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Overcoming Bedtime Battles

In this corner, we have two parents who are tired and just want a break. In the other is our reigning champion — a three-year-old who refuses to go to sleep! 

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To the inexperienced, this may seem like an unfair competition. (Two adults can get one kid to sleep, right?) But every parent knows that the three-year-old has the title of “reigning champion” for a reason. 

One of the most exhausting battles parents fight is the one over sleep. To make things worse, the middle of the night or the end of a long day isn’t the time we want to think strategically about how to overcome a conflict with a toddler. And after days and days of sleepless nights, no amount of caffeine during the day will help, either.

Never fear! We’re here to help. This article is all about the most common sleep battles parents face, ways to overcome them, and the reason some of the problems might exist in the first place.

(Also, before we get started, this information pertains to children 18 months and older. It won’t discuss the concepts of sleep training that are geared toward kids ages 6 months to 1 year.)

Pre-Match Info: Sleep 101

Before you enter the ring, here’s what you need to know about kids and their sleeping patterns. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this is how much sleep each age group needs to function properly.

Ages 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours per 24-hour period (including naps)

  • Ages 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours per 24-hour period (including naps)
  • Ages 6 to 12 year: 9 to 12 hours per 24-hour period (does not need naps)

And while these ranges are usually spot on, there are times when your child will inexplicably decide not to sleep. It isn’t that you’ve done anything wrong or your child is abnormal. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most children go through a very predictable and normal phase of sleep regression.

Julie Knapp with Parents explains that the common symptoms of toddler sleep regression include refusing to go to bed, waking up during the night, and resisting naps. “The issue often stems from natural growth and development, as well as stress or a change in routine. Toddlers may also try to assert their newfound independence in any way they can — and that includes controlling their own bedtime.” 

As much as we’d love to tell you there’s something you can do to avoid sleep regression … there really isn’t anything you can do to avoid sleep regression. 

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What you can do is have a healthy dose of sympathy for your child — they aren’t enjoying this, either — and know it doesn’t last forever.

Sleep regression looks different depending on your child’s age, but one of the most reliable ways to survive it is by establishing a bedtime routine. Your routine will change some as your child needs shorter nap times or no naps at all. However, establishing a routine early and giving your toddler more and more input into certain parts of it (more on that later) will help make these periods of less sleep pass with fewer tears.

Pick Your Battle

Not every bedtime battle is the same, and a strategy that works for one may not be applicable to another. Take a look at these different “wrestlers” you could face and discover which strategy works best for your situation.

Wrestler #1: Tantrum! 

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This toddler turns into an expert negotiator as soon as they hear the word “bedtime.” Depending on the kid, they can then turn into a burning ball of rage. If your toddler stalls or throws tantrums each night, here are some tips that might help.

  • Again, bedtime routine is key. If your child knows what’s coming, they’re less likely to think negotiating or getting angry can change anything. 
  • Keep the routine simple, but let them control small parts of it. Ask them if they want the rocketship pajamas or the superhero ones. Do they want to read two books or three? Let them feel like they have some control to appease that newfound independence. 
  • Don’t give in to requests for extra time just because they don’t look tired. (See the overtired kids in the next section.) 

Wrestler #2: The Escape Artist

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This toddler can escape their room in record time with ninja-like skill and usually ends up in bed with their parents. Here are some ideas that may help keep them in their bed long enough to fall asleep. 

  • Think ahead. Are there predictable excuses your toddler uses to leave their room? (Think, “I’m thirsty,” or “I have to go to the bathroom.”) Address those excuses right before bedtime so they can’t be reasons to leave. 
  • Promptly return them to bed — every time. As frustrating and tiring as it may feel to hear them protest, it’s important to quickly get your child back into their own room when they leave it. If you don’t, the battle only gets harder to win. (Sleeping with mom and dad is toooooo much fun.) Hang bells on their doorknob so you can hear each time they try to leave.
  • Use a bedtime pass. It can be an old credit card, a book mark, or something you create together. The rule is that, once a night, they can use the bedtime pass to leave their room. Similar to letting them contribute to their bedtime routine in small ways, this gives your toddler a sense of control over their nighttime rituals. 

