‘Strong willed toddlers’ can test parents to the utmost of limits, especially when it comes to sleep.
Strong willed toddlers have a knack of pushing our parental buttons, even more so than the average two or three year old. They take everything to ‘the next level’. Add this to the often tricky scenario of sleep and it can be overwhelming, to say the least.
Strong willed toddlers are egocentric by nature, just as all toddlers naturally are, but they differ in that they can be even louder and even more persistent than the average toddler. They really know what they want and they usually want it now. They will scream and fight to get their way. Just like most toddlers, they are also very switched on and smart. They are never manipulative but they are definitely strategic. They very quickly learn that certain behaviours get them what they want which means they will naturally repeat these behaviours.
Question: How should we approach sleep with these little ones? Answer: Adopt a ‘Survivor’ mentality and approach!
I first heard of this analogy of toddlers and the game show Survivor when I studied sleep from my trainer and mentor, Emma Purdue, and I really resonated with it. It made so much sense! The premise is that you can overcome fear and self-doubt in the face of a difficult situation (aka dealing with a strong willed toddler who resists sleep). Dealing with a strong willed toddler is hard but you are more than capable. You must set your boundaries around sleep and be consistent with them. You can do this respectfully, with empathy and with love and at the same time, be the leader your child needs you to be. If you sway from your boundaries, your toddler will very quickly latch on to this and continue to push your limits. It’s important to always stay in control and stay calm.
“Outwit” is a strategic factor where you as the parent and leader, must be clever.
You need to cleverly make it through bedtime battles or night time shenanigans as ‘unscathed’ and unflustered as possible. You must act smarter than your strong willed toddler by pre-empting undesirable bedtime behaviours. If you know your child will stall at bedtime and ask for ‘just one more this or that’, you can be prepared. You can set a visual timer for five minutes, where your child can have access to ‘last things’ before bed. If you explain and practice what is expected prior to bedtime in an age appropriate manner (think visual charts, books, role play etc.) your child will know what is expected and will be more likely to ‘comply’. You also need to be prepared if your child wakes in the night and demands this or that, How will you feel? What will you do? You must set your boundaries around sleep and be consistent with your boundaries any time of day or night.
“Outplay” is to consider how you can manipulate your child’s behaviour to your advantage (not the other way around).
To “Outplay” is to consider how you can manipulate your child’s behaviour to your advantage and not the other way around. Bedtime battles and night-time screaming matches are just behaviours, the same as they are in the day time. Consider them ‘nocturnal tantrums’. Again, you need to be strong and stay in control. No matter how uncomfortable you feel, you must persevere and go on. You are the adult and you are smarter than your child. You know what’s best for them. It’s your responsibility to teach your child the rules ‘of the game’ and to always be one step ahead.
“Outlast” means being strong enough to stick to your plan for as long as you need to.
Your role as the parent and leader is to be there for your child as a support while they learn to calm down and to go to sleep on their own. You are there to ‘ground’ your child, not to try and take over or ‘do it for them’. Have faith that your child is a resilient and capable human being. Take some deep breaths, exercise calm and patience. Know that your child might need your presence or they might not. The most important thing is that you see your plan out consistently until the end and don’t give up!
Ten tips for winning Survivor and dealing with nocturnal tantrums:
- Nurture connection. Spend some quality time with your toddler during the day.
- Create a ‘cave’ like room for sleep: dark, calm and boring (no distractions/no accessible toys/no harsh light).
- Plan for and establish a relaxing wind down bedtime routine.
- Decide on your bedtime/night time expectations and create a visual chart to help reinforce these.
- Preempt possible scenarios, create a ‘game plan’ and stick to this consistently.
- Use role-play to reinforce the behaviours you expect around bedtime and night sleep.
- Offer limited choices so your child feels they have some control e.g. would you like the blue cup or the green cup?
- Shift your mindset and believe in your child’s capability and resilience.
- Exercise patience and be the rock in your child’s ‘storm’ during tough times.
- Always remember your ‘why’ to help you stay focussed. This is the reason you do what you do.
👉 Strong willed toddlers are smart.
You might find that the more you intervene and the more attention you give your child in the middle of the night, the more the unwanted behaviour typically escalates. The thing is, any kind of attention whether it’s positive or negative, is fuel for the strong willed toddler’s fire. You want to let that fire sizzle out naturally, in due course.
👉 Be prepared for protest.
Remember, your toddler is most likely crying and upset because they are tired and frustrated. They desperately want to go to sleep and they are frustrated that you aren’t helping them. They are struggling and expressing their feelings about the situation and that’s okay. It’s not your job to stop their feelings and ‘fix’ the situation. Your job is to empathise with them. Your job is to acknowledge and accept their emotions and allow them to work through their feelings with your underlying love and support.
👉 Your toddler can and will go to sleep without your assistance.
Your toddler can and will go to sleep without your assistance which is a skill that once learned, they won’t forget. They would just prefer a breast or bottle feed, a rock in mum’s arms or to sleep in mum and dad’s bed. Why wouldn’t they? The tantrum begins when you don’t give them what they want. You need to understand and believe that what your child wants is not always what’s best for them (or you).
👉 Night time is no different to any other time. You are not neglecting your child if you deny their every demand.
You are being respectful, responsible and loving. Your child is protesting as a way to test where your boundaries lie. They don’t like pushing boundaries, feeling stressed and seeing you flustered and upset. They behave this way because they don’t have the maturity to be reasonable. They want and need you to help them understand what’s expected of them so that they can feel safe in your care. It may not seem like it in the moment but they crave your leadership.
Understandably, putting all this into practice is HARD. You should never feel like you’re failing or feel guilty when things don’t go as you hoped. It’s all a normal part of parenting and you should give yourself some grace. Parenting takes a lot of practice, after all. The best thing is, it’s never too late to teach your strong willed toddler to sleep well and you don’t have to struggle on your own. No one wins Survivor in isolation.