Toddlers are the masters of bedtime delay tactics.
Another story, another cuddle, needing to wee, needing another drink….
For toddlers, all these distractions are ways of saying they don’t want to be alone.
They often find it stressful to go sleep all by themselves in a dark room.
Toddler Sleep – Does Your Toddler Need A Sleep Routine?
Your toddler might be able to hear the rest of the family and feel left out.
Or he might just feel separated from you, and really need to make a connection.
Whatever the reason, when your toddler resists going to sleep, it can be a source of great frustration for you.
Many experts suggest a bedtime routine is the answer to this problem. This might be a solution worth exploring.
Why Have A Bedtime Routine?
Is a bedtime routine really necessary? Many experienced parents will answer with an emphatic ‘yes’. Other parents will say a routine is too restrictive and children won’t learn how to recognise when they’re naturally tired.
Toddlers need an average of 11-13 hours of sleep a day, including naps. Most first time parents feel they need to do all the ‘right’ things to make sure sleep happens for their baby or toddler.
But if we look at the reasons for setting up a routine for sleep, we start to see the bigger picture. Having babies and toddlers sleep alone is only common in Western cultures, where bedtime routines are held up as the holy grail of getting an infant or young child to sleep for long periods of time.
In countries where co-sleeping is the norm, bedtime routines are either non-existent or they are based on feeding times – whether that means breastfeeding, bottle-feeding or a snack. Babies and toddlers usually remain close to a caregiver – either the mother or an older sibling – and will sleep anywhere at any time.
In countries where co-sleeping is less common, such as in Australia, the US and the UK, bedtime routines have become a ‘tool’, used to signal to babies and toddlers that it’s time to go to sleep.
Are There Benefits To A Bedtime Routine?
Research has shown early human beings did not sleep alone; they stayed close to their tribe or community. There was safety in numbers; staying safe meant sleeping in groups. Human babies and toddlers certainly couldn’t survive without the close proximity of an older caregiver; this is still true today. It’s not part of human nature for babies and toddlers to sleep alone, but it has become a part of our culture.
Having a bedtime routine is also part of our particular culture, but isn’t something human beings must do. In countries where co-sleeping is the norm, families don’t feel guilty or less capable at parenting because they don’t have a bedtime routine.
Having said that, having a bedtime routine has some benefits, particularly if you want to help your toddler fall asleep easily and without fuss.
We like routines; they help us feel secure and know what to expect. When we have a set of steps to take before a certain event, we become ‘cued’ for what we have to do.
This process also applies to bedtime routines: they give signals, telling your toddler it’s time to wind down and get ready for sleep. We tend to think a bedtime routine helps to improve the amount and quality of sleep for children. In fact, most research focuses on this aspect of bedtime routines.
However, research also indicates bedtime routines have a positive impact on children’s development and wellbeing. But what defines a bedtime routine really depends on the culture, the society, and the individual family. These factors vary, and what works for some might not be applicable to others.
Does My Toddler Need A Bedtime Routine?
If bedtime is hassle free at your house, chances are you probably don’t need a routine. But if your toddler is struggling with the transition between activity and settling down, having a simple bedtime routine can help.
What is a bedtime routine exactly? Some parents envisage a checklist of ‘must do’ activities, which isn’t very appealing at the end of a long, tiring day. For others, just remembering to start the series of steps before bedtime is the main obstacle.
But bedtime routines don’t have to be a restrictive, drawn out process.
Many advocates of bedtime routines say a set time is an essential part of the deal. Children in cultures where co-sleeping is the norm, however, might choose their own time to sleep – the time they feel tired. Helping your child to go to sleep doesn’t necessarily mean telling them when to sleep.
A good start is to pay attention to signs your toddler is tired. It’s likely to be around the same time every night, depending on whether he has slept during the day, or been active or unwell. If you can read these signs of tiredness, helping your toddler to go to sleep becomes an easier task
The next step is to choose a simple way to announce to your child that it’s nearly bedtime. In most western cultures, this includes toileting, dressing for bed, and some form of connection with parents, such as a story or a cuddle.
These steps don’t always have to be in the same order to ‘work’; they simply act as signals that it’s time to wind down and they allow your toddler to recognise his body’s need for sleep.
Parents can add whatever works best for their family. If you co-sleep, you might like to lie next to your toddler until he falls asleep.
If you are new to bedtime routines, the best advice is to keep it simple and don’t expect miracles. The idea is to encourage your toddler to anticipate going to sleep, rather than forcing him to perform tasks before he can sleep.
It can take time for a bedtime routine to kick in. The less pressure you put on yourself and your toddler to make it work, the better for everyone.
And remember, a bedtime routine isn’t a magic ‘cure all’ to make your toddler sleep through the night. It’s perfectly normal for toddlers to wake at night and need help to go back to sleep.
You can read more in 5 Things No One Tells You About Toddler Night Waking.
A bedtime routine for toddlers isn’t an absolute must. Parents in western cultures tend to fall into the trap of believing control over sleep will ensure their child sleeps better or for longer periods.
The holy grail of extended sleep is what all parents are looking for, but we need to accept it’s normal for children of all ages to wake at night.
A gentle bedtime routine can help toddlers make the transition from being active to recognising tiredness and preparing to sleep.