Ahh toddlerhood…What a wonderful time! Wait, who am I kidding? Any parent of a toddler will tell you that this can be a very challenging time for both children and parents alike. It is an incredible combination of your child learning that he is a unique and individual being with his own set of likes and dislikes and also the knowledge that he can start to be in control of various parts of his life like dressing and undressing himself, going to the potty and making demands such as “I do it myself!” even if it is not something that he is fully capable of. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great parts of toddlerhood like the lightening speed at which he is learning new words or his ability to recall events or obscure details that you long forgot (an inconvenient combination of this is the way he recalls the exact words you used when you discovered a parking ticket on your car 3 weeks ago!). It is an understatement to say that this can be a very challenging time for parents. Despite our brain’s convenient ability to forget the challenging parts of parenting as they fade into the past, I still vividly recall my daughter’s toddler years (she is now 10!) and how every night of toddlerhood, I would fall, with exhaustion, into bed and think to myself “that is one less day of toddlerhood that I have to survive.”
So of course, when it comes to sleep, toddlers can present new and unique challenges that may differ from what you experienced when your child was a baby. Here is just a smattering of what I refer to under the general heading of “toddler sleep shenanigans” as well as some tips to survive them. Some of them are endearing while others may make you swear (either under your breath or more audibly) and wonder “why oh why does the hardest part of the day have to be at the end of the day???!!!!”
Your basic stall tactic
You’re in the home stretch. You’ve brushed teeth, put on the PJs (which may or may not have felt like a wrestling match worthy of WWF), read the books and you’re ready for that final tuck in (you’re so close!) when your child innocently requests a last sip of water. So here you go, back into the bathroom to fill up the cup and while you are in there, he suddenly has the urge to poop which rivals the time your husband spends in the bathroom as soon as he walks in the door after work. Now you have made it back into the bedroom but you must say good night and kiss each and every one of his stuffed animals and tuck them in as well. Before you know it, bedtime is now 45 minutes later then you intended it to be.
What to do: toddlers love their routines and predictability. They also respond well to having the expectations and limits laid out ahead of time. But like anything else with children, when you set a limit but don’t stick to it (inconsistency), your child will push you harder and escalate more quickly to a tantrum. Be sure that your limits are things that you are prepared to follow through on. To handle the last ditch attempt stall tactics, try to preempt as much as you can as telling your child while you are in the bathroom brushing teeth “this is your last chance for sips of water,” “this is your last opportunity to go potty before morning, do you want to try to go now?” And even presenting your toddler with the opportunity to make a last request of you before you walk out like “do you have a last question for me?” This helps them feel like they have the chance to make choices during a process that ends with something that they don’t have a choice about: going to bed. When your toddler protests, be very clear that he has gone to the potty or had his last sips, you will do those things again in the morning. And stick to it!
The call back
You have successfully escaped the room but are now being recalled for one of many “very important” requests. This can be anything from “my finger hurts” to “I’m hungry” to an immediate need to discuss something he learned at school that morning.
What to do: keep interactions brief and try not to troubleshoot and problem solve too much. It is likely that the more you try to come up with solutions to whatever the issue is, the more your child will find other things to request
For older toddlers (3 and up), some children are capable of understanding a “ticket system” which involves giving your toddler 2 or 3 tickets at bedtime and explaining that every time there is a call back, he pays a ticket. If he has tickets remaining in the morning, he can earn a small prize. The prize doesn’t have to be anything grand, depending on your child, a sticker might even suffice.
The early morning wake up call
Just as you were trying to get in your last hour or two of sleep before the alarm goes off, in walks your human alarm (aka: the toddler), ready to start the day. You glance at the clock in disbelief because it can’t possibly say 4am.
What to do: Early rising (as waking between 4 and 6am is know) is one of the most painful and stubborn sleep behaviors to resolve in children. There are some very specific factors that contribute to early rising that you should certainly read up on. Beyond those factors, I highly recommend behavior modification clocks for toddlers, such as the Okay to Wake clock. This clock looks one way when it is time for sleeping (in this case, a soft yellow color) and different (green) when it is time for your child to wake up. You can set the wake up time on the clock (I recommend starting at 6am and then as your child becomes successful at sleeping until 6, you can inch the time later) and teach your child that when it is yellow, it is bedtime/sleeping time and when it turns green, it is okay to get up. If he wakes before the clock is green, he has to go back to sleep. Unfortunately, these clocks don’t work their magic on their own. As a parent, you will need to reinforce it. So, if your child wakes before his clock turns green, you will need to tell him that it isn’t morning, the clock doesn’t say it is and he needs to go back to sleep. It’s okay to blame it on the clock. If, however, you allow your child to get up before the clock changes, the clock becomes meaningless.
There you have it, just a few ways to troubleshoot some of the more challenging toddler sleep behaviors, for more answers to your toddler questions, visit Sleep Tight Consultants on Facebook or contact me to schedule a free 15 minute phone consultation.