Toddler stalling at bedtime

06 July 2017

QUESTION:

Sam (2 years and 2 months) sleeps well at night, but takes 60-90 minutes to fall asleep, needing me to lie with him until he’s asleep. This is causing a lot of frustration for me, because I want to spend more time with my husband and get some work done in the evening. He falls asleep between 20h30 and 21h30 and gets up between 6h00 and 6h30. He naps for maximum two hours just after lunchtime.

ANSWER:

This is a very common problem amongst toddlers. In fact, it’s so common that it’s almost regarded as normal!

The questions that come up for me when are:
  1. Is he resisting sleep because he doesn’t want to be alone?
  2. Is he resisting sleep because he’s just not ready to sleep yet?
  3. (or maybe a combination of both…?)

Toddlers are master stallers, as most parents know. I will (hopefully!) never forget how frustrated I was when my youngest child took an hour or two to fall asleep at that age. I had two other kids who needed their mum, and my husband was lucky to get half a sentence out of me after the struggle was finally over. I totally understand wanting to just get a little more work done before bedtime, do stuff around the house, or even watch a little TV in peace… it IS really frustrating, let’s acknowledge that.

Much of what I see every week, while chatting to tired parents, is that modern parents are suffering from chronic lack of support. Having lost our “tribe”, our extended family, we find ourselves overwhelmed by all the demands on our time. Our own needs, for solitude, hanging out with friends, just being quiet or reading a book, often come last, if ever! Juggling kids, work, household, marriage etc. is actually a really tall order for one person, and it is not at all how human beings are hardwired to live and thrive. Imagine if you had your mum, your mum in law, a couple of aunties, cousins, nieces within hollering distance to come lend a hand. Your problems and frustrations around bedtime would probably disappear, because there would be lots of familiar relatives who could cuddle him till he’s asleep, giving you and hubby a chance to catch up.

So, now that we have reminded ourselves (and what you also confirmed at the end of your email) that your son is not naughty, and that what we’re really dealing with is not so much a sleep problem as a side-effect of the nuclear family, what can we do about it?

Firstly, let’s just go back to my first question: is Sam resisting sleep because he doesn’t want to be left alone, and wants desperately to be with his mum and dad? There’s always a little bit of “FOMO” (fear of missing out) when it comes to little children. They want to be part of the action!

What would happen, for example, if there was a mattress in the living room where he could bed down while you and your husband are busy with your normal routine? Would he stay there, maybe looking at pictures in a book or playing with “bedtime toys”? He’s probably old enough to be given the choice between two options: you can either stay in your own room, in bed, or you can stay in your floor bed (running around is not an option ;-)). Do you think he would settle eventually, lulled to sleep by background noises of his parents doing stuff? Some kids can do this, others not, it’s not going to work for everyone, obviously. There is no law that states children have to fall asleep in their own room, in the dark, by themselves. So what if he falls asleep in the living room…?

Another option: can your husband lie with him every second night until he falls asleep, so that you can get some stuff done? If Sam refuses dad and insists on you, he could again be given two choices: either daddy lies with you until you sleep, or you can fall asleep by yourself (where most kids at that age will probably accept dad). They have to know, though, that dad will be consistent. It’s almost better if he believed that you’re out (somewhere!) so that he knows crying for mummy isn’t going to help (you can hide in the house quietly).

I know this doesn’t solve the issue of him taking so long to fall asleep, but it would take the pressure off you every second night.

Another thing that lots of people say is that we have to really slow things down in the evening to “wind down” the kids to get them ready for sleep. But some kids need the opposite: they need to be played, chased, jumped to exhaustion to be ready for sleep. For some kids, this would lead to complete anarchy and becoming hyperactive, and for others, this might work. My third child needed about 15 minutes of “wriggling” before she could relax enough to sleep, and once I recognised that, I felt less stressed.

Another option is the “disappearing chair” technique: you tell him that you can’t lie with him (for a reason you make up, like your back gets too sore) but you’re willing to sit next to him on the bed and hold his hand or stroke his hair or sing or whatever… when he accepts this, you move a little further away (sit at the foot of the bed) and a then a bit more (on the floor leaning against the door frame worked for us)… until you’re not really IN the room anymore. Works for some… another variant is pretend to (or really) tidy up his clothes in your cupboard (it has to be boring) while you sing him his lullabies (he has to stay in bed). If he resists, you can give choices again: either I stay and tidy up while you fall asleep or you fall asleep alone. Once he’s used to this, you start popping out for brief periods (half a minute maybe), telling him you just want to go switch off a light or go to the toilet. And before he’s even thought about resisting, you’re back, folding laundry or whatever you’re doing. Then you start popping out for a minute, then two… this is not sleep training, because he’s not crying, he’s just getting used to you being in the next room for a brief period.

