“Moooooommy… I need a drink…”
“… I have to go to the bathroom…”
“…I need one more book because you promised!”
Bedtime is supposed to be a relaxing end of the day. If you’re like a lot of moms out there, it can feel more like torture. “I want to tear my hair out at bedtime!” one mom woefully told me.
There is no question that toddlers are strong-minded, willful and persistent (what lessons we can all learn from them!)
But the truth is, bedtime doesn’t have to be a battle of wills – or even a minor struggle- to keep your little one in bed, all night, every night.
Proper Bedtime + Well Executed Follow Up = more cooperation and sleep for both of you!
It all starts at bedtime. A proper bedtime is underrated. The quality of your bedtime routine sets the level for the rest of your evening and let me tell you – its a spot-on indication for what you can expect the rest of the night to bring.
Will a thought-out and properly executed bedtime ensure that the rest of night goes well? You’ll still have to work through the behavior changes that are necessary for your toddler, but bedtime is your baseline. Without it, you have very little chance of success.
Here’s what you need to do at Bedtime
- Fill your toddler’s emotional bucket before you leave the room for the night. This means that you connect to your child, in a warm, patient and understanding way. You talk about her day. You snuggle. You cuddle. Your phone is in the kitchen. Your voice is soft. Your tone is love. You have nowhere to go and nothing to do but love. Smell your toddler’s hair. Stroke her cheeks. Rub her back. Experience her. Share the moment together.
- Follow up with firm, empathic limits that you keep with utter calm and consistency. This means that you stick to your sleep plan, which you’ve decided upon well in advance of bedtime. And you do this for 1-2 weeks, perfectly.
Most of them time when we struggle with a smooth bedtime, one or both of those elements are missing. Here is what a bedtime looks without those two elements. Does this happen in your home?
The hour before bed is just like any other hour of the day with your toddler: fast paced, hectic and punctuated by shouts of “don’t touch that! ” or “don’t hit the baby/dog/mommy!” A possible time out or other negative discipline that separates you emotionally from your child. A rushed get-into-pajamas-and-I’ll-read-you-one-book-if-you’re-ready-right-away post bath, followed by a quick rendition of Dr. Seuss, a song or two and it’s time to say goodnight.
After bedtime, your child may come out of bed, cry, or plead for you to come back. She may ask you to stay with her, lay with her, give her another drink or read her one more book. You relax your limits and offer her just one more book, if she promises to go to sleep nicely. Or give her one more snack, because maybe she really is hungry… and finally lay down with her in her bed in desperation, hoping she will fall asleep and you can sneak out and get on with your night.
To your toddler, an evening like this is scary. He feels like he is just another item to check off of your to-do list. Then he has to lay alone in the dark for a very long time. With scary shapes and sounds. Bedtime is the scariest part of the day for most toddlers, because it’s the ultimate separation from you, Mama. That’s why a lot of them don’t like it!
When your toddler gets into bed after a hectic day with a rushed bedtime and feels emotionally disconnected from you, she will cling and cry and beg for what she so badly needs: a calm, gradual transition from her big day out in the world to the peaceful cocoon of sleep.
While we’re on the topic… Toddlers are not manipulative.
Yes they are! (Shh- stop thinking so loud!)
Toddlers are not manipulative. Their job is to test limits and see if they are real. If you fail in your role as a strong steady parent who keeps her word and follows through, that’s more telling about you then your toddler. Harsh but true. You are the leader in your home, and your children will follow your lead.
Here is a scenario that will serve your toddler what she needs: both elements of filling her emotional bucket and setting firm, empathic limits.
The hour before bed is a calm, slow progression towards bed. A relaxing bath followed by a calm change into pajamas, some quiet floor play together with you, and a slow, gentle bedtime routine. The constant theme in the hour before bed is that you, mama, are focused on connecting to your baby, heart to heart. You listen to her, empathize with her and validate her feelings, especially the ones about not wanting to go to bed. You are spending the last few minutes of your child’s day connecting to her and filling her emotional bucket.
Once bedtime is over, you stand firm in the limits you set. Bedtime has rules, such as “we stay in our bed after bedtime” or “the door can stay open if you choose to stay in your bed “ and you back up your rules with a pre-determined plan, whether that be the Silent Return to Bed or Chair in the Room, or another plan you’ve worked out.
Your toddler knows when you mean business. She knows when you’ll cave after the right amount of cajoling, and she knows when you will stand firm. You don’t even have to say anything- she can feel it.
Limits are super important for toddlers. But our job as parents is not just about setting limits. The limits are almost an afterthought. The main role we have as parents is to connect to our children in a loving, positive way, ensuring that their need for love and connection are met every day. When a child’s emotional needs are met, he is a thousand times more willing to follow your lead and obey your family rules. Combine the two elements of emotional connection and backed up with firm limits and you have a recipe for bedtime success.
Of course, bedtime is only the beginning. You will still have to follow up with some behavioral reinforcements if your toddler comes out of bed, or teach her how to fall asleep on her own if she does not know how to. But with a steady and peaceful bedtime routine in place each night, you’re off to a pretty great start.