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Common Bedtime Mistakes with Toddlers

By |2024-05-10T08:37:19-04:00October 5th, 2017|Categories: Pediatrics, Pregnancy and Parenting|Tags: |

2:30 am, the dead of night. The alarm is set to wake you in a few short hours and then it’s off to a long day at work. But you’re already wide awake, restless and irritable from listening to your 2-year-old crying out to you from the room next door. It’s the third night in a row, a pattern that’s left you exhausted and frustrated.

Against every better instinct, you ignore that voice inside your head (perhaps even the voice of your drowsy spouse) urging you to simply let your child fall back asleep on their own. In that moment, it’s just not that simple. You stumble out of bed, pick up your toddler, bring him or her back into your bed and drift off for a few precious hours of rest.

How many of you have found yourself in this exact situation? If you’re not nodding in agreement, you’re likely a rare exception. This is one of many common mistakes made by parents of toddlers. Some are made in the heat of such a tired and emotional episode. Others stem from pure lack of time or energy, prompted by a single-parent situation or just the utter craziness of most family lives. But don’t despair, because as a mother of two and a pediatrician, I would share that we all make errors in judgement when it comes to our toddler’s sleep routine. The good news is that they can be overcome – as long as you have patience, discipline and consistency… and, most likely, a few sleepless nights.

Consistency and patience are the key to establishing the best routine

Don’t feel distressed. Don’t give in to feelings that you’re a bad parent. It will get better. For some, your child will quickly learn to self soothe and fall/stay peacefully asleep. For others, success only happens if you work hard at it, planning and setting up a proper bedtime routine and sticking with it, night after night, for as long as it takes. For many, it will be a matter of trial and error, and you and your toddler will have to find that happy place together. Every child is different. Every parent is different.

Generally speaking, the bedtime mistakes parents make with their toddlers start when the child is a newborn. So, I can’t stress enough that you should start establishing smart bedtime habits well before your child becomes one to three years of age, or toddler status. When your child is an infant, take gradual steps to make him or her less dependent on you relative to rocking them to sleep or rubbing their back until they’re doze off. It’s amazing how quickly babies will learn good sleep habits. More often than not, the bedtime routines you establish when they’re a newborn carry on into the years ahead.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of putting your child to bed. The differentiating factors between success and failure in getting your toddler to fall asleep at night usually come down to “how” and “when” you put your child to bed. The key, which I can’t stress enough, is to be consistent – in terms of the sequence of activities, the sleep environment and the time of night you initiate the ritual. Establish order, create a system and stick to it. A toddler responds to a disciplined approach, even though sometimes it might not seem that way. As a parent, you must be fully engaged and believe in this process.

There will clearly be unavoidable times when the routine goes off kilter and you have to make an exception. For instance, if you find yourself away on vacation, coming home late at night after a long day out, or should illness strike. There are many expected or sudden disruptions that may throw off your ability to follow a bedtime routine. That’s perfectly fine. And, it can last a day or two or three. But then, go immediately back to your regular routine. Don’t make the mistake of throwing your hands up in the air and surrendering because of a brief lapse and a need to re-establish bedtime behaviors.

Slowly change your toddler’s environment – and start the sleep process

As to “how” to best put your toddler to bed, create a regular routine that begins with setting the right soothing mood between one hour to 30 minutes prior to the time you’re hoping he or she will fall asleep. Do not repeat the common mistake of overstimulating your child during this stretch of time.

Be very careful about giving your child iced tea, chocolate milk or other caffeinated drinks within a few hours of sleep time. And, watch the sweets. Trust me, even a few candies or gulps of iced tea can inhibit your toddler from nodding off. It’s best to let them sip water or milk. They can also enjoy a light snack of fruit or yogurt – provided they’ve had a very early dinner relative to bedtime and you’re concerned they’re not sleeping well due to hunger. In general, caffeinated or sugary drinks should not be part of your toddler’s diet, particularly close to bedtime.

Dim the lights, shut off the TV, put away the video games and lower the volume of any music. I know that some parents like to let their toddler fall asleep while watching TV. This may seem harmless enough. But the sensory overload from the light, images and sound of the TV will do more harm than good when it’s bedtime.

