It is to every family member’s advantage if we can encourage sound resting and sleeping habits in our youngsters. We all need to be calmed and rejeuvenated from the many experiences and stresses we have each day. We all need differing amounts of sleep and have differing temperaments.
Toddlers need around 10-12 hours sleep at night and around 2 hours in the middle of the day. Our children’s brains and body need sufficient sleep in order to develop properly. Toddlers are by nature, wanting to be independent and we need to support this in positive, acceptable ways.
There are certain strategies that we can use to encourage rest and sleep in our young ones. These include rituals, physical activity, routines, affection, reassurance, consistency, giving positive attention and power, good communication, an authoritative parenting style, recognising signs of tiredness, preparing the sleep room and providing quality nutrition and water.
Preparing the Sleep Room
The sleep room needs to be fairly dark and very safe, remembering that your child may climb out and explore. A child under 2 should not use a pillow as it is unsafe. It is not necessary for the family members to suddenly do everything quietly as children can sleep with background noise. A night light or dimmer can be provided if your child complains that it is too dark. It is a good idea to check your child before retiring for the night, to see if he/she is in his/her cot/bed and comfortably warm. If your child tends to wake early in the morning, you may want to invest in thicker curtains.
Recognising signs of tiredness
When your youngster is tired she/he may rub her/his eyes, blink a lot, yawn, become grumpy, cry, be overactive, clumsy, and fussy with food. Your child is likely to lose interest in toys and be rather clingy and look tired. Your child’s eyes may become watery looking.
We need to make sure that there is nothing sharp in the bedroom and that any chords are out of reach. Young children can be quite adept at climbing so we need to ensure that large furniture such as bookshelves and drawers are unable to be tipped over. Windows need to be secured so that the child can’t escape. Electrical appliances must be out of reach or removed and any stairs near the room gated in case the child is able to get out of the room.
Young children are experts at fiddling with paint or wallpaper if it is peeling and we need to fix this situation. Bottles of milk or water should not be left in bed with young children as this is dangerous. Some young children go through a phase of head-banging. It is wise for the parents to not pay too much attention to this. He/she can be distracted in some way. It is normally fairly short lived. If not, check with a doctor.
The toddler bedtime ritual can begin between 6.30 and 7.30 generally. Young children can be bathed, fed, given some water, his/her nappy changed or the potty/toilet visited, pyjamas put on and teeth cleaned. Try to use a positive and calm tone when leading your child to the bathroom and bedroom. Tell your child that she/he can have 2 stories (perhaps one of her/his choice and one that you pick) when she/he is ready for bed. Spend some time asking questions about the stories or books, and then talk to your child about his/her day. I used to ask mine for a good thing that happened and a bad thing. It’s a good idea to listen actively and validate your child’s feelings.
You may like to talk about something interesting that is coming in the future or tell your own story. Then tell your chid that it is rest time and you would like him/her to stay in his/her cot/bed to rest. Give your child a comfort object and a book, if she/he wants them. Then give a kiss and a hug and say goodnight. If your child cries, allow him/her to cry for a couple of minutes before going back and repeating that it is rest time and that he/she needs to stay in his/her cot/bed. Give a pat and leave for 4 minutes. If your child is still crying repeat the aforementioned and wait for 6 minutes before going back in. Providing your child is well, she/he will get the message that you will not be allowing her/him to come out of her/his room after bedtime.
If you give in, your child is likely to cry hard next time to get your attention. If your child gets up, lead him/her back to bed each time and make it clear that he/she needs to stay in his/her bed and quieten down; that it is bed time. Of course you need to keep an ear out for safety reasons. If you do this consistently your child will get the message. If your child gets out of bed during the night, after sleeping awhile, let her/him know firmly that it is sleeping time and that she/he needs to go back to bed and again lead her/him back.
It is best to not re-enforce inappropriate behaviour, by giving the minimum of attention. I would only give a little water if your child is thirsty, at night. Children need to learn to self soothe more at night time, I believe. You can give plenty of cuddles and attention during the day. If your child goes to bed without a fuss and sleeps without getting up until the sun rises, it is good to praise him/her for his/her co-operation.
