By Briony (@infantsleepclinic)
Newborn and baby sleep challenges are talked about all the time. Sometimes in early motherhood it feels like you can’t move for being asked how your baby is sleeping! But what happens later on if you’re still struggling to get your child to sleep? If your toddler is fighting sleep and the evenings fill you with dread then you’re not alone. Here, sleep expert Briony from Infant Sleep Clinic talks us through 8 tips for managing bedtime battles to ultimately reach calm and nurturing bedtimes.
Bedtime Battles: Why is sleep still hard?!
Everyone assumes sleep gets easier with age, and while this is true to an extent, don’t panic if your toddler is fighting sleep. Sleep matures roughly around age 3, although some changes in the brain still won’t take place until much later! There is still a huge amount of development and change throughout infancy (0-3) and beyond.
Various factors can make sleep challenging for toddlers and children, even if this looks different to the newborn stage.
For our newborns and babies under 12 months, a lot of sleep disruption comes from physical and biological factors. Rapid growth and development, natural frequent waking to protect against SIDs (sudden infant death syndrome), changes to sleep cycles around 4 months, gassiness, discomfort, mastering massive new language and gross motor skills… you name it, their busy little brains and bodies are going through it.
In the 12-24 month period there is still lots of development going on but it’s all a bit less intense, and similarly between 24-36 months they’re still going through a lot of changes, but it is gradually settling down.
So for our toddlers and children, sleep challenges are actually much more about the emotional, habitual, behavioural and psychological factors that explain why your toddler is fighting sleep, compared with our littler babies.
Bedtime battle stations!
Bedtimes are one of the biggest reported challenges by families with toddlers and older children – whether you’re facing full blown ‘tantrum’ style behaviour, lots of procrastination (“Mummyyyyy, I need a wee! I need a drink!”), or you have to stay in the room with them for a long time when perhaps that isn’t something you feel is sustainable any more – you’re not alone. This is incredibly common.
8 Top Tips for Avoiding Bedtime Battles
- Fill up their cup
It sounds too simple to be true but bedtime really does represent a separation for children. Making sure that we top up the love tank as much as possible with “special time” – 15 minutes can work wonders – every day can help them to go to bed feeling secure. Make this a fun but calm activity before bed. Sticker books are a popular choice. You can’t overdo this one, so as much 1:1 time throughout the week with your child 100% focussed on them as you can manage is really helpful. A popular tip for comforting toddlers going to nursery, drawing a little heart on their hand and on yours to press can feel comforting and connecting if you’re leaving the room after saying goodnight for them to fall asleep.
Never underestimate the power of talking to our children about any upcoming changes or asking if anything is bothering them (nightmares, for example). Make it very clear what will be happening at bedtime – e.g. if you only want to read two bedtime stories, be clear and consistent about this and hold the boundary!
- Check their sleep needs
If your toddler is fighting bedtime it might be a sign they’re moving towards dropping a nap. If you think this is the case, it’s best to cap the nap and slowly reduce it down before losing it altogether. Once gone, you can encourage quiet time in its place.
- Create the right sleep environment and positive connection to the sleep space
Make the bedroom “their” space as much as possible (can they choose the decor or some art for the room?) and play there during the day. Remove any scary shadow casting objects, make sure the room is properly dark at night and an ideal temperature for sleep (16-20 degrees). Avoid sending little ones to their room as a punishment or for time out to keep the association with their sleep space positive in a bid to reduce bedtime battles. “Room parties” in the dark with fun music and glow sticks can really help children bond with their bedroom and start loving the space! Sounds bonkers but it really works!
Toddler bedroom additions:
- Offer routine and consistency
Little ones feel safe when they have predictability in their days and following the same routine each night before bed helps cue them that it’s time to sleep. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Switching the house to nighttime mode (pulling curtains, no screens), bath, book and bed are classics for a reason!
- Rehearse bedtime using toys and role play
Practising the bedtime routine, such as putting favourite cuddlies to bed (or even better, let them be the parents and put you to bed!) is a great way to help toddlers and young children understand what is expected of them at bedtime.
- Audit nutrition, activity levels and screen time
If bedtime battles are becoming a nightmare and your toddler is fighting their sleep, it is a good time to do an audit of these things. Ensure refined sugar is being cut down and not consumed too close to sleep time (ideally not after 4pm). Getting lots of physical activity throughout the day is always helpful, and minimising blue light from screen exposure is really important for the production of melatonin (our sleepy hormone!)
- Give your child a sense of autonomy
Giving little ones more control really helps reduce bedtime battles as they don’t feel so much need to rebel and assert their independence. Can they choose which pyjamas to wear? Their toothbrush colour? Which bedtime book you read or song you sing?
Sometimes these things sound too simple to make a difference but you would be amazed at the number of families who find with these changes alone, bedtimes move from a chaotic battle-zone to really lovely, peaceful times to reconnect.
Briony Langley is a holistic infant sleep coach and author at @infantsleepclinic, helping tired families get more sleep without sleep training, just gentle, responsive methods for little ones from newborn to 6 years old. She understands that each child and family is unique and offers bespoke support for differing ages and needs, with child but also parental mental health and wellbeing at the core of her approach.
Her children’s picture book Megara’s Magic School: Bedtime Spell for Dragon Realms will be published in August 2022.