Wouldn't it be great if your child knew exactly what was expected of them at bedtime, and each night they cooperatively did it in a reasonable amount of time? This is every parent's dream, mine included. We've had a few rough bedtimes lately and I realized it was because our evenings have been so full that I am rushing the routine and not allowing as much choice/control for my toddlers and they are pushing back. Hard. So, here are some of the strategies I used to get us back on track for a sweet, cooperative bedtime.
Toddlers Can’t Steer The Ship
Small children love having control, but they don’t have have the skills to set expectations or keep themselves safe. It’s the caregivers job to create strong boundaries that provide autonomy and give control in age appropriate ways. As loving adults develop clear expectations, explain them, and stick to them with consistency and empathy, we create a safe place for kids to cooperate, learn new skills and attain greater freedom. While children often love the thought of steering the ship themselves, it’s actually quite terrifying when they are given too much power. They start to act out and test the waters, which is a good indicator that they need a strong captain to take back the wheel. The great news is that very young children can rise to the occasion quite quickly when they can be active participants alongside a strong captain.
An Active Body and Mind Sets the Stage for Sleep
Gross motor movements (using the WHOLE body) are vital in setting the stage for proper sleep in children and adults. Make sure that your child is getting at 10- 15 minutes of outdoor play twice a day. If it’s not possible to play outdoors I encourage clients to do some of the following activities before starting your bedtime routine: set up an obstacle course, hide and seek, race or chase, yoga books or songs, follow the leader, or simon says. If you're having a "meh" day, Laurie Berkner's active songs will inspire those little bodies to dance, march, buzz and adventure and all you have to do is push play.
Calming Strategies for Toddlers and Children
Deep Pressure Massage - Starting at the shoulders and moving your way down to the toes, press firmly on each of the joints, using the full palm of your hand for a 2 second count, then slide down and repeat. Ask them how it felt, did they like it? Would they want you to push harder or softer? Some kiddos do NOT like this and it should be avoided. Others will ask for it again and again.
Guided Relaxation - Guided relaxation is helpful technique for calming little bodies and minds. There are several free apps that allow you to play a guided meditation that parents AND kids can relax to at the end of a long day, even if it’s just for 5 minutes. You can have your kids listen to this short visualization with Cosmic Kids Peace Out, there are others like this, and even various apps to give you some ideas for customizing your own.
Mindful Breathing (or Star Breathing, pictured at right) - Teaching children to become aware, or mindful, of their breathing is a life-long skill for calming the body and noticing emotions. Books Breathe Like a Bear and Breathe With Me, help families do this in a variety of ways.
Eye Pillow - Make an eye pillow to lay over the eyes during massage or relaxation activities. Make your own, or purchase one here. This can be placed over the eyes to provide the brain for a large cue: sleep is coming, reeeeelaaaaaaxxxx.
Offering Choices During the Bedtime Routine
The key to offering choices is that you are in control of the big decisions (WHEN it's time to turn out the lights and go to bed, and WHAT activities take place as part of your bedtime routine) but your child has many opportunities to choose and feel in control along the way. We have three flavors of toothpaste and sometimes the process of applying "a little bit of chocolate and a little bit of mint please mommy" does get tedious, but bedtime ALWAYS goes better if they get to choose this small detail. My kiddos also love being in control of which pajamas they wear (though my 2.5 year old gets to choose one of the two pairs I pick out for her, because a drawer full causes "choice anxiety") and one bedtime book to read - I pick out the other one to balance it for length and quality.
If offering choices is new for you, you may find the phrasing below helpful. If your choice is too open ended it leads to frustration on everyone's part. You want to steer the ship with confidence while giving your first mate a feeling of accomplishment.
Here are 2 pj’s which one do you want to wear tonight? Do you want to choose or should I?
You may brush your teeth with my help, but we need to do it now or else we won’t have time for 2 books. Can you come to the sink by yourself or should I help you?
Here are 2 bedtime books, which one would you like first?
If the sleep issues your toddler is experiencing seem more complicated, that's normal. There is a LOT To consider for toddlers, and just altering their schedule and routine can be really helpful! If you're not sure how to do that, you can schedule a 30minute call so that I can help you create a DIY plan to get your kiddo sleeping.
If your child has a deeply ingrained sleep association, My toddler sleep plan is a whopping 13-16 pages depending on each families needs. It takes a lot of information and resources to get on track with smart and determined kiddos. Contact me if you want to know more about creating the peaceful bedtime you dream of.