There’s something about bedtime that creates the perfect battle of wills. On one side, parents who love their children, but who also need sleep for their sanity. On the other, toddlers who bitterly fight against getting the rest that they need to grow and learn properly. There’s no one method that works to end every bedtime battle. Rather, it’s a process of figuring out what works for you and your toddler.
Before you jump into any of the latest sleep training methods, start by establishing a bedtime routine. The human body craves routine. Circadian rhythms, which control the sleep-wake cycle, rely on light to help the body regulate the release of sleep hormones. These rhythms take time to develop, which is why newborns don’t sleep on a normal day/night schedule. A consistent routine can help a baby or toddler who struggles at bedtime.
A routine should include activities that bring your toddler to a state of relaxed calm. Try activities like a warm bath (though some kids enjoy water play too much for it to be calming), a soft song together while rocking in a chair, or a bedtime story to quiet your child. The routine should be performed in the same order every night.
Your goal is to help your child feel sleepy at the same time every day. Consequently, the bedtime routine should start and end around the same time each day. You may be tempted to quit the bedtime routine after a few days, but remember, establishing a strong sleep-wake cycle takes time, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
There are other issues other than circadian rhythms that could be getting in the way of your child’s sleep. If your child has underlying issues like inability to self-soothe, day-night reversal, sleep regression, or separation anxiety, you might need to try a sleep training method along with a bedtime routine.
Sleep training methods range from the “extinction” method who’s somewhat ominous name really means “let her cry it out” to “bedtime fading.” In bedtime fading, the parents start by letting the child stay up late, and perform a good bedtime routine. In theory, the child falls asleep more quickly because she is tired. Other methods may combine the two while still others focus on preventing night wakings. There are so many options because every child may require a different tactic for healthy sleep.
Whatever method you decide to try, stick to it for awhile before giving up. Because, like a bedtime routine, it could take a while for it to work and both you and your child need sleep. Parents of children with sleep problems experience higher rates of stress and depression, as well as health issues like a weak immune system or unwanted weight gain. Combine your chosen sleep method with good sleep hygiene, all the habits in your life that affect your sleep, for both you and your child.
Start with screen time and good sleeping conditions. Turn off the television, laptop, smartphone, and iPad screens that give off the blue light that signals your child’s brain that it’s time to stay awake. Circadian rhythms can easily get thrown off by artificial light. A movie or cartoon before bed could actually be contributing to sleep problems. Instead, shut off screens an hour before bedtime and opt for a book.
You’ll also want to make sure your child’s bedroom has the right sleep conditions. A dark, quiet, cool (60-68 degree) bedroom will create the right conditions for better sleep. Check her crib mattress to be sure there aren’t lumps, sags, or tags that could be causing discomfort during the night. After you’re sure she’s comfortable, stick to that bedtime routine, and before you know it, her body will start releasing sleep-inducing hormones, and everyone can get better rest.
Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.