How to Reduce Toddler Bedtime Battles
By: Jenn Kelner, CPA, CA
Certified Child Sleep Consultant
Mirela, a.k.a One Tired Mom asks:
Q: I am in a tough financial situation that my boys (aged 7 and 2) sleep in the same bedroom. We have a two bedroom apartment. My two year old puts up a fight with his 8pm bedtime. I try to give him a bath before bed, read to him, anything to calm him down. His tantrums can last until 11pm-midnight. My seven year old cannot sleep at all throughout this and is going to school very tired. I am worried that his grades will be affected. I would let the two year old sleep in my room, but I have my newborn daughter there with myself and my husband. Its a full house and there is not enough room. How do I get my two year old to want to sleep?
After a long, busy day, the last thing you want to be doing is struggling to get your toddler to bed. No matter how tired they are, they always manage to get a burst of energy when they need it the least. Patient Mom becomes Cranky Mom and bedtime ends in tears for everyone. So how can we make bedtime easier and reduce toddler bedtime battles?
Before I suggest some strategies, let’s talk about why this little toddler might be fighting bedtime. One of the reasons many children fight bedtime is because they are overtired. Once a child gets past the drowsy stage and enters the overtired stage, their bodies release adrenaline and cortisol, giving them that second wind. It can sometimes take another two hours for their bodies to relax and get drowsy again, so we really want to make sure we avoid that overtired state and get them into bed at a good time.
Another thing to consider is that a sleep debt can accumulate over time. Since this little toddler hasn’t been falling asleep until 11pm or later, his body is not getting the sleep it needs. A two year old should be getting an average of 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, and every hour that they miss gets added to their sleep debt. If a child has been going to bed an hour late every night for a week, they now have seven hours to catch up on. The symptoms of sleep deprivation may not show up right away, and you may find that all of a sudden your child starts waking more frequently at night, gets more frustrated and emotional during the day, or resist naps and bedtime. An earlier bedtime will help eliminate his sleep debt as well as reduce the risk of getting into the overtired phase, not to mention he’ll be fast asleep by the time your older child is ready for bed. At my house, my two year old twins go to bed no later than 7pm every night, otherwise the battles begin.
In addition to an earlier bedtime, you want to give him enough time to wind-down before bed. Choose activities that are relaxing and fun for the both of you! Let him choose his own stories, read to him in Mommy’s big bed, sing some songs together – anything that you with both enjoy. This should be a relaxing time for both of you and if Mom is getting anxious and uptight, he will too. Once you choose a good bedtime routine, keep it as consistent as possible. Children love routine and consistency, and it will help him relax before bed if everything is familiar and predictable.
It’s important to reinforce positive behaviour with lots of hugs and praise, and avoid reinforcing the negative behaviour. Even negative reinforcement like getting angry is enough for children to continue the behaviour. Catch him doing good, even if its something small like playing happily in the bath, and tell him how special he is. Consistency here too will go a long way. Who doesn’t like to be told how awesome they are??