With toddlers, it sometimes feels like every step of the day is a battle. And bedtime can feel like the most difficult time of the day, especially when you're tired and ready to wind down. But understanding why toddlers struggle with sleep and how to manage their struggles can help your toddler (and you) sleep well at night.
Why Toddlers Fight Sleep
Sleep is awesome, and most adults, especially moms, would do practically anything to get more sleep. So why do some toddlers resist sleep?
Toddlers develop rapidly every day. They spend their days learning and growing, and their desire for exploration doesn't stop when it's time to go to sleep. Even if they feel tired, they still have a desire to see, think, and do, and sleep is an obstacle to doing that.
In the toddler stage, children learn more about fear. They know they may feel scared when you leave the room or turn off their light, but they may not know how to express it. Instead, they may respond by whining, screaming, or making endless requests for water, snacks, books, or songs.
The reasons toddlers struggle with sleep are practically endless. Getting too excited with nighttime play, teething, not enough stimulation during the day, overstimulation, even screen time or food choices can have a negative impact on sleep.
How to Help Toddlers With Healthy Sleep
Toddler sleep can be complicated, but the solutions can be simple. Follow these tips to help support your child's healthy sleep habits and put an end to sleep battles at bedtime.
Set limits and follow a schedule. Children thrive on predictability. When you follow a regular schedule throughout the day and especially at night, they know what to expect, what's coming next, and the comfort of going through the same thing each night and day. Limits may feel restrictive at first, but maintaining clearly defined limits demonstrates to toddlers that you won't let them push boundaries -- and they'll be less likely to keep pushing them if you don't give in.
Make bedtime relaxing. If you've been burned by bedtime battles before, you may approach bedtime with a nervous attitude. Toddlers can smell fear; don't let them get to you. Be confident and positive, and offer relaxing activities before bed, including a warm bath, snuggles, storytime, songs, and talking about your day or the day ahead. Some children enjoy a nighttime massage or having their head rubbed.
Create a comfortable sleep environment. Just as you need a comfortable place to sleep, toddlers need a healthy sleep environment, too. Make sure they feel safe, secure, and relaxed in their bedroom. Consider their mattress and whether it's appropriate for their needs. It may be time to move up to a larger size, or you may need to choose a different mattress for comfort.
Give them attention. Sometimes, life gets hectic and we miss out on quality one on one time during the day -- and toddlers may try to make up that time at night. Make sure you get time together before bed, and if they want to talk, listen. Plan ahead and start bedtime earlier if necessary so you'll have enough time to visit and go through their bedtime routine.
Listen to their fears. Bedtime can be scary for toddlers, who may now realize that a dark room with shadows and sometimes unfamiliar noises can be unsettling. When toddlers fight going to sleep or whine about things they need, they may be scared but unable to find the words to explain their fear. Talk to them about it and consider creative solutions like monster spray (water in a spray bottle with a label on it).
Toddler sleep struggles can be frustrating, but with support, you can help your toddler sleep better and avoid bedtime battles. Approach bedtime with patience, confidence, and clear limits, setting expectations and following a consistent routine and schedule so toddlers know what to expect and will be less likely to push boundaries.
Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.