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Why Are My Toddler’s Bedtime And/Or Nights A Struggle?

toddlers Sep 29, 2022


“Mommy, no stay with me! Come back!”

“1 more drink please!”

“No, I don’t want to go to sleep!”

“But I need to go to the bathroom!”

Are you finding yourself having to lay in your child’s bedroom for sometimes hours until your child falls asleep? Do you find that it is even a struggle to get your child ready for bed and in bed for the night? Do you find your child at the foot of your bed in the middle of the night?

Do any of these sound familiar? Please know that you are absolutely NOT alone! These struggles are ones we hear from many of our toddler clients! As a mom of 2 and a toddler mom myself, I completely feel you and understand the mental toll it can sometimes take!

Although every child and family truly is unique, working with many toddler families, there tends to be some overarching common causes of child and toddler sleep challenges. The first step, in trying to remediate these challenges as you work towards better sleep for your whole family, is to first determine what is getting in the way of consolidated and consistent sleep for your child. 

Here are the 3 common causes of bedtime struggles and night wakings!


Unbalanced Sleep Pressure 

Sleep pressure is your brain’s feeling of needing to go to sleep and to stay asleep. We build our sleep pressure throughout the day by being awake, engaging in activities, eating, etc. Everything we do during the day builds sleep pressure. Think of it like a water bucket. At the beginning of the day, your child starts with an empty water bucket. As your child goes through his/her day, plays, eats, interacts with others, etc., that bucket slowly fills with water, getting heavier and heavier. The way your child can dump out the water for it to be not as heavy is to sleep. In other words, sleep is what relieves that pressure in the brain. 

This is where the balanced sleep pressure comes in. We want the bucket to be as full as possible, without overflowing, so the water can sustain your child through the night and can be slowly poured out through the duration of night’s sleep. In other words, we want there to be enough water, or pressure, to help your child stay asleep from bedtime to morning. If the water bucket is only ¾ the way full, or your child is under-tired, then oftentimes that can lead to night wakings and/or early morning wakings. Contrastingly, if the water bucket is overflowing, your child is overtired, your child can experience difficulty falling asleep and even night wakings, as well. 

To keep the sleep pressure balanced, ensure your child is starting their day at at least 6:00am or later, getting an appropriate amount of daytime sleep at nap time, and has a reasonable bedtime. Examine the bedtime specifically. Frequently we see toddlers simply going to bed too late. Your toddler should not be awake longer than 6 hours, with ideally 5.5 hours between nap wake up and bedtime. Keep your schedule and bedtime consistent!


Inconsistency and Confusion

Children truly thrive with routine and structure. They do best when they know what to expect. During the toddler years your child is beginning to learn and understand what is "ok" and what is "not ok". Your child is going through an exciting period where they want to have more independence, and a say in what and how he does things. These desires are all very positive and ones that we should foster! We want to ensure that he has opportunities for independence, but within a construct that you, the parent, create. This is where boundaries come into play!

It is typical for a toddler to experiment with their behavior to see where those boundaries begin and end. Frequently, we will see them test these boundaries at bedtime specifically. If those boundaries, whether at bedtime or other parts of the day, are inconsistent, it can cause great confusion for your child. They do not know what to expect in a situation, or what is expected of them. A common result of this confusion can be your child feeling insecure and an increase of undesired behaviors. By keeping your routines, boundaries, responses to your child, and reinforcement consistent, your child will feel more safe within the limits and confident in his abilities. Your child will be able to successfully learn your boundaries and be free to explore his independence in an appropriate way.


Sleep Association Dependency

What is a sleep association? A sleep association is anything external that we feel like we need to have or like to have in order to fall asleep. Please know that not all sleep associations are “bad”. And to be honest, we all have them, even us as adults! I personally have a pillow that I feel like I sleep better with. Some sleep associations can actually be beneficial, such as a dark room, a brown noise sound machine, or a warm and cozy blanket. Where sleep associations come into play when working towards better sleep for your child is if a sleep association is: 1) Becoming unsustainable for parents or caregivers (and that is okay!!). 2) Getting in the way of your child’s consolidated sleep. 3) Impeding your child from falling asleep. 


So, what is the most common sleep association that we see with toddlers that fits 1, 2, or all 3 of those categories? Yep, believe it or not, parent presence. 


Before we go on, let’s actually take a short pause! If you are suspecting your presence as a parent is your child’s sleep association dependency, I would like to remind you that you have NOT or are NOT doing anything “wrong.” Like I mentioned at the start of this blog, every child truly is unique. Right now, it is just about meeting your child where they are right now and guiding them so they can simply get better rest! If what you’re doing is working for you and your family, that is great! Truly. But if you are looking for how to improve your family’s sleep, we are here to support you! 


The most effective way we have found to help your child learn some more independent sleep skills is by physically fading you, over time, out of the way in which your child is going to sleep. With toddlers, it is frequently a few week process, and can be a little bit of a roller coaster. However, with your consistency, your child CAN do it! Start by having a clear plan with how to positively prepare your child ahead of time and what will be expected, a consistent bedtime routine, how you will be expecting your child to fall asleep, and how to reinforce that expectation. 

Remember that we are here! We can help and support you through this process of getting your child more consistent and consolidated sleep. Schedule a complimentary discovery call, and we would be happy to chat more!


 "Learn more about how we work with families to help their babies sleep 10+ hours at night without Cry-it-out or Ferber.  Join our free webinar!" 


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