Toddlers are such unique and special little creatures. They are frustrating and fascinating and walk this fine line of trying to be miniature versions of us while they are learning to think and exist on their own.
Along with their creativity and new found intelligence though, comes boundary-pushing and rule-testing! This can make many parents long for the days of infancy or even the certain future of childhood.
When I have my initial evaluations with the parents of a toddler, there is often a drawn out and somewhat amusing story about what bedtime looks like. They’ll tell me (often sheepishly – though I always reserve all judgment around their parenting choices) about how their little one gets three or four stories a night, sometimes five, and then they usually ask for a glass of milk that they’ll only drink a few sips of, then they want to say goodnight in a very specific, drawn-out way, and the parents will end up looking at each other wondering how on earth they got to this point.
And it always happens the same way… just a little teeny bit at a time. Most parents don’t even realize they are headed down slippery slope until they are stuck in the muddy ravine and looking for a way to climb out.
It’s no secret that toddlers love to test boundaries. This is not only in regards to sleep or bedtimes or naps, but it is one of the most talked about characteristics of this age and stage. When they know you want them to behave a certain way, they will push back just to see how much authority they do or do not have over the situation. While it feels like they are being manipulative, they actually want (and need) to see that the boundaries will not budge from where you have placed them.
So one night they ask for a glass of milk, and the parents think, “What’s the harm?” The next night, they ask for a glass of milk and an extra story. A week later, they want a glass of milk, an extra story, and three hugs and two goodnight kisses. Little by little, these over-involved bedtime routines get established, all according to how the toddler is leading things on. And the crazy thing is, as much as they ask and prod and poke, deep down they actually want to see those boundaries hold firm. It’s a way that they are able to learn what the expectations are, and feel safe knowing what to expect.
So there’s a simple, two step solution to this issue.
1. Establish a short bedtime routine.
2. Don’t deviate from it.
That’s it. It’s really that simple.
I understand this may be a case of “easier said than done” in some instances. It certainly can be challenging to hold firm while they request, argue, whine, protest, tantrum, and more in response. But your goal is to show them that bedtime routine is no longer up for debate. And that the boundaries and rules that you are putting in place regarding bedtime (and beyond) are solid and safe and dependable.
As much as your toddler may seem to disagree to this point, they will benefit in seeing that you – the parent – are confidently in charge of your decisions. While giving them small doses of choices at this stage (red pajamas vs. blue pajamas) is appropriate and encouraged, it is important to their sense of security that you know what you are doing; and that they see that.
Additionally, a predictable, repetitive bedtime routine is just what is needed for anyone (yes even adults) to get a good night’s sleep. It signals the brain to start secreting melatonin and signals the body to start relaxing muscles in preparation for a restful, restorative snooze.
So if you find yourself bargaining for an extra TV show or late night snack before bedtime, you may need to lay down the law and get yourself into a simple, predictable, and secure bedtime routine as well.