You know the scenario. It's time to go to sleep, but your toddler wants you to read just one more book or sing yet another lullaby. And once you're done with that, she needs a drink of water, but then still refuses to settle down. Before you know it, she's overtired and unhappy, which results in a bedtime tantrum -- and one exhausted parent.
Enforcing a bedtime for your child doesn’t have to be a battle, though. With established guidelines and a clear understanding of the need for sleep, parents can stop the bedtime tantrums and send their toddlers off to dreamland.
Parents need to exhibit patience and appreciation for the short time span they get to spend putting their children to sleep.
Anastasia Gavalas, parenting education consultant
How Tantrums Evolve
Tantrums range from needy whining to full-fledged fist banging with a toddler throwing himself on the floor. What prompts such behavior?
Children are taught – inadvertently – to tantrum, says Dr. Deborah Gilman, a Pennsylvania-based psychologist. “Tantrums are a behavior that children learn as a result of the attention given to them when they don’t get their way,” she said. “Over time, a child learns that if she acts in a dramatic way, she will get what she wants, and as long as tantrums produce what she wants, tantrums will continue and likely get more dramatic over time.”
At bedtime, what your child wants is to stay awake with Mommy and Daddy. Fatigue and a lack of structure are what commonly trigger bedtime tantrums.
John Duffy, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, says that the most potent factor is often a family system that allows for tantrums. “If we model calm, even under stressful circumstances, we often receive the same back from our children," Duffy said. "But if we are angry, explosive and impulsive ourselves, we often receive that from our children as well.”
Your child may also panic when he finds himself alone at bedtime. Fran Walfish, a child psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” notes that the resistance to sleep is almost always rooted in separation anxiety.
“When a child is put down to sleep and separated from Mommy’s skin, it is absolutely normal for the child to feel a tinge of separation anxiety,” Walfish said. “It is naturally unpleasant to feel insecure so children resist by crying, screaming and demanding relentlessly.”
Your child’s temperament can also play a role in tantrums. “If your little one is strong-willed and stubborn, you’re in for a tug of war,” Walfish said. “If your child is more mellow and easygoing, she may not fight you as long and hard.”
Fighting sleep during life transitions is natural. “If you have a new nanny, an illness or death in the family, a new child or if a parent goes away on a business trip, you will see the change in sleep disruption," Walfish added. "Expect it and have a working plan that you can go back to every time you and your child weather change.”
Putting a Stop to the Bedtime Stall
If your child begs for one more story, five more minutes of cuddling or a glass of water or late-night snack, you’re not alone. One of the most common stalling tactics toddlers use is countless trips to the bathroom, says Tammy Gold of Gold Parent Coaching. “For those who are just potty trained, parents are super happy to oblige them, so they stall and go and sit and go and sit. Then water and snacks become stall issues because parents fear them waking up in the middle of the night if they are hungry,” Gold said.
Gold, mother of three, said she realized that the bedtime stalling tactics from her children required a balance of nurturing and boundaries. “I always recommend at least 15 minutes to cuddle and do those wonderful things at bedtime because they really make a difference for bonding and getting children comfortable at night,” she said. “I rock my 1-year-old with two songs before she goes in her crib and I rock and sing with my 3-year-old before I sit in bed with my 6-year-old and discuss her night. It’s a long process which starts early so each can get enough time.”
Even though Gold allows for ample nurturing, she also sets strict boundaries for her children at bedtime. “My children are not allowed to leave their beds or rooms after we say goodnight,” Gold said. “Parents set bedtimes and that is it.”
Walfish recommends separating the bedtime ritual from the child’s bed. “Make a book corner for reading in a child’s bedroom by throwing cushy blankets and pillows on the floor,” she suggests. “Once you finish, walk your child to bed, tuck him in, sit on your chair and chat time is over. It is a clear message to your child that once his head hits the pillow, his task is to wind down and fall asleep.”
Structure and habit are the best bets in reducing bedtime tantrums. “Parents who create a set of rituals around bedtime tend to have the most luck, and this luck improves the more consistent the rituals are night to night,” Duffy said. “Though your children will never, ever ask for them, consistency and structure are what they need most here.”
Benefits of Sleep
Bonding with Bedtime Traditions
Bonding with your child right before bed can help soothe and calm her fears so she can rest easier. There are no right or wrong ways to bond at bedtime. It’s all about what works for you and your child.
Allowing your child to use his imagination to help establish consistent routines can help him feel empowered. Work together to create a schedule for bath time, evening snacks and teeth brushing -- and attach a game to each task to make it engaging. Your child really just wants one-on-one attention from you regardless of the activity.
You can create a bedtime tradition of singing silly songs, saying a simple prayer or just chatting quietly. If your child enjoys telling stories, the two of you can create your own progressive story. Allow your child to build the characters and the story line -- and dream up adventures to add on the next night. She may be more eager to go to sleep if she knows her dreams will prompt the next night's story.
Anastasia Gavalas, a parenting education consultant and mother of five, says that children deserve a little time to share their thoughts with parents before bed. “Parents need to exhibit patience and appreciation for the short time span they get to spend putting their children to sleep,” she said. “Children who feel heard and appreciated do not throw tantrums.”
Since fatigue and exhaustion often lead to bedtime debacles, ensuring your child is well-rested can make a difference for the entire family. Recognizing the amount of sleep your child needs will help you to set an appropriate bedtime and stick with it.
Gold tucks her children in by 7 p.m. because they need to awaken by 7 a.m. “I find that if you are waking your children in the morning, they are not going to bed early enough,” she said. “For a toddler, one nap of one-and-a-half to three hours each day and 10 to 12 hours at night is crucial for all areas of growth, including emotional, social and cognitive.”
Gilman says that sleep plays a large role in attention, learning, emotional regulation and frustration tolerance, as well as how a child socially interacts and develops physically. “Sleep is needed to re-energize toddlers’ brains and prepare them for the next day of navigating the world, like charging your cell phone at the end of the day,” she said. “If you don’t charge it fully, the battery can’t make it through the next day.”
It is difficult to overdo sleep, and your toddler needs to be well-rested to avoid tantrums at any time of the day. “The body is healthy and the immune system is strengthened and you avoid an emotionally and mentally exhausted child at the end of the day,” Duffy said.