Wrestler #3: Fear Strike

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This toddler is scared of sleeping for one reason or another. Help them overcome their anxiety with these tips.

  • Depending on their age and developmental stage, nightmares can be a recurring reason why your child isn’t sleeping well. While it’s certainly not a fine science, parents can usually tell the difference between a frustrated cry from their child and one that’s filled with legitimate fear. If you think your child is having a nightmare, respond quickly, reassure them, talk about the dream, and encourage them to go back to sleep when they are ready. 
  • Psychologist Linda Blair reminds parents to resist the temptation to tell children that the fear they feel after a nightmare doesn’t exist. “If she is having a bad dream, tell her that it’s ‘gone’ now,” she says. “Don’t, however, tell her the dream wasn’t real, because to many preschoolers dreams do seem completely real.”
  • If your child is afraid there are monsters under their bed or boogeymen in their closet, reassure them that you’re always nearby and that monsters don’t exist.
  • Try and have as many happy moments in their room as possible so they have positive associations with the space. 

Wrestler #4: The Night Owl/Early Bird

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This child could stay up all night if you let them … or they wake up so early that the sun isn’t even out. Here are some ways to get them to sleep.

  • Your child may legitimately not be tired. Evaluate how much sleep they need; your expectations may be off. Scale back on or retime naps, delay bedtime, or wake them up earlier until you find that window of time that works for everyone.
  • For both late sleepers and early risers, environmental factors may be to blame for their sleeplessness. Can they hear you talking or the TV at night? Is there too much light coming in during the morning, or are birds chirping too loudly? Try mitigating these things with a white noise machine or heavy drapes. 

Possible Causes of Sleeplessness

Outside of normal regression, toddlers may be struggling with sleep for a variety of other reasons. See if addressing these issues gathered by the experts at What to Expect helps them sleep more soundly at night.

  • Screen time before bed. Just like in adults, the light emitted from screens wakes a child’s brain up. If your kid is watching screens right before bed, it may be the reason they can’t fall asleep. 
    • Stress or overexcitement. Adrenaline doesn’t disappear because it’s bedtime. Adjusting bedtime or taking extra time to help your toddler wind down may be necessary on stressful or overly exciting days. 
  • Your child is not tired. If your kid took a late nap or is transitioning to a life stage where they need less sleep, they may not be tired at bedtime. Try moving nap times to earlier in the day to avoid an overly awake toddler at bedtime. 
  • Your child is overtired. This doesn’t seem like it should be a thing, but it is. If a toddler doesn’t get enough sleep, their body creates adrenaline to keep them going. And all that extra adrenaline is what will keep them from what they need — sleep! Adjust nap times and bedtime hours to help ensure they get the sleep requirements for their age group. 
  • Your child is in a strange bed. Sleeping in a new place or in a different bed is weird for everyone, kids included. If you moved into a new house, changed your child’s room, or upgraded them from a crib or toddler bed, the newness of the situation may make it hard for them to sleep.
  • Your child doesn’t feel well. Being sick and sleeping poorly usually go together. If your kid is teething, running a temperature, or suffering from allergies, it can make it really difficult for them to fall (and stay) asleep. Extend some grace to them during their times of illness and try to make them as comfortable as possible. 

Remember: Sleep Is Learned

The experts at the Mayo Clinic offer some very simple but sound advice: “Try to remember that you’re teaching your child an important skill.” As odd as it may sound, every person alive had to learn how to sleep. It’s our job as parents to show our kids how it’s done. Don’t feel bad because you’re exhausted or frustrated — just remember that your child feels that way, too. By reading this article and researching the topic, you’re proving that you want the best for your child and your family. Try some of these suggestions out, and try to get some sleep!

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