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 she is, and a serious case of FOMO.

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

  • Start by asking: If there’s a unique reason why your toddler can’t fall asleep – if she gets too hot in her bedroom, or if she is having scary dreams she 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 she is still in a crib or crib-sized toddler bed, eventually she is going to start to get big enough that she starts to feel a little constrained in her 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 her needs and desires, she may be ready to start to break out the excuses when she wants to put off going to bed. Is she hungry, does she 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 her 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 she 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 she 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 she gets tucked in with the red or the blue blanket isn’t going to take away from your eventual goal of sending her off into a deep sleep, but it may make her feel better about the things she 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 she can see the light, or hear you singing along to the radio can help Baby feel connected as she drifts off – and reassure her that you’re not going out for ice cream without her.

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