Top toddler settling tips
Your toddler's delaying tactics at bedtime - needing a drink, one more kiss, a lost toy - are her way of saying, 'I really want you to stay with me.' From a toddler's perspective, it may be difficult to relax and fall asleep if she feels stressed about being left in her room alone, especially if she can hear adults having fun (talking, watching television) in another part of the house.
Consider also if this is the only time of her - and your - busy day that your little one has your undivided attention. If this is the case, try to spend more one-on-one time with her during the day so her needs aren't so intense at bedtime. If she spends her day in child care, try to have some special time together when you pick her up.
A consistent bedtime routine with specific rituals is important to enlist your toddler's co-operation and help him feel secure. If your child seems especially clingy at bedtime, one way to help him is to tell him the story of his day so that he can process the emotional ups and downs and 'let them go'.
From a toddler's perspective, it may be difficult to relax and fall asleep if she feels stressed about being left in her room alone.
Once your toddler is closer to three, you can begin setting limits at bedtime by telling him how many stories you will read before you start and to minimise delaying tactics and calling out, try to anticipate his needs: before he gets into bed, let him get his toys in order and perhaps choose a soft toy to sleep with, place a lidded cup of water within his reach (juice is not good for tiny teeth) and, before you settle down to read, ask him, 'what is the one last thing you need to do before stories?' Help your child stay in bed until he is sleepy by sitting in his room with him.
If you have things you need to do or you are moving to the next stage of helping your child get to sleep by himself (he will probably need to be close to three years or older before this will work), you could tell him that you will check on him in five minutes (or two or three minutes if this is more realistic at first). It is important to keep this promise so that he relaxes, knowing you will be back soon. As you check on him, give him a kiss and leave again for another five minutes. If he gets up, try not to yell or you will wake him up even more. Simply take him by the hand, lead him back to bed and tuck him back in then, in a calm voice, tell him you will check on him in five minutes (or sit with him until he is settled before leaving him for the next five minute period).
Food for sleep
Restless sleep can be related to sensitivity to additives in processed foods and soft drinks - don't feed your little ones any drink that contains caffeine such as 'coke' (even diet coke!) or guarana - day or night! This will hype up behaviour and prevent your child from being able to sleep well, if at all. Some sensitive children may be affected by naturally occurring chemicals such as salicylates in otherwise healthy foods like grapes, oranges, strawberries or tomatoes and, as well as causing behaviour changes, these can affect sleep.
Rather than becoming stressed over foods (as well as your child's sleep), it could help to simply reduce the amount or combination of foods - say, instead of giving your child grapes and strawberries for dessert after a spaghetti with tomato sauce dinner, stick to the mantra 'all things in moderation' and try these foods separately in smaller amounts.
Bedtime snacks can also affect sleep, either positively or negatively - for instance, high protein foods can trigger the production of dopamine, a hormone that will keep you (or your child aroused) while a banana for instance will help boost tryptophan levels, the substance needed to make the mood stabilising (calming) chemical serotonin and this will encourage sound sleep.
The relaxing effects of a bath work at a physiological level as well as a psychological one. One of the triggers for sleep is a slight drop in core body temperature. A warm bath temporarily increases the core body temperature, then as this temperature lowers after a bath, we feel drowsy - this is why timing of the bedtime bath matters. For example, it is best to have a quiet play before your child's bath, then dress her warmly and take her to bed, drowsy from the bath, for the remainder of her bedtime routine.
A few drops of lavender mixed with vegetable oil or milk or a baby bath product that incorporates the effects of aromatherapy can be added to the bathwater for extra soothing effects. Please be careful, though, about using bubble-bath products. While some infant and child bath products will create bubbles and only contain natural ingredients, including essential oils, read labels carefully and use all bath additives sparingly as these can cause skin and genital tract irritation that may have the very opposite effect you are aiming for - itching and sleeplessness, rather than relaxation.
Bathing with your toddler can be a special fun and bonding time for you both, especially if she is in childcare all day or, if you prefer, you could take a shower together.
