“There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
I thought I had it down. Both my babies had been such perfect textbook sleepers, Harvey Karp would have been proud. Swaddle and soothe worked like a charm, as if Sleeping Beauty herself watched over their dreams.
But now it’s payback. My children have become insomniac toddlers. Relentless. Or as my pediatrician calls it “spirited.”
As soon as I mention it’s time for bed, my three-year-old Sienna acts as if she has just had a triple espresso. Her eyes pop open and she takes off running through the house. Speedy Gonzalez in fast forward. She lets out her heartiest laugh. I give her my no-nonsense look and shepherd her into the bedroom, doing my best to avoid any toddler hysterics, though we seem to be on the tantrum brink every night. I try to keep things light while attempting to tame the whirlwind that has become my daughter.
“Mommy I need to pee, I need gripe water, I need to poo, I’m hungry…” And when all else fails, the cuteness factor: “Come on! It’s a dance party.”
For the last few nights, Sienna has a new routine: waking in the middle of the night for several hours. I am now a groggy mother with barely a notch of patience left, even before I get up. Last blog, I wrote about my aspirations to be a better parent with my list of parenting pledges. After 2 hours of sleep last night, I’ve got a new pledge to add: Don’t f- with Mommy. Just kidding. Sort of.
I was surprised when my pediatrician suggested that Sienna might be sleep-deprived, and that I should try putting her to bed earlier, not later as I had imagined. Behavioral problems relating to sleep deprivation are crankiness, being unable to listen, more prone to act out and be defiant, and being unable to wind down. Not that different from toddler tantrums, which is why sleep deprivation can be hard to decipher. The average toddler needs 12-14 hours of sleep for every 24-hour period. Most need a 1-3 hour nap, as part of that sleep total.
Though toddlers need a lot of sleep, it’s normal to have sleep disturbances, even if they had been great sleepers during infancy. Tired parents, take heart and a few tips in smoothing out your toddler’s sleep routine.
1. Creating a bedtime routine is one of the most important things you can do to create a good sleep environment. Set aside half an hour prior to bedtime for wind down. Bedtime should be at the same time every night. The particular order of what you do should be the same every night. The routine sequence signals the brain that it is time to sleep. Studies show that if children know what to expect at bedtime, doing the same physical routine night after night actually makes them sleepy. Dim lights, soft music, gentle voices, a relaxing bath can all do wonders to shift the busy day into soothing night. Limit bedtime choices to simple ones, such as “Which pajamas would you like to wear?” or “Would you like to read this story or that one?”
2. Pay attention to your children’s sleep preferences. My four-year-old prefers silence, while my three-year-old likes a few lullabies.
3. If you use a nightlight, red is best. That’s the only color that doesn’t affect the body’s melatonin production, which directly affects sleep patterns.
4. Watching TV before bed, even if it’s a positive cartoon, actually disrupts sleep. Limit TV time, especially the last hour before bedtime. Definitely no scary images or action movies.
5. If your child calls out in the night, try first to simply call back, letting her know you are near, but do not get into the habit of attending to her every need at 3 a.m. Believe me, I learned the hard way that does not work! On the kid side of things, toddlers are new at being alone. Their world is filled with new experiences and they have a lot to process, without much skill at understanding or expressing their feelings. Do your best to be patient and kind (even at 3 a.m.), but work in healthy substitutes for your presence, such as a comforting toy or blanket with your familiar smell on it.
6. Recognize if your child has had a nightmare or is afraid, and be gentle. It’s better to help them self-soothe in their own bed, rather than coming into yours. When necessary, sit with your child until she is calm, then leave the room. If you have to, come back in 10 or 15 minute intervals, lengthening the intervals each time. This way she knows you are near, but not so near that you are camped out by her bedside night after night, which sets up the wrong toddler expectations of Mommy. Even two sleepless nights can begin to create a new pattern, so it’s best to work at consistency in how you respond to nighttime waking.
7. During the day, reinforce good sleep behavior by talking about it. Praise your children for the great get-ready-for-bed routine they did the night before, or the good job of self-soothing back to sleep. Teach your children a few relaxation techniques like deep breathing or imagining a peaceful scene of their favorite garden, which can be useful at nighttime.
Sleep patterns are just that. Patterns of behavior that can be reinforced, mostly by repetition and creating good healthy boundaries. In creating your new sleep routine, give it several weeks for the new rules to settle in. But don’t give up. Consistency is the key.