Having said all this, just from my own experience with my kids: I found lying with my 3rd child waiting for her to sleep very frustrating at the time, and I sometimes got angry with her and myself for “creating a bad habit”. BUT. Looking back, I am actually really glad I took that time to be with her, because it has helped create a really deep bond with her. Especially as a working mum, I often felt that I wasn’t spending enough time with her, and catching up at bedtime and making this our special cuddle time, helped us overcome this. She’s 14 now, and some nights when she’s going through a rough time, she still asks if I can lie with her for a few minutes. Then we cuddle and I stroke her hair quietly in the dark and I feel really thankful to have a teenager who actually asks for her mum’s presence and comfort, when so many teens want nothing to do with their parents! I regret not lying with my older kids and missing out on those special cuddle times. So even though it is frustrating now, it passes pretty quickly and it can be very good to connect to your child and make bedtime a positive time, rather than a time of separation, anxiety, loneliness etc.

Back to your bedtime matters: another thing that can work really well is a massage-story. Get yourself a special blend of oil that smells nice (something like tangerine or orange essential oil mixed into grapeseed is nice), and then you “draw” a story on his back while he’s lying on his tummy. You can tell any old story, and just get creative and draw shapes, do footprints of animals, paint the sun with warm rays going all over his back, pat little fingertip raindrops, or let him narrate and you draw. The possibilities are endless. Touch and massage help both parent and child to slow down, breathe deeply, and it increases our happy hormones (for giver and receiver of the massage). If he’s willing to lie still, you can massage his legs, arms, feet, hands, face, whatever he likes. You can give him two choices, again, to pick the activity he wants that night. Would be nice if dad could do this every second night.

Some people don’t like the following suggestion (but I always try to give as many strategies as I can think of to give parents a choice): what would happen if you put a calm, not too loud or exciting, kiddy DVD on for him to watch before he falls asleep? Some adults love nothing more than watching TV until they fall asleep – and surely this must be true for some kids! (didn’t work with my kids, or me, but that’s just us!). This might help to free you up just a bit in the evenings.

Now let’s get to the second issue: is he just not tired enough? This brings me back to the time my toddler took so long to fall asleep. One night I just decided, “stuff this”, and brought her out of her room and let her play for another hour and a half. When we went back to bed, she fell asleep within ten minutes. I found that to be much less frustrating than lying there next to a wriggly worm of a child, grinding my teeth!

I read a study the other day that measured the melatonin (sleep hormone) levels of toddlers and found that the parents put the kids in bed an hour or two before the child’s melatonin levels indicated physiological readiness to sleep.

In modern Western culture we seem a bit obsessed with bedtime (time, in general!). Often, if a toddler takes an hour or more to fall asleep, it can mean that bedtime is just too early. What would happen if you left Sam to play and hang out with you until 21h00? Would he get cranky? Or would he happily go along with it? If he’s happy and calm, it may be an option to let him play a bit more, while you do stuff. You and hubby can take turns chatting to him while you go about your business. I know this is not ideal if parents want to watch a movie that is not toddler-friendly or want to make another baby ;-)

One thing that helped for us is to have a mattress next to our bed and my little one could sleep on that when I was a bit touched out and needed my space. Even if it was just part of the night, it helped.

In terms of his naps/bedtime/wake-up time: it looks to me like he sleeps at a minimum 9 ½ hours out of 24, and maximum 12 hours. That seems pretty normal and the timing of his nap (13h00) is fine. Does he fall asleep easily at naptime? Is he generally happy and does he appear well rested? (If he could take part in this conversation, would he say he’s not getting enough sleep?). If he seems to be well rested most of the time, and if he can stay awake happily until a bit later, I would suggest that you make bedtime later and just see this as a season in your life that will soon be over. Before you know it, he’ll be fighting sleep in the afternoons, and then the nap will fall away, at which point bedtime moves earlier again!

I hope it helps! Remember, this too shall pass!

Guest written by Erica Neser from BABY SLEEP ZZZONE



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