A magic touch
If you can get your wriggly toddler to keep still long enough to allow you to massage him, silent nights could be at your fingertips: research from Miami University showed that infants and toddlers who were massaged daily for one month, for fifteen minutes prior to bedtime, fell asleep more easily by the end of the study. Massage reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and releases hormones such as oxytocin, endorphins and melatonin that make your child feel relaxed -and drowsy.
Remember to always ask your child's permission to massage him and respect his response. This way you are teaching and reinforcing to him that his body is his own and he has a right to refuse any unwanted touching. Often, rather than a 'formal' massage, simply stroking your child's forehead or rubbing his hands or back when he is lying in bed, can help him 'wind down' and relax.
Read me a story
Even if you love reading and are happy to read several stories at bedtime, it is good to use the same story as the 'sleepy story'. For instance, many toddlers love listening to a combination of 'Where is the Green Sheep?' followed by 'Time for Bed' ( both by Mem Fox). As you read to your child, the calming effects of reading together are increased if you cuddle as you read - while a story will help engage the frontal lobe of your child's brain and this will inhibit motor impulses, body contact during cuddles will encourage your child to release sleep inducing hormones. Also, dim lighting such as that from a bedside lamp (not with a bright overhead light) will stimulate melatonin, the sleep inducing hormone.
Q and A
When will my child be ready to drop his day sleep and how do I do this?
The age that children drop day sleeps varies quite widely. If your child is staying up later at night or is wide awake at naptime, it is probably time to drop the nap. At first you will need to keep him busy and try to avoid car rides in the late afternoon so he doesn't fall asleep at 4pm then bounce back again after dinner.
If he is in day-care and has a sleep at a specific time it is best to conform to this nap routine and enjoy some quiet play at night, rather than battle over bedtime because he isn't tired. Discuss his readiness for dropping his nap as well as strategies to manage this smoothly with his carer.
For a while your tot will need an occasional 'catch-up' sleep - perhaps you could encourage this on weekends when late nights don't matter.
My two year old wakes at 5am - I am not a morning person. Is there any way I can encourage him to sleep later?
Typically, toddlers are ready to wake as soon as the first ray of sunshine hits the window. Black-out blinds or heavy, dark coloured curtains may help extend your toddler's morning wake-up time, a lidded cup of water and a and a few safe toys or books within reach next to the bed or cot may buy you extra zzzz time if your child will amuse himself for a while when he wakes. If it seems that early morning noise from the street or from other family members could be waking your toddler, you could set a clock radio on a station that plays either classical music or between stations so it plays white noise. If it starts to play before your child would normally wake, this might help him sleep through the early-morning sounds.
If your toddler goes to bed early and has a good sleep but wakes early, he is probably waking because he has already had enough sleep, so you can either try gradually adjusting his bedtime at night (move bedtime later by around 10 to 15 minutes every few nights) and hope that he will sleep a little later in the morning or 'wear it' - either have an extra cuddle in bed with your toddler or get up and have fun as you greet the day together.
I've got a three year old who has scary dreams -what is the best way to settle her down?
If your child wakes from a scary dream, respect her fears - they are real to her. Hold her and reassure her, 'I am here, you are safe.' Stay as long as she needs you and during the day when she is more likely to be rational, you could tell her, 'When I was little I used to have scary dreams too but I learned to change the end of dreams so they aren't scary any more.' Help her think of ways to beat the scary creatures she dreams about. For instance, creating a special sound that makes snakes disappear or using a spray that evaporates monsters or makes them into friendly monsters (make up a spray by putting a few drops of lavender essential oil into a spray bottle of water and spray this around her room). A night light (you can call this the good fairy light) or a dream-catcher hung above your child's bed may help her feel more confident about going to sleep. Also, do consider the role television can play in creating frightening images to a small child - for an easier transition to bed and better sleep, it is best to keep television switched off after dinner until your child is in bed.
Pinky McKay is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Infant Massage instructor, mother of five and author of several books including Sleeping Like a Baby - simple sleep solutions for infants and toddlers'(Penguin). Visit Pinky's website www.pinky-mychild.com.
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