Let’s set the scene: It’s 2.30am, you’re woken from a lovely deep sleep by a not-so-inconspicuous little person jumping into bed with you. Amongst the heavy breathing, random elbows to the ribs, balancing on the bed edge and limited doona, you manage to salvage what little sleep you can until morning. Sound familiar?
* Their room may be too cold
* Fears or nightmares
* Illness/teething/developmental milestones
* Life transitions and/or a change in routine such as; starting childcare, toilet training, new sibling, pregnancy
* Transitioning from a cot to big kid bed, and having difficulty adapting to their newly found freedom
*Need for connection or one-on-one time with mum/dad
*Desire for comfort (as a result of any of the above)
My top 10 tips for helping your toddler stay in their bed and out of yours:
1) Communicate what will happen from now on if they come into mum and dads bed overnight – i.e. “we will give you a hug and kiss, then I will take you back to your room where I will stay with you until you fall asleep/stay with you until feel safe enough to fall asleep on your own”–the option you choose here will depend on your patience at the time, and how many times you end up doing this per night!
2) Make their bedroom environment a safe, warm, and cozy little haven. Soft blankets, toys and a soft nightlight (e.g. red light such as a salt lamp), and ensuring all cupboard doors are shut, and the room is free from excess clutter. Take your toddler to pick out new sheets/bedding (such as superhero, Peppa Pig, or Frozen) and/or a new toy to snuggle with at bedtimes. Incorporate plenty of play time in the child’s room during the day to encourage a positive relationship with their bed and room. My tips for optimizing the sleep environment here.
3) Play relaxing lullabies or white noise in the room at nap time and overnight – on loop, not a timer. This will help to muffle household and outside noises that may cause your child to wake during naps or overnight.
4) Self-care for parents is paramount. Ensure you have some YOU time to fill up your cup, so that you have the patience and commitment to make the changes necessary.
5) Ensure your child is getting adequate rest during the day. I recommend one nap of 1-2hrs up to the age of 3.5-4 years. If your child won’t nap, then ensure they have some “quiet time” during the day to relax.
6) Follow a consistent and predictable day and bedtime routine. Ensure there is sufficient ‘wind down’ and ‘processing time’ for your toddler at the end of the day. Refrain from excess environmental stimulation (i.e., TV, video games, bright lights or loud noise/music) preceding bedtimes. Some sensitive children will benefit from reduced screen time as early as 3:00pm in the afternoon. Focus on dimming the lights, warm bath, brush teeth, play, reading books and talking about the day 30-60 mins before bedtime. Some children may navigate toward roughhousing play toward the end of the day in their attempt to offload any stored stress or tension, or unprocessed emotion from their day. Contrary to existing beliefs, this type of spontaneous play before bed can be beneficial to reduce bedtime resistance, create some laughter (and stress-relief) for both parent and child, and help children sleep sounder overnight (unresolved feelings are usually the catalyst for overnight waking and nightmares–so any laughter, tears, or tantrums are best encouraged during waking hours than dealt with overnight!). Laughter is an effective way for children to heal fears (which is at the core of most sleep difficulties).
7) Special time and roughhousing play during the day can help build connection and works to fill up their attachment tank. This may stop your child from waking overnight seeking that connection time with you (if they didn’t get it during the day).
8) When they venture into your room overnight, do what you told them you would; kiss and cuddle them, then lead them back to their bedroom and tuck them into bed. You will need to remain consistent with this one – I know our resolve is lowest in the wee hours of the morning, and sometimes we choose the path of least resistance (e.g.. co-sleeping, sleeping in bed with our children, allowing them to watch television at 5:00am etc) – but the more we do this, the more we continue to encourage the wakings.
9) Don’t be afraid to set limits. If you have actioned the above steps and your child is still resisting going back to bed, set the limit. Acknowledge their feelings (e.g. fears, apprehension, upset), remain firm, and stay listening. An example: “Darling, it’s time for bed now. I know you want to sleep with mummy, but we will play tomorrow.” Hold a loving and supporting presence for your child to cry or “offload” their upset with you – sometimes this may take a while, but the longer you can listen (you can sit with them, nodding your head in understanding and arm around them for comfort), the easier this process will become, and the better your child will sleep. Try to do this process sitting with your child in their bed, in their bedroom–they will fall asleep, eventually.
10) If you feel your toddler may be having genuine night fears, are unwell, or experiencing separation anxiety, you may need to exercise a little more patience than usual. An effective technique to encourage your toddler to feel safe in falling back to sleep at night in their own room is known as The Sleep Lady Shuffle or Camping out. You can sit with them in a chair beside their bed until they fall asleep (some parents will sleep on a mattress on the floor). Each time they wake up during the night calmly return them to bed and assume your position by their bedside until they are asleep. Move your chair further away every 3 nights until you are out of their bedroom and they are falling back to sleep on their own. It is especially important to encourage our children to talk about their “bad” dreams and any anxieties they have–this way we can role-play to help release these fears, and/or be aware of any other catalyst so we can minimize the frequency of nightmares in future (such as scary movies, books, or games).