Toddler resisting bedtime? here’s why, and what you can do

There are many reasons why our toddlers may start resisting naps and bedtime.

From experience, if this is a gradual change (over a few days or more), then usually this can be attributed to routine (call for a change in routine,  having been out of routine, or lack of routine), or a behavioural/emotional response to a particular life transition or change. Where you may notice sleep regress almost overnight, this usually points straight to illnessteething, or developmental milestones…. Most of the time

Here are the top 10 reasons, and what we can do about it:

1. Over-tired or Under-tired: When our toddlers are not getting enough sleep overnight or during the day, their bodies create cortisol (stress hormone). This has a similar effect on the body as caffeine, so naturally can make falling asleep and staying asleep more challenging, and hence we experience nap and/or bedtime refusal, and frequent night waking. We may experience the same resistance when we are putting our children down to sleep when they are not quite ready or tired enough – i.e insufficient awake time between sleep times for their age or individual needs, too much day sleep, or they have not enough activity during the day.
The solution? An age appropriate routine with suitable awake windows will ensure you are putting your toddler down for sleep at the most optimal time (resulting in less fuss and increased sleep duration). If you find  your child is between ages (or awake windows), then experiment by moving the awake time earlier or later by 10-20 minutes (over three days), until you find they are going down with less fuss, and sleeping better. This can be a little trial and error, so patience is key!

2. Insufficient wind down time: A bedtime that is rushed, inconsistent, and/or lacks some quiet, relaxing time before bed can inhibit your child’s ability to effectively unwind for bedtime. Incorporating a relaxing bed time routine that remains the same each night will ensure your child feels more secure, and allow them to prepare for sleep both physically and mentally. Try to keep the bedtime routine between a maximum of 30 to 60 minutes. This can include: bath, brush teeth, massage, pjs, white noise, dimmed lights, reading books, singing songs, talking about their day, kiss goodnight. The actual “goodnight” routine with sleep associations should be no longer than 20 to 30 minutes. Avoid television, iPads, bright lights, loud music, or any activity which will stimulate your toddler rather than relax them immediately preceding bedtimes.

3. Teething and Illness: Teething and illness can really wreak havoc on sleep for babies and toddlers. The most common sleep complaints I hear from parents with teething and sick toddlers include; cat napping,  general unsettledness day and night, grizzling/crying, increased clinginess, resisting naps and bedtimes, frequent night waking (especially in the hours following bedtime with teeth), and early rising. Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot we can do at these times but offer extra cuddles, love and exercise patience whilst we ride it out. Here are some teething symptoms to look out for (and solutions) which may assist you during these times. Always seek medical attention for the best solution in treating your child’s illness. 

4. Timing and length of day nap/s: This is a BIG one I see especially for children two years of age and over who are on one day nap. Sleep requirements can vary between children, and this includes their capabilities for awake windows – so there really is no one-size-fits-all approach. Whilst some toddlers transition from two naps to one as early as 11 months, some may need two naps until 18 months and over. Often when toddlers begin resisting bedtime, this is a direct relationship to the timing and/or length of their day nap/s. Insufficient day sleep or napping too early  in the day can lead to over-tiredness and consequently, early rising. Napping to late in the day or too much day sleep in total can result in under-tiredness, which is a common catalyst for an exhausting and frustrating bedtime “performance” extending for up to two hours at times. If you suspect your child is overtired, encourage day naps (or down time), and experiment with moving bedtime earlier (ideally between 6:30pm-7:30pm). If your child is not ready or tired enough for bedtime, then try waking them earlier from their last nap, making bed time slightly later, and/or making their nap time earlier.

