s input (such as dummies that need to be tossed back into the bed or cot when misplaced).
Sleep comforters, such as flat, super-soft toys and baby blankets, offer your child warmth and reassurance. It’s something they can easily find for themselves if they wake in the middle of the night, which helps them to resettle without needing any intervention or assistance.
They’re also ideal for toddlers who are a little too attached to mum or dad; if your little one prefers to have a parent in the room with them as they’re nodding off, a sleep comforter may just be an adequate substitute.
It’s never too late to introduce one, either. It wasn’t until my daughter was aged three-and-a-half that she was inspired by a Kindie friend to begin bonding with a blanket. She wanted a “fluffy” to cuddle with at naptime just like Matty, so we rummaged through her old baby boxes and retrieved a soft baby blanky for her.
She ended up asking for it at nighttime as well and it’s since become an integral part of her bedtime routine.
Put them to bed earlier
Encouraging your toddler to enjoy a good night’s sleep isn’t just about getting them to bed – it’s also about them staying there until a reasonable hour the following morning.
If your toddler wakes with the sun, even if the sun first peeps across the horizon at 4.15am, it can create all sorts of havoc in terms of general moods and vitality for the day ahead (for both the parent and child!)
One of the first and most obvious things you can do is darken their environment by installing blackout curtains, so their awareness of ‘first light’ becomes blurred. Also make sure that any night-lights you switch on at bedtime are flicked off before you go to bed.
Most kids wake up for the day somewhere between 5.30am and 7am, but if you have an early riser on your hands and you want to encourage them to sleep a little later, it makes sense to put them to bed later – or so one might think.
Sleep experts actually say that the opposite is true; they claim that sleep promotes sleep, and that an earlier bedtime may result in your child sleeping in a little later.
It’s definitely easier to coax a happy toddler towards the bedroom than it is to wrestle an over-tired, cranky two-year-old into pyjamas, and there’s no evidence to suggest that an earlier bedtime will result in an earlier wake time. There’s not much to lose by following this advice, but plenty to gain – including an extra hour or two of blessed kid-free adult time in the evening. Bliss.
Make bedtime fun – but not too much action before bed
Toddlers generally don’t look forward to bedtime. As a rule, they much prefer to be playing, exploring, climbing and eating, and the idea of putting all of that to the side so they can rest is low on their list of “things I love to do”.
They also don’t want to be separated from their parents or siblings, especially when they risk missing out on any number of fun activities they feel might be going on.
That’s why it’s a good idea to make the lead-up to bedtime fun, with a focus on wearing them out and depleting their energy.
It could be a soft, silly pillow fight that happens every night just after teeth brushing. You might turn into the tickle monster, chasing your toddler to their bedroom for a few minutes of tickle-time before stories.
In our house, we play a silly game every night that involves singing our own made-up “go to sleep” song, before bouncing on the bed until we all fall down. It’s a great incentive to hurry the kids through their night time routine – “if you don’t brush your teeth right now, we’ll run out of time to play the ‘go to sleep’ game!” – and it means that the last thing we do together is have a giggle and a laugh, ending the evening on a high note.
A mix of the above advice and ideas helped us get our little one into a solid bedtime routine, which we were able to easily replicate when our second daughter came along.
The biggest lesson learnt was that sleep matters – a lot. If you’re trying to get through your days with an empty sleep tank of your own, due to a tired toddler who battles you at bedtime each night, life can seem a whole lot more exhausting than it needs to be.
It’s never too late to correct bad bedtime habits, though, so if you can’t recall the last time you put your little one to bed without a fight, don’t despair. The suggestions in this article are just some of the strategies you can use to encourage better bedtime routines; you can also connect with other parents for dozens of other tips and tricks to get your little one sleeping well.
While we may struggle to get our babies and toddlers to slide into an easy bedtime routine initially, with consistency and repetition, all children are able to learn positive sleep time routines and behaviours eventually.
And when all else fails, it pays to remember: ‘This too shall pass’!