What to Expect
Some little ones say they get scared at night. Responding to nighttime fears is definitely a balancing act. You want to be reassuring, but you don’t want to overreact. Most children outgrow these fears naturally, but in the meantime there are a number of things that you can do. Play with you child in the dark, such as playing flashlight tag or reading books by flashlight, so that the dark becomes a time that fun things happen. Install a nightlight and encourage a security object like a favorite stuffed animal. At the same time, set some limits so that you are not reinforcing your child’s fears or sending the message that the dark is something to be afraid of. You can also capitalize on his imagination. For example, put water in a spray bottle and spray around and underneath the bed with the “monster spray” to make sure no monsters come during the night!
Stick with a consistent bedtime routine! As your child gets older, routine becomes more and more important. If you haven’t already included reading as part of your child’s bedtime routine, now is a great time to start. Reading as part of a bedtime reading will help your child develop early reading skills, and create long-lasting family memories. Create a shelf of bedtime books that your child can choose from, so that you control the length of the stories. Also, keep your child’s bedroom and bedtime routine screen-free. No tablets, smartphones, or video games. Old fashioned books are best.
During the “terrible twos” (which often are not so terrible), your little one may resist going to bed. Staying positive is much better than trying to punish your child. Instead, praise him for doing the right thing, whether that is doing each step of his routine or not calling after lights out. Make getting ready for bed fun – “do you want to stomp to bed like an elephant or tiptoe like a mouse?” Give your child two acceptable choices to pick from, such as two sets of pajamas or whether he wants you to squirt the toothpaste or if he wants to do it on his own. This will work out much better than asking a question where “no” is not an acceptable answer, such as “are you ready to brush your teeth?”, or there are too many possibilities (e.g., go pick out your pajamas).
Reward your child for staying in bed or not calling out. Tell him if he is quiet, you will come back in five minutes for another round of hugs and kisses. Closer to the age of 3, a bedtime pass will work well if your child keeps making requests before or after lights out. A bedtime pass can be as simple as an index card that he turns in for a final request (e.g., drink of water, last trip to the potty, or another bedtime kiss). No more pass, no more requests.
Helping him get enough sleep is quite important. Toddlers between 2- and 3-years-old sleep, on average, 10 to 13 hours per 24-hour period. Little ones his age can seem overactive if they don’t get enough sleep. They also may be more irritable and have a harder time falling asleep. Making sure he still gets that nap in can also help a great deal!
If your little one continues to wake during the night or has never yet slept through the night, think about how he falls asleep at bedtime. If you are staying with him until he falls asleep, he will need you again to help him fall back to sleep when he naturally wakes during the night. Instead, be sure that he can fall asleep on his own. At bedtime, take a few nights and sit on his bed. Then sit on the floor or on a chair next to his bed for a few nights. Every few nights, move farther away, until you are no longer there at bedtime. A good morning light can also be a huge help, to let your child know when he can get up in the morning (or come snuggle in your bed). Simply put a nightlight on a timer to turn on at a reasonable time in the morning. If your child wakes before the light turns on, remind him that it’s still night-night time and you will see him when his light goes on. You may want to start with a very early morning time, such as 5:00 am. Once your child understands the concept, you can change the time to be 15 minutes later every few days.
The more he sleeps the better he will sleep. Although it might be tempting to cut your little one’s nap, it will actually make it harder for him to fall asleep at bedtime, and he will get less sleep overall. Most little ones give up their nap between 3 and 4 years of age, but some will stop napping before the age of 3. If your little one is no longer napping during the day or resisting his nap, simply switch to “quiet time.” The message will no longer be that your little one has to nap, but he does have to take an hour or so in his room doing quiet activities, such as looking through books or playing quietly with toys. The break will do everyone good, and he will fall asleep if he is especially tired on a given day.
Family & Environment
Although your little one is no longer a baby, continue to think about safety hazards, such as keeping cords away from the crib. If your little one can climb out of his crib or has already transitioned to a bed, be sure that your little one’s room is safe and that he can’t head out of the room or to other parts of the house. You can also get your little one a bit more involved in the bedtime routine. For instance, perhaps you can let him choose his bedtime book for the night. Set aside a few specific books that are designated as bedtime books – that way you allow him choice, but you have already selected a few books that are good for bedtime – perhaps ones that have a calming story and are not too long. Keep the number of books and the order of the routine consistent!