Toddlers and Sleep Boundaries
Toddlers and sleep boundaries is a subject that I love talking about because so many families suddenly find themselves with a toddler who is getting up at night or pushing boundaries, turning bedtime into a 2 hour process! You now suddenly find yourself having to lay with your kiddo to get them to sleep or getting up at night multiple times to tuck them back in.
Many moms and dads find themselves with no tools in their toolbox for how to fix this issue and months go by with the problem not resolving itself. In fact, it gets worse…
What is a parent to do?
Why Toddlers Stop Sleeping or Draw Out Their Bedtime Routine
Let’s talk about a few reasons why toddlers suddenly stop sleeping all night or draw out their bedtime routine to such an extent that you’re ready to lose your mind!
They’ve been moved to a bed too early and mom and dad didn’t have a clue that removing the physical boundary of the crib was going to create chaos with their kiddos sleep. Suddenly a child that was sleeping well in their crib is now coming out of their room a hundred times and is appearing at your bedside at 5am ready to start the day!
Many toddlers simply don’t have the self control to stay in bed, ESPECIALLY if they’re under 3 years old. Couple that with parents not having a plan, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. You can read my blog post here to read about some resources that can help your toddler to learn sleep boundaries.
Boundaries, expectations, and follow through are not clear. Many parents find themselves being afraid to draw a hard line in the sand around toddler sleep for a variety of reasons. Maybe they don’t want the meltdown at bedtime or they have a baby or sibling that’s sleeping and they don’t want to wake them. Because they don’t have clear sleep boundaries and follow through isn’t consistent (or it’s non-existent) the child controls the entire sleep situation in the home. This is a recipe for anger, frustration, and broken sleep for everyone.
But here’s the thing…It’s not their fault. They’re the child. You’re the parent. It’s YOUR job to make the boundaries clear AND follow through when your child tests those boundaries (because they definitely will!). It’s your job to ensure your kids get adequate sleep and those boundaries are held in place in a loving but FIRM way. Toddlers test boundaries. It’s what they do. You have to expect it and know that once they are clear on where the boundary lies, the likelihood that they will stop pushing so hard is high.
Sleep is a hill worth dying on in my opinion. It affects the wellbeing of the entire family and will eventually cause EVERYONE to start to unravel! Toddler sleep and sleep boundaries should be one of the non-negotiables in your home if you want your family to thrive. This doesn’t mean that you NEVER lay with your kids in bed or that they NEVER lay with you. There are times when laying or sleeping together in bed is good and healthy and really helps a child who may be struggling or in a difficult season of life. The issue happens when you have lost control and your toddler is now calling the shots around sleep.
Your kiddo is lacking connection. I don’t say this to make you feel guilty. Parenting is HARD and whether you work outside the home or not, it’s easy to get busy with tasks and get to the end of the day and realize you didn’t spend any time connecting with your kids. Toddlers NEED to have their emotional tanks full when going to bed otherwise they will most definitely be using all sorts of attention-seeking behaviors to get you to stay just a little bit longer. Spending one-on-one time connecting during the day and before bed can be a huge help in making sure your toddler feels secure and filled up emotionally.
If you work outside the home and time is limited before bed, use your weekends to meal prep so that all you need to do is heat dinner and not prepare an entire meal when you get home. This one thing can give you the extra time you need to connect with your kids at the end of the day so they go to bed feeling connected and secure. If your child has been away from you all day while you’re at work, their need for connection cannot be overstated! Spend some time with them as soon as you can once you get home and see how much more pleasant your evening is.
Your child is going to bed too late. This is VERY common, but the good news is, it’s an EASY fix! This one change can turn a difficult bedtime into an easy bedtime! Most kids are hardwired for a bedtime somewhere between 6pm and 8pm with the majority falling somewhere between 6:30pm and 7:45pm. Kids that still nap fall closer to the 8pm bedtime, and kids that have stopped the nap may need to be in bed by 6:00pm/6:15pm, especially if the nap drop has been recent. I know this seems early, but I promise, your child needs the sleep! If you haven’t experienced the magic of an early bedtime, try it and see for yourself!
But shouldn’t a later bedtime make for an easier bedtime?
Not usually. Typically the exact opposite is true. Here’s why…
Your toddler has a sleep window just like he did when he was a baby. It may be longer now, but he still has it. This means that once he starts to feel sleepy he needs to be put to bed. Keeping him up only results in overtiredness, and overtiredness results in difficulty going to sleep and staying asleep. So if he gets sleepy at 6:30pm or 7:00pm and he’s not being put to bed until 7:30pm or 8:00pm, guess what’s going to happen?
He’s going to go from sleepy (if you put him down at this point, sleep would come easily) to HYPER (sleep is not happening anytime soon)!
The reason he goes from sleepy to hyper is because his adrenal glands have released cortisol to keep him awake since he’s not being put to bed. He gets a second wind and that’s when he gets hyper and silly, and doesn’t listen. The bedtime routine then starts to become unmanageable. Even once he’s in bed, he CAN’T fall asleep.
Does this sound familiar?
If so, the KEY to solve this is to simply move bedtime earlier.
Here’s how to know when bedtime should be:
Back up bedtime by a half hour BEFORE the time when you notice that he starts to get hyper or silly. For example, If every night at 7:00pm he begins to get super excited and starts bouncing off the walls, then shoot for a 6:30pm bedtime instead. This would not be an uncommon bedtime for a young toddler who is no longer napping and starts his day at 7:00am. This means the bedtime routine should start at 6:00pm.
Ideally It should take no more than about 20 minutes for kids to fall asleep if they’re going to bed at the correct time. Alternatively, if your kiddo is conking out the second their head hits the pillow, you know they’re going to bed too late. These two benchmarks can help you gauge if you’re getting it right.
The exception to this is a kiddo thats not falling asleep until 9/10 pm or later. If you’ve tried an earlier bedtime and its not working, then moving bedtime to about 10 min before you’re child is typically falling asleep and then slowly moving bedtime back in 15 minute increments every 3 nights might be the best way to slowly reset your child’s circadian rhythms. If you need help with this reach out to me for some extra guidance.
Kids that go to bed at the right time also sleep until at least 6:00am and typically closer to 7:00am. Early morning wake up’s (4:30am to 5:30 am) are generally a sign that your toddler went to bed too late, or it can happen because they’re napping too long in the afternoon. Capping naps may be necessary as your toddler turns the corner to 3 years old. If you see that naps are pushing bedtime past 8:00pm, then you know it’s probably time to start capping the nap.
If you’re struggling to get your kids in bed on time because you’re managing multiple kids’ bedtimes by yourself, here is a post to help. I did that for many years when my kids were young and my husband worked long hours, so I know how tough it can be!
If bedtime has become difficult with your toddler and sleep boundaries have become non-existent, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for some practical tools. I will help you bring back the sleep boundaries that your toddler needs, so bedtime can become peaceful again and you and your partner can have your evenings back!