If you google “how to get your child to sleep”, at the top of the results you will read that you should have a bedtime routine for them. This is good advice. It’s advice I’ve given time and time again as a sleep consultant. A pre-sleep routine is not THE answer but it is a necessary piece of the solution. If you are trying to teach your little one to sleep well, a consistent pre-sleep routine is essential.
By pre-sleep routine, I mean a series of a few things you do to get your child ready for bed, finishing with something soothing and enjoyable. The image to the right shows generic, typical routines for both babies and toddlers. You can do whatever you like though. I had a client who was an artist and used to “draw” on her baby’s tummy with her finger every night while getting him ready for bed. I thought that was so sweet and personal to who this mom was. If you like to sing, sing a lullaby. If singing is uncomfortable for you, recite a little poem. If you prefer to read, then read your little one a short, soothing book. It’s your choice.
But what if your routine isn’t working for you?
It’s all well and good to create a routine that you go through before every nap and at bedtime but, once your sweet little baby graduates to a willful, limit-testing toddler, you may feel like you’ve lost control of the routine.
Kids are smart. They’re very good at finding ways to take control of and/or delaying bedtime. They may request more and more toys in their crib or bed, extra books, more time in the bath, extra playtime before they go to sleep…the list goes on. If you have found yourself struggling every night to get your little one to go to bed, it can be incredibly frustrating. By the time they get to sleep, you’re exhausted and stressed. You’ve spent most (or maybe all) of your evening fighting to get them to sleep.
Setting limits in a way that works for you is the answer.
Setting limits for your children can feel mean or harsh. But kids who don’t know where those limits lie tend to push back more and feel like they need to be in control. If you show your child that you are taking control of the situation in a way that is fair and loving, it makes them feel secure. Despite appearances, your toddler does want you to have limits with them.
Toddlers test boundaries. It’s what they’re supposed to do. And, even though it’s hard, we need to lovingly show them that the boundaries are there.
There’s a great article on HuffPost called How to Set Limits for Kids Without Harshness, Fear or Shame. It goes into limit-setting in more detail. As a mom of two toddlers myself, I could spend a long time talking about it but let’s get to the point:
How do you make your pre-sleep routine work for you?
There are three components to this answer: (1) Be consistent; (2) Give your little one choices; (3) Include incentives. Let’s break it down.
1 – Be consistent
The more consistently you use your routine, and expect your son or daughter to follow it, the more readily they will accept it. Things like vacations, holidays, illness, or plans with friends can cause you to deviate from your routine, and that’s to be expected. But, on normal days at home, stick to your routine. The more you let it slide, the more your scrappy little toddler will push to not follow it on days you ask them to.
2 – Give your little one choices
It must be so hard to be a toddler. You’re constantly told what to do, told “no” over and over again, and are trying to figure out where your boundaries lie. This is why it’s nice to make sure that your little one has some sense of control in places where it won’t disrupt their bedtime routine.
An example of this is letting them choose which pyjamas they want to wear that night. As long as they put them on, it doesn’t matter to you, so why not let them choose? I have two boys and they love to choose which room they get undressed in before their bath. Sometimes they want to go to my older son’s room, sometimes the little guy’s room. it doesn’t make a difference to me, so every night as we go upstairs I ask where they want to go. They decide and that’s the room we go to. For them it’s fun and it’s something they get to choose instead of having me tell them what to do.
3 – Include incentives
This is the one I rely on the most. As I’ve said, your toddler is going to test limits and try to assert control over their bedtime routine. No matter how tired your son or daughter is, they are going to try to delay bedtime at least some of the time. The best way to compel them to get ready for bed without having to raise your voice or get upset (since we know that doesn’t work and it’s not fun for anyone) is to incentivize them.
Add one or two things into the routine that your little one loves and that you’re willing to take away if they don’t listen when you ask them to get ready for bed.
As an example, your child might have a favourite book that you read to them every night before bed. You can use this as an incentive. If they’re refusing to put their pyjamas on, you can say, “If you don’t put your pyjamas on, we’re not going to have time to read your book tonight.” They may not take you seriously at first but, after a night or two of not getting that book they love, they’ll realize that they need to listen or you really won’t read it to them.
With my boys, they love to come back downstairs after they get ready for bed. When I tell them it’s almost bedtime, the first question I always get is, “Mummy, back downstairs?” I say yes and they get so excited. We go upstairs, they have their bath, they put their pyjamas on, and then we head downstairs to play for a few minutes (or longer if we have time). If they’re refusing to get undressed, get out of the bath, stop fighting over a toy, or anything that’s delaying the process, I just tell them that we’re not going to have time to go back downstairs if they don’t listen. It works almost every time. The few occasions where they haven’t listened, they’ve gone straight to bed after their pyjamas are on. If just one listens, they get to come down and play and the other one goes to bed.
That brings me to two important things to remember when deciding how to build these incentives into your routine. The first is that it needs to be something your son or daughter really wants. The second is this:
You have to be willing to follow through on the consequence.
I know that I wouldn’t be able to say no to cuddling with the boys before bed so I would never use that as my incentive.
Parents of young kids know that it’s never going to be smooth sailing every night. But the more you can make your routine work for you, the less stress you’ll feel every evening and the more you’ll be able to enjoy that time with your little one before they go to sleep.