5. Separation anxiety: Peaks between 10 and 18 months, but can start as early as six months and may persist in some children to the age of three. The common tell-tale signs include increased clinginess during the day  – e.g. an unwillingness to leave mum/dad’s sight,  and crying or distress at nap or bedtimes due to the fear of being left alone. These periods will pass, but it is important we nurture our child’s emotional well-being at these times to ensure they feel safe and secure enough to sleep. If you need to offer more cuddles, or go back to sitting beside your child’s bed whilst they drift off to sleep, then I encourage this. Just be mindful not to create new sleep crutches – once your child feels confident again, begin removing your intervention slowly. I recommend the ‘rule of three’ – anything which persists for three or more nights can become a new habit!

6. A call for a change in environment, routine, or parental response: Sometimes difficulties with sleep can be due to a need for change in environment or routine. Our children are developing and changing constantly, therefore we must adjust their routine, make changes to the sleep environment, and our communication/response to them must evolve to suit their needs e.g.
– Nap refusal and catnapping (over three days or more, and not due to illness/leaps/teething) can highlight a need to transition to a longer awake time.
– Environmental tweaks may need to be made to suit the age of your child – e.g the introduction of a night-light for a child of two years of age who develops a fear of the dark.
– Any sleep training strategies previously used may need to be revised based on age and developmental stage i.e. what used to work doesn’t any more.

7. Developmental milestones and leaps: The first 12 to 24 months is a time of constant evolution, growth, development, maturity, and learning. Regression is usually heightened when a child is busy mastering physical and cognitive milestones such as rolling, crawling, standing, walking, babbling, and talking (among others). An inability to “switch off” their busy brains usually results in an overtired child who is unable to fall asleep at bedtimes, increased wakefulness overnight (commonly between the hours of 1:00am and 5:00am), and more frequent night waking – usually due to waking themselves up practicing their new found skills in their sleep space (rolling, rocking on all fours and standing). Click here for my article on developmental milestones by age, common sleep issues experienced, and solutions.

8. Life transitions: e.g. Pregnancy, new sibling, moving house, dad working away, starting childcare (or increasing days), moving from cot to toddler bed, parents starting back at work and toilet training can cause some major regression in sleep behaviour. It is especially important at these times we work on nurturing our children’s emotional well-being. The main feelings that consume our children at times of change are fear, anxiety, insecurity and overwhelm – so it is important that we counteract this by pouring in extra love, safety and connection. Avoid any sleep training (especially CIO approaches) which may create more stress. Communicating any changes in advance, validating our children’s feelings, and supporting them in expressing their emotions (without judgement) during the day, can make your toddler feel more confident, and ensure a smoother transition for everyone.

9. Being out of routine: Change of routine due to travel or holidays, a busy social calendar or seasonal festivities can put a spanner in the works with sleep. Whatever persists will become habit, and sometimes we can see these changes in sleep patterns emerge in as little as three to seven days. Children thrive on routine and consistency, so try to follow your regular day and bedtime (night) routine as closely as possible (deviating a maximum of 30 minutes between sleep times/wake times where possible). Keeping consistent and positive sleep associations will also help; especially if you are away from home – such as: sleep bag, white noise, dark room, bedding and blankets, reading a book or singing a song.

10. Their need for more, not less – Your toddler’s increased need for ‘more’ of you at certain times can be a result of many things; separation anxiety, pregnancy, a change in routine (such as travel), life transition, or illness. It is challenging for even the most level headed parent to remain calm and collected at these times, and it’s not uncommon for us to want to ‘shut off’, or strategise ways of getting more time away from our child (increasing child care days or having grandparents look after them). Unfortunately, our failure to acknowledge our toddler’s needs for more of OUR love, affection and attention during these times, often results in more undesired behaviour: tantrums, whining, clinginess, defiant or troublesome behaviour and sleep regression; the root cause of which is almost always insecurity (aka fear). Some simple, yet effective solutions I have used with clients include; involving your child as you go about your daily chores (emptying the dishwasher, folding clothes and hanging out the washing), increased quality one-on-one time, spontaneous affection and cuddles throughout the day, quality debrief time before bed, and open communication such as providing a forewarning before changing activities.

If you have any other tips or strategies you have successfully used with your toddler to get sleep back on track, I’d love to hear your feedback!

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