Stop Toddler Bedtime Battles

Sleep struggles are common among 2- and 3-year-olds, as a result of the huge developmental changes they're going through. Use our guide to determine what's behind your kid's restless nights and ultimately get her on a saner sleep schedule. 

Bedtime Battles: How to Win Them!

baby in crib wearing orange hat SvetlanaFedoseyeva/shutterstock.com

Kids this age are learning that they have some power in the world, and they'll seize any opportunity to use it. So don't be surprised if your mini Trump says just about anything to stall his bedtime -- even if he's about to fall asleep mid-sentence.

Rest easier by... making small tweaks to your child's bedtime routine. You should still stick to the basics -- a bath, a story, some cuddling, then lights-out -- but let him make small decisions along the way, suggests Jill Spivack, cocreator of the book and DVD The Sleepeasy Solution. Your toddler may be less likely to balk at bedtime if he gets to call a few of the shots. (Red or yellow pj's? Three good-night kisses or four?)

If he cries when you leave his room, explain that it's time to sleep and say that you'll be back to check on him when he's calm, says Brett Kuhn, PhD, a licensed psychologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Children's Sleep Center, in Omaha. Return, as promised, but don't stick around. Or try mom Gina Beltrami's clever sleep strategy: After she tucked in her toddler, Sonny, she set a timer for five minutes. "I told him that I'd sit quietly at the foot of his bed until the timer went off, and then he had to rest by himself," says Beltrami, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "Stalling problem solved!"

    It's Easy to Escape a Big-Kid Bed

    With no crib bars to stop them, toddlers often like to savor their newfound freedom by taking 3 a.m. jaunts to your bed.

    Rest easier by... carrying your midnight wanderer back to her room every time she busts into yours. If you let her crash with you, you're setting the stage for a never-ending bedtime battle. Consider hanging bells on your doorknob so you can hear your toddler coming; that way, you can walk her back to her room before she climbs into your bed and makes herself comfy.

    Another way to avoid sleepless nights is to install a baby gate on your child's door. "Explain that it's there to keep her safe, since she could get hurt walking around the house by herself in the dark," says Spivack. Leave her bedroom door open so she doesn't feel alone.

      He's Afraid of Monsters

      You know how badly you sleep when you've got a lot of worries on your mind. The same goes for your toddler, though he's panicking about monsters, not the mortgage. "This is the stage when your child's imagination really takes off," says Spivack. "Even if he wasn't afraid of the dark before, he may start 'seeing' ghosts and other eerie creatures."

      Rest easier by... respecting your child's fears. Let him know you understand how scared he feels, but beware of making his anxiety worse. Using "monster spray," for example, actually suggests that creepy creatures could be hanging out in his room, says Dr. Kuhn. Instead, reassure him that you're always nearby and that monsters don't exist.

      Look for ways to convince your toddler that his room is a safe place. Play in his bedroom more often so he associates it with good times, or "camp out" with him there for a night. You could also appoint one of your child's stuffed animals the "watch pet," says Carol Ash, medical director of Sleep for Life in Hillsborough, New Jersey. "I gave my son a big bear that he could prop up on his bed all night to keep an eye on him."

      How to Deal with Nightmares and Night Terrors

      How to Deal with Nightmares and Night Terrors

        She Doesn't Nap Anymore

        Toddlers often refuse to snooze during the day -- blame their newfound sense of independence and changing sleep needs -- but kids aren't truly ready to give up naps for good until around age 5. If you let your child skip hers, she may be too overtired to sleep well at night.

        Rest easier by... ignoring the clock. As kids get older, they might not need to catch their afternoon zzz's on the same old schedule. Instead, look for clues that your toddler is getting tired. Put her down when she gets clingy, spacey, hyper, or starts rubbing her eyes. Making your toddler's siesta seem like bedtime can help her drift off: Keep her room dark, read a story, or sing a lullaby. But if she absolutely refuses to sleep, encourage her to play quietly in her room and call it "rest time."

        Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Parents magazine.

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