As parents, we all know the struggle. You say goodnight and then count the minutes (seconds?) before your little one cries out for you or comes wandering out of their room.
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If you’re in a nightly battle to get your toddler to go to bed and stay there, what can you do besides lose your patience?
“Kids are curious and sometimes feel like they’re missing out — for whatever reason — when they go to sleep,” explains pediatric specialist Jason Sherman, DO. “Kids want to explore and spend time with people. Getting out of bed or refusing to sleep might be signs that your child needs more structure, and maybe a dose of positive reinforcement.”
Dr. Sherman shares these seven tips to consider when your child doesn’t want to go to bed or is having trouble staying there
1. Stick to a routine
Set a regular bedtime for your toddler and be consistent about sending them to bed at that time. Children with consistent bedtimes are more likely to get sufficient sleep and less likely to show signs of exhaustion, like irritability and clinginess.
Before bed every night, set aside up to an hour for calm activities, such as listening to quiet music, reading a book in a dim light or taking a warm bath or shower. The activity should be something that’s fun and calming.
Keep the routine consistent and not too stimulating. Avoid watching TV (or other devices), playing video games or taking part in active play, which may energize rather than calm your child. The last several minutes of quiet time activity should take place in the room where your child sleeps. It’s important for toddlers to get into bed awake and learn to fall asleep there by themselves.
2. Meet the sleep fairy
Like the tooth fairy, the sleep fairy rewards kids in the morning — in this case, for staying in bed and falling asleep on their own.
The reward doesn’t need to be extravagant. Consider giving them a quarter or a small trinket.
Better yet, collect small objects in a jar or box that lead to a reward.
“You can put the jar next to the bedside to remind them of the reward that comes in the morning,” Dr. Sherman says. “When it’s full, your child earns a fun activity, like going to the park or to the arcade.”
The beauty of the sleep fairy is that it takes the parent out of the picture. In the morning, when your child says, “Look what the sleep fairy brought me,” you reply, “Oh, look how well you slept.”
“It may not work instantly, but this is a great method for the imaginative child,” Dr. Sherman notes. “Parents know their child best and can anticipate if they’ll respond to this method.”
3. Try a sticker chart
Rewards help encourage kids. Another way to reward your child is to use a bedtime chart involving a sticker system.
“Here, you tell your child, ‘Look, I’ll stay with you for a little while, but then you’ll go to bed. And if you stay in bed all night, you’ll get a sticker in the morning,’” Dr. Sherman says.
Stickers, charts and the sleep fairy are especially good for the strong-willed child, he adds. It gives them a new goal and focus to help them understand the upside of doing the right thing.
4. Check in with a second good night
Does your child say, “Please don’t leave, I’m scared!” at bedtime? This method can reassure your child, help them relax and teach their bodies to fall asleep.
When you tell your child goodnight, let them know you’ll come back for a second goodnight in 15 minutes.
Your child will probably still be awake when you return. If they’ve been lying quietly in bed, you may elect to reward them (like using a sticker chart).
Then, gradually delay the second goodnight. Knowing you’ll return will help your child feel safe and start to relax.
“Soon, your child will be drowsy and half-asleep for the second goodnight,” says Dr. Sherman. “As soon as you hear, ‘Goodnight,’ leave the room.”
5. ‘Big kid’ reminders
While they’ll always be your little baby, many toddlers respond well to reminders that they aren’t babies anymore, Dr. Sherman says. Reminders along the lines of, “You’re a big kid now, and big kids get to sleep in their own beds,” can help to make them feel proud and grown up.
6. Family picture time
If your toddler is nervous about being left alone, reminders that you’re there for them can be helpful. Dr. Sherman suggests keeping a picture of the family in your toddler’s room. Remind them that if they feel alone, they can look at the picture or give it a kiss.
7. Use a wake-up clock
Does your child get up repeatedly during the night or wake up too early? A wake-up clock, or toddler alarm clock, can cue them when it’s time to get out of bed.
For toddlers who don’t understand time yet (and, therefore, don’t accept that 4 a.m. isn’t the time to wake up), some clocks use colors to let them know when it’s an acceptable time to wake.
“Tell your child, ‘OK, when it’s time to get out of bed, the clock will turn green. So, wait until then to get up,’” Dr. Sherman says.
This method isn’t for all kids; it’s best for those who like structure and rules, Dr. Sherman notes.
The key to a good night’s sleep for your toddler (and you!) is to remember that consistency is key.
“Changing any habit takes time,” explains Dr. Sherman. “Your child will learn new sleep habits if you communicate your expectations and stick to the plan.”