It’s important to have strong bedtime boundaries. This will help establish healthy sleep habits and ensure your toddler gets enough sleep. Here are ten practical strategies to help you establish and enforce bedtime boundaries with ease.
Note: this article refers to ‘him’ for but it applies to any child.
HAVE A CONSISTENT BEDTIME.
Decide on a reasonable and age appropriate bedtime for your toddler. Stick to this as closely as possible, give or take half an hour. Consistency in regards to clock time for sleep will help regulate your child’s internal body clock and make it easier for him to fall asleep. Avoid significant variations in bedtime, even on weekends or special occasions when you can, but don’t stress if you have the odd late night here or there. Once you have a regular bedtime established, your toddler will be able to cope well with the occasional late night.
PUT A POSITIVE SPIN ON THINGS.
Use positive language and emphasise the benefits of sleep such as feeling rested and having energy to play at the park the next day. Your toddler won’t understand this in a literal sense but he will love the positiveness that you portray during your interaction. Make bedtime fun by spending some focussed one to one time with your child with some play before bed. It doesn’t have to be for long. Ten to fifteen minutes is ‘like gold’ for your toddler but be sure to put your phone and other distractions aside. Your toddler will know when your focus is elsewhere and that’s when things can go pear shaped.
FOCUS ON THE BEDTIME ROUTINE.
Create a consistent bedtime routine which will serve as a signal that sleep time is approaching. This will help your toddler transition from day time to sleep time at night. Your routine might involve a bath, brushing teeth, playing quietly, reading a story and finally saying goodnight to the things in the room before turning out the light. Use role play with a family member or a toy to show your toddler what you expect at bedtime and what the night time will ‘look like’. Doing the same things in the same order will ‘cue’ your toddler that bedtime and sleep is coming. It will help your child feel relaxed and ready for sleep.
KEEP THINGS LOW KEY (as much as you can).
Establish boundaries on activities that can delay bedtime and make a conscious effort to stay calm (even if you don’t feel like it). Avoid stimulating activities close to bedtime such as watching TV or engaging in energetic play. Turn off screens at least an hour before bed because blue light from screens can hinder sleep. Encourage quiet play and activities that promote relaxation but also understand that some kids are ‘just busy’ and that’s okay. Don’t expect too much. Simply offer your time, stick to your routine and don’t take things personally if your child won’t sit still while you read a story. There’s nothing wrong with you reading a story to your child while he plays with his cars on the floor of his room. The aim is to stay relaxed, calm and in control. Bedtime may not be textbook but it can be stress free. Your child will eventually ‘calm down’ enough for sleep if you’re not rushed and you keep your cool.
ADOPT A FIRM AND GENTLE APPROACH.
Be clear with your expectations. Tell your toddler what you want him to do (not what you don’t want him to do) and what he can expect from you. Be firm and consistent when enforcing bedtime boundaries but also be gentle and fair. Toddlers will test limits, but it’s important to gently guide your child back to his routine if need be. Avoid engaging in power struggles and pre-empt any bedtime issues by having realistic expectations. Plan in advance what you will do if your child says or does ‘this or that’ at bedtime and follow through with your plan consistently with a gentle but firm approach.
CREATE A SLEEP FRIENDLY ENVIRONMENT.
Ensure your toddler’s bedroom is conducive to sleep. Keep the room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Consider using blackout blinds, a white noise machine, or nightlight, depending on your toddler’s age and preferences. Glow in the dark stars on the ceiling and excessive toys can be overstimulating. Consider your child’s age and have realistic expectations about what is developmentally appropriate. Most children under the age of two and a half who have been moved into a bed, will need a physical barrier on their bedroom door, such as a baby gate or the door closed. Toddlers this age (developmentally) have little impulse control to stay in their bed or in their room. If your toddler is in a bed it’s especially important to make sure the room is completely safe.
USE VISUAL CUES.
Visual cues can help toddlers (and all children) understand and follow bedtime boundaries. Use a visual schedule or a picture chart to outline your bedtime routine. This provides a clear sequence of activities; it helps your child know what to expect next and will help him feel safe and ready for sleep. Get your toddler involved and have him check off each step as you progress through the routine. Your child will be more likely to ‘comply’ if he’s had input in the process. Your little one has no real concept of time, which can make it especially tricky during transitions. A visual timer can help him ‘see’ when it’s time to move from one activity to the next which means he’ll be more likely to comply with your instructions. Another helpful visual tool is a sleep trainer clock which lets your child know when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to get up for the day.
OFFER LIMITED CHOICES.
Toddlers appreciate having some control over their lives. Offer limited choices within the bedtime routine such as selecting a story or picking out pyjamas. This will empower your child and give him a sense of ownership and control, whilst you are still maintaining the boundaries you’ve set. If your toddler refuses to make a choice, don’t make a big deal out of it. Just choose for him and move on.
If your toddler tries to push your bedtime boundaries, there should be no negotiation, pleading or explaining on your part. If your toddler repeatedly leaves his bed, calmly and silently guide him back to bed without engaging with him at all. If you have to do this fifty times, then that’s what needs to happen. Your toddler will eventually get the message that he needs to stay in bed and that you will follow through with what you say. The more attention your child gets from you (positive or negative), the more your child will continue the behaviour. Less is always best, especially when it comes to talk.
WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE:
Stay calm and be conscious of how you speak to your toddler. Use a soothing but firm and ‘matter of fact’ tone of voice. Never tell your toddler, “Go to sleep now” as this can be cause for anxiety. Going to sleep is too abstract a concept for a young child and it can be hard for a child to ‘make themselves do’. Instead, tell your toddler to, “Lie down, close your eyes and be quiet like a mouse”. These are three simple things that are easy for any child to achieve and doing them can naturally lead to sleep.
REMEMBER, establishing and enforcing bedtime boundaries takes time and patience. Be consistent, offer gentle reminders, and provide reassurance. Stick to your boundaries and follow through by doing what you say you’ll do. With time, your toddler will adjust to the routine and it will become second nature. Your child will come to know where your boundaries lie and bedtime will become not only easy but enjoyable for all.
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