When your toddler can’t fall asleep

It’s the end of a long day, and you’re exhausted. You’ve had dinner, maybe a bath, maybe a story or two. You’re tired, but when you’re put down into your bed and told it’s time to go to sleep, you find yourself protesting, whether it’s by yelling, crying, or just by insisting that you need one more story, one last glass of water, a slowly-approaching-midnight snack. Does that sound like an illogical response?

If so, it’s probably because you’re looking at the scenario from the point of view of an adult, instead of the point of view of a toddler. Knowing why your toddler may be resisting bedtime more often these days won’t take all of the stress out of the process, but it will help the two of you start to come to an understanding.

Sleep resistance in the toddler years

Of course, every child is different, both physically and emotionally, and both physical and emotional responses can have an effect on their sleep. There are two common threads that can be followed back to sleep resistance, though, and those threads are a toddler’s growing desire to show you (and themselves!) how independent from you he is, and a serious case of FOMO.

In the first case, defying you when you ask him it’s time to get some sleep is a way for him to feel like he is getting some control over his life after a long day of you deciding when he is going to eat, when he is going to take a nap, when he has to come back into the house, and what he can and can’t throw on the floor. The second issue is that, if he has to go to bed, his growing sense of the world around him is going to kick in and remind him that, after you put him to bed, you could head into the other room to do something wildly exciting without him – like the dishes, or folding laundry.

Your response to sleep resistance

There are many different theories about the right way to put children down to bed, and systematic reviews have concluded that most of them work, when parents stick to them. This means that, when it comes to putting Baby to bed, the best way to do it is generally going to be whatever way you find works best for him, and that you feel the most comfortable sticking to, since consistency is the common theme in successful sleep strategies. If your toddler is specifically having trouble falling asleep, though, there are a few specific strategies you can try as you figure out what works best for him.

  • Start by asking: If there’s a unique reason why your toddler can’t fall asleep – if he gets too hot in his bedroom, or if he is having scary dreams he is nervous about, sometimes just asking is all it takes to find out about it. And if you and Baby can take some time during the day, when you’re both in a good mood, to brainstorm some solutions, you may be able to figure out a gameplan for when bedtime rolls around.
  • Location, location, location: It might sound obvious, but Baby is growing all the time, and if he is still in a crib or crib-sized toddler bed, eventually he is going to start to get big enough that he starts to feel a little constrained in his bed. On the other hand, switching to a different bed can itself cause some sleep disruption as toddlers get used to the new set-up. Sleep disruption that happens after switching beds can be frustrating, but it is temporary.
  • Don’t give in to dilly-dallying: Now that Baby is a little bit better at communicating his needs and desires, he may be ready to start to break out the excuses when he wants to put off going to bed. Is he hungry, does he want one more glass of water, or one more hug from you? These can be a way for your toddler to test your limits, and the key is to set his expectations and then follow through on them. Children both do well with routines and adapt to them fairly quickly, so if you set the expectation that you’ll read a certain number of stories, eventually, that’s what your toddler will expect, but if he learns that asking for “just one more” sometimes gets results, there’s a good chance that that will become part of your routine, too.
  • Enter into negotiations: Action-packed TV shows give negotiations a bad name, but if the party you’re negotiating with is your toddler, offering choices now and then can be a helpful way to manage hostilities over bedtime. Whether or not he has to go to bed may not be up for debate, but there are many choices surrounding bedtime that might not make that much difference to you, but which can offer a toddler struggling to have some control over the process a chance to feel a bit better about it. Letting your toddler choose which stories to read, or whether he gets tucked in with the red or the blue blanket isn’t going to take away from your eventual goal of sending him off into a deep sleep, but it may make him feel better about the things he doesn’t get to decide, like when it’s time to get some sleep.
  • So close but yet so far: Bedtime can feel isolating for your toddler, and while some tots sleep best in full darkness and silence, some others are reassured by the reminder that you’re still around, even after you’ve tucked them into bed. Leaving the door open so that he can see the light, or hear you singing along to the radio can help Baby feel connected as he drifts off – and reassure him that you’re not going out for ice cream without him.

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