As parents, time is one of our most precious commodities.
However, when you’re in a bedtime battle with your toddler who is taking 30 or more minutes to fall asleep, it’s not just time that you are losing but also your patience may be running a bit thin with the multiple trips back to their bedroom or fulfilling just “one more drink of water.” After all, you are tired too and need a break from being a parent of a toddler. The question is, why is your little one taking so long to fall asleep?
If you don’t already know this, I have three boys and my youngest is 3 years old and boy, has he recently given this sleep coach a run for her money with bedtime. I’m talking multiple times out of his bed, asking for “one more drink,” “I need to go potty,” or “one more book.” Even a pediatric sleep consultant has sleep challenges with her kids!
It’s important to first look at your toddler’s wake windows and nap schedule.
It could be simply a timing issue that is causing the bedtime battles. Remember, there must be enough wake time from the time they wake from their nap to the time that you put them to bed for their body to be ready for sleep. However, this works conversely too. If their wake windows are too long, they will often struggle with falling asleep because they are overtired. Take a look at the Total Sleep Needs by Age document as part of our downloadable resource library.
Next, look at the length of their naps.
I generally fall into the “let them sleep” crowd until the length of their naps begins to impact their ability to fall asleep at bedtime. As children get older, their need for sleep begins to decrease, keeping in mind that every child’s sleep needs are different, of course! Take for example a 4-month-old who needs somewhere in the range of 12-16 hours of total sleep per 24 hours and a 3 year old that is somewhere between 12-14 hours. The younger child biologically needs more rest than the older child. If your child is sleeping too long during the day, they won’t be ready for sleep at bedtime. If your toddler is taking a 2.5-3 hour nap and struggling at bedtime, consider capping their nap at 2 hours and see if that improves their bedtime battles. If your toddler is sleeping less than 2 hours and still struggling, try capping the nap early by 15-30 minutes.
Does your toddler have variability in the time they are waking in the morning?
I am talking about more than 45-60 minutes of variation in wake-up time. If you notice that they are waking up at different times each morning, this could be impacting their bedtime. Most commonly I see toddlers who have struggled to fall asleep at bedtime, which in turn makes them sleep longer in the morning. This later wake-up time throws their nap time, which in turn creates a bedtime struggle if they do not have enough sleep pressure to be ready for bed. Keeping a regular wake-up time, no matter if they struggled to fall asleep the night before or not, is key to setting the stage for the rest of the day (and night!). I recommend waking your child within a 30-minute window every morning. For example, if they normally wake up at 6:30 a.m. but they are still asleep at 7:00 a.m., I would wake them by 7:00 a.m. to keep them on a schedule. A consistent wake-up time sets the stage for a consistent bedtime.
Moving onto reasons other than timing and sleep that could be impacting your toddler’s inability to fall asleep within 10-20 minutes.
Developmental milestones can greatly impact a child’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep at any age. You may notice that when your child is going through big developmental growth such as an explosion of new words or learning to run, their sleep is often impacted. This looks like bedtime struggles when there never was any. During these times of growth, there is not much that you can do but wait it out. Keeping a predictable routine for sleep is important as children thrive on consistency.
The last one is a big one. Do you have a toddler negotiator on your hands?
If you do, you know what I am talking about! They are the kiddos who ask for “one more drink” which turns into five, or “one more book” which promptly turns into three. I also hear about the “one more hug” or “one more kiss” toddler who knows how to get you right where it hurts.
But here’s the thing, no matter the request they all have one thing in common. The ability to make a request and stall bedtime. I hear all the time from parents, “What if they are thirsty or need just one more hug.”? No, one wants to deny their child of any biological need or the request for love.
Let me ask you one thing, have you met all their “needs” before putting them to bed? Did you offer them a drink of water? Did you give them a big snuggle before putting them in their bed? Did you read a book (or two) to them? If you answered, yes, then you’ve met their needs. After that, it’s all about negotiating and if there is one thing I have learned about negotiating with a toddler, it’s a slippery slope.
If you have found yourself in negotiating territory, the easiest way out is to set the boundary. For example, you’ve said you were going to read 2 books instead of an unlimited amount and at the end of the two books, storytime is over. The key to implementing this is to discuss the change in how many books you will be reading at bedtime, before the start of the bedtime routine and have them choose the designated amount of books ahead of time. This gives them a chance to anticipate what your expectation is at the end of the two books but often this does not resolve itself with just one night. There will be pushback and rightfully so! You are making a change to what is the norm to their bedtime routine and they are going to protest this change. But with consistency, they will learn that the new “rule” is here to stay and will begin to comply with very little protest. This is often called Extinction Bursts and it applies to many parts of parenting. In short, an unwanted behavior will often worsen before it gets better when the child is pushed up against a new boundary that is being implemented. Stay consistent and give it time!
In conclusion, tackling toddler bedtime battles are no walk in the park – it’s a rollercoaster ride filled with stubborn refusals, dramatic theatrics, and sometimes a touch of anarchy. But with the understanding of wake windows, nap schedules, and setting boundaries, you’ll be able to navigate this wild ride with more confidence and hopefully a less battles. Remember, toddlers are just tiny humans trying to figure out their place in the world – let’s cut them some slack (but not too much)!