If your child is unwell, then all this advice goes out the window! When your child is sick, try not to put words into your child’s mouth. Ask her/him where it hurts and go from there.
For daytime rests/sleeps, your child can be encouraged to rest for about an hour. If he/she is not asleep after that time I would get him/her up. It’s a good idea to put your child in the cot/bed at around the same time in the afternoon and let her/him know that it is rest time; that she/he can read or play quietly but needs to stay in the cot/(room if older) for an hour. The room needs to be safe and the parent needs to be in earshot. After an hour, the parent/carer can go in and pick the child up if he/she is awake. It is not wise to let your child sleep for longer than a couple of hours during the day, unless your child is ill, to aid night time sleeping.
Affection and Reassurance and Attention
Our children will find it hard to sleep and rest if they are tense or worried about something. We can help them to relax by giving lots of hugs and kisses and encouragement throughout the day. Children, and parents, also thrive when given lots of attention for positive behaviour. If we can give our youngster lots of limited choices throughout each day, they will feel empowered and important. We can also listen to them carefully and try to work out what it is that is troubling them. We can ask specific questions as well. Their body language can reveal much about their emotional state.
Toddlers can be upset about things which we might not be aware of such as vacuum cleaners, thunder, lightening and balloons popping. We need to reflect feelings and thoughts, explain what has happened, is happening and will be occurring in age-appropriate language. Changes and loss can be quite unsettling. If our comforting efforts are insufficient and our child is depressed or anxious, then we need to get some professional help, usually starting with a visit to the Doctor’s.
Physical Activity and Nutrition
Youngsters will normally be fairly active and this needs to be promoted, so that they can climb, jump, swing and run regularly. This will be beneficial for health, immunity and mood. It’s wise not to have too much activity prior to bedtime though. Similarly a balanced, healthy diet is essential, making sure that drinks are not overdone before bedtime.
Having a routine gives some predictability and helps children, and parents, to feel more secure and settled. It also makes daily life easier and more organised. Having meals and morning and afternoon snacks at fairly consistent times can be beneficial, as can sleep and rest times. We, of course, need to be flexible with this when this isn’t possible. As our children get older they need less and less sleep and we need to accommodate this and make the bed time a little later, when it’s appropriate. When my kids were very young, I remember getting into a nice routine many times, and then their needs would change. They certainly know how to teach us flexibility and adaptability!!
There are cultural and parental differences in sleep experiences for children. Children in some families will sleep with their parents, in the same bed or a different cot/bed in the same room. Some children will sleep in a different room to the parents. Some parents prefer to use dummies and or baby monitors while others don’t.
Before Toddler hood
For the first 3 to 6 months, babies often don’t really have much of a day/night routine and it’s wise for parents to be fairly flexible and lower their expectations of getting their normal nights sleep.
More helpful tips
- After 6 months night feeds can gradually be shortened and water offered at night if your child is thirsty.
- It is wise to have more than one comfort toy in case one is misplaced.
- If the child is spending time away from home, it is good to provide at least one comfort object that the child normally has at bed time.
- It is also good to get your child used to the other parent and friend putting him/her to bed occasionally, in case one parent needs to be absent for whatever reason.
- If dummies are used, gradual withdrawal will make life much easier for all family members. Beginning with non-rest/sleep times is a good idea.
- An older child sharing a room can be put to bed a little later, after the younger one has gone to sleep.
- A sleep diary can be useful if you are experiencing lots of problems getting your child to sleep. This can provide a good record for other professionals to give help.
- Parents/carers need to communicate effectively with their children and use an authoritative style of parenting so that their children are more confident, secure and bedtime battles are avoided.
- Lots of stimulating activities during the day are beneficial as well.
- Parents/carers know their children the best and would do well to trust their instincts. Listening to others and reading information about child-rearing can also be valuable.
- If sleep problems are still persisting, a doctor should be seen for advice and possible referral.
- Parents/carers also need to be careful to meet their own needs as best they can and reach out for help from friends and/or health professionals when they are feeling overwhelmed or not coping with life in general.