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Dealing with a Nightly Bedtime Drama

Does this scenario sound familiar? You've tucked your toddler in for the night. pyjamas are on, teeth are brushed, stories are read. You sit down to relax and a little voice calls anxiously from the bedroom, 'mummy, I need one more kiss.' Obligingly, you re-tuck her in, give her a kiss and say firmly, 'Goodnight now.' Soon, your toddler appears in the doorway and says through tears, 'I don't want to go to bed.' You tuck her in again and say, more firmly this time, 'See you in the morning.' Several scenes later, she's still awake and protesting and you're wondering if she'll EVER go to sleep.

This little drama—or some variation on the theme—is enacted in thousands of households every night of the year. Although the problem is not life-threatening, it creates a great deal of tension and strife within the average household. In addition to you and your child and your personality traits, there are at least three other 'actors' in the drama that strongly influence the plot:
1. The amount of sleep a 2-year-old needs.
2. The issue of control.
3. Anxiety and fear.
Let's examine each one in turn and see how it plays a role in the nightly drama.

How much sleep?
Most child development text books will tell you the average 2-year-old sleeps around 14 hours in a 24 hour day, with two of those in the form of an afternoon nap and 12 or so at night. And that is roughly the amount of sleep parents think their 2-year-old should have—especially the 12 hours at night. Nothing makes for a smoother household than a child who goes to sleep at 7:00 p.m. and doesn't wake up until 7:00 a.m. But, in real families, that doesn't often happen. An average of 11-12 hours means that some children will sleep 9-10 and still others will sleep 13-14 hours. And the child descoted above just may be in that 9-10 hour part of the curve. If so, and the parents insist that she should go to bed 'when it is bedtime,' they are asking for conflict. A child's idea of bedtime and a parent's may differ by a couple of hours.

My first suggestion is that parents who face this annoyance begin their search for a solution by systematically determining how much sleep their children really need. Try something like this for a week: get your child ready for bed at the usual time, but don't insist she get in the bed right away. Let her play quietly with her toys or look at some books, or watch TV with the rest of the family (provided programming is appropriate and she agrees to be quiet). Then, when you see signs that she is sleepy (yawning or rubbing eyes), say calmly, 'Looks like it's time for you to go to bed for the night.' She is far less likely to protest and get out of bed repeatedly under those conditions. This change in routine may tell you that you have been trying to force her to go to sleep when she didn't need sleep. During this time, be sure to note what time she wakes up the next morning. If she wakes up at the same time, she probably needed less sleep. If she wakes up significantly later, you will know she needed the amount of sleep you thought she needed, but her biological clock is set somewhat differently. You may need to make adjustments at both ends of the night. This little 'experiment' is an important first step.

Who's in control?
The second character in this nightly drama represents a struggle for control. Two-year-olds are notorious for wanting to control everything. Why should bedtime be any different? But you, as a good parent, feel you should be in control for your child's own good. That leads to a rather constant battle—and usually to an impasse. An effective way of dealing with a toddler's need for control is to give in on the unimportant things and hold fast on the important ones. You probably let her choose some of what she eats—until she chooses all sweets three meals in a row. And you probably let her choose what she wears, though sometimes you worry other children will ridicule her for her absurd choice. If you will cut her some slack in the choice of a bedtime hour, it can offer some satisfaction of the toddler's need to control, and allow her to feel that she is being listened to.

I suggest, insofar as is compatible with the remainder of the family's peace, that bedtime is something that she could choose—or at least influence. Give a little on the clock, and you may score a major gain in family peace and harmony.

Anxiety and fear
No matter how secure a child is, no matter how loved and protected, there is always a little fear associated with 'turning off' consciousness—i.e., going to sleep. These bedtime dramas in part reflect that anxiety. And at night, of course, we sleep in the condition we most fear—darkness. So sometimes a child fights going to sleep because of the fearful conditions associated with it—isolation (often) from the rest of the family, being in the dark, and the letting go of all the exciting things that happened during the day.

In order to help assuage these fears, it is important for parents to recognize their existence. It should be fairly easy, as all of us have those same fears at a lower level. But we have a history that reassures us morning will return within a predictable time. So, to help toddlers cope with these fears—fears they cannot yet verbalize—give them some extra support at bedtime. Stay in the room with them for a while after the lights go out, lie down with them for a time, and offer all kinds of reassurance that morning is going to return before they know it. And, if they need your presence to 'let go' and sleep, it is probably better to offer it temporarily in their bed than in yours.

Write a New Script
So I suggest your daughter's behaviour relates to one or another—or all three—of these bedtime dramatis personae. And all three are villains—amount of sleep, need for control, and anxiety. By paying careful attention to their role in the recurring bedtime drama at your house, and by doing the necessary re-writes, you can get them out of the script and let your play have a happier nightly ending!

Note: This article is based on one of the questions submitted to the fisher-price.com web site by a parent. It's a complex issue, and one I felt warranted an entire article, rather than a short response to a question. Here is the question:

'My 25-month-old daughter will not stay in her bed at night. We had to take her out of her cot because she kept climbing out and falling. Now she's in a toddler bed, but when it's time for bed she cries or throws herself around or climbs out because she doesn't want to go to sleep. How can I make it clear that when it is bedtime she needs to stay in bed and not get up or call for me?"
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education