Start by bathing your child or reading a story – any activity that begins a calming period. Brush their teeth and then, slowly but surely, go into their room and put them into their crib or toddler bed. It’s perfectly fine to rub their back and then sit in a chair nearby to let them know you’re still around. Then, once they’re in a sleepy state, leave the room. Night after night, repeat this process.

Reinforce and reward good bedtime behavior. It can be as simple as sharing encouraging words of praise. It can be as easy as giving your toddler a sticker or some sort of nominal prize they earn every time they go to bed easily and stay in bed. Over time, they can accumulate these rewards and trade them in for a larger prize. Positive reinforcement works so well that I would not advise introducing negative reinforcement should they not go to bed easily. Don’t take away their stickers, just don’t give them one.

Again, as challenging and frustrating as it may get, stick to your guns. If you give up or give in and deviate from the routine, your child will know. Also, in two-parent households or in cases where another family member is supporting you, be united in your approach. The worst possible thing is for two caregivers to be on a different page, with one contradicting the other’s actions. Stay strong and stay together. It’s not easy, no one said that parenthood is a snap. Establishing a good routine will take a few days, maybe a few weeks, even a few months for some. There will absolutely be lessons learned along the way. But once it works, it will be well worth it – for you and your toddler.

For crying out loud – pick up or not pick up your toddler at night?

It’s all about executing an identical tranquil routine every night. So far, so good. At least you think so and then hours later, for many of you, the cries begin. Let them cry. It can be exasperating, you may even start crying. But it’s not hurting your child.

Naturally, there are all different sorts of cries that a toddler will let out. As the parent, you will have to distinguish between them – which can be difficult late at night or early in the morning. I’m not in favor of letting a toddler cry it out when it’s so uncontrollable and akin more to screaming. When this occurs, you can go in their room to let them know you’re there. Pat their back and say some soothing words. If they’ve been sick, absolutely respond to such cries and check if there’s a fever and make sure they are not in any real distress, such as vomiting, experiencing pain or having difficulty breathing. But, remember, with the exception of situations of true distress, minimize your contact and don’t stay long. Keep reminding yourself that you’re simply sacrificing some discomfort and lost sleep today in order to prevent a far worse and prolonged outcome tomorrow and the days after.

Just how much sleep is enough? What to know and do

Just how much sleep does your toddler need? For children between one to three years of age, the answer is a minimum of nine to 10 hours during the night and a total 10 to 13 hours each day, including naps. When determining a proper time to begin the bedtime routine, first determine your child’s wake up time and pinpoint 10 hours prior. For example, a child who needs to rise and shine between 6 or 7 am, should go to sleep absolutely no later than 8 pm. That would mean starting the bedtime routine around 7 pm, thus allowing 30 to 60 minutes to properly wind down and zonk out.

In this modern age of working parents and single-parent households, I recognize that it can be difficult to be so precise about bedtime hours for your toddler. Don’t worry. It doesn’t work for everyone and every situation. Work within the constraints of your schedule and, perhaps, find ways to sneak in some extra naptime during the day.

However, take note that extended awake time can be a very big mistake. A child who does not get enough sleep will definitely feel the impact. If left unchecked over time, learning, long-term memory or behavior can be compromised, as can the immune system, evidenced by more frequent colds and infections. Therefore, look for signs that your child is tired and ready for sleep – perhaps even earlier than you anticipated.  Recognize such tell-tale toddler signals as acting fidgety, whiney, hyper or excessive rubbing of the eyes.

Hopefully now you better understand the how’s, when’s and why’s related to overcoming toddler bedtime mistakes. One of the most often-asked questions on this topic is “How long should it take for my toddler to fall asleep?” Once again, every child is different. And, what worked for your first child, may not work the same again. But, on average, figure about 10-15 minutes. That is, as long as you: Take control of the situation and set clear boundaries; create the right sleep environment; ignore the crying; and, above all, have patience.

Melissa Bonilla, MD, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician. She is part of the Pediatric Health, PA practice, with offices in Freehold Township, Freehold Boro, Howell and Morganville.  Dr. Bonilla, who is affiliated with CentraState Medical Center, can be reached by calling 866-CENTRA7.

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