Expert Advice

How to get your toddler to go to bed without any fuss - and stay there!

Putting a stop to bedtime shenanigans with toddler sleep expert Annette Faamausli.

By: Karyn Henger

We all breathe a sigh of relief when our babies start sleeping through the night. Finally, we get our nights back to ourselves - only to discover that as toddlers they can be as active after twilight as babies. What's with that!

Toddler sleep expert Annette Faamausli of Serene Sleep helps parents overcome toddler sleep issues and she'll be sharing her wisdom at this year's Baby Show, which is on at Auckland's ASB Showgrounds this weekend.

She says the main reason toddlers continue to present with sleep problems is because they can!

Bedtime shenanigans

"At around 12 to 18 months they develop a real sense of 'me' and 'I' and that they have a voice and can have a say in their world and can start to call the shots," Annette explains.

"So what that can mean is if they have learnt in the day to refuse to go in the car seat or in the high chair - arching their back is a classic manoevre - then they're thinking, 'Okay, doing that in the day gains a response from mum so I'll try and do that in the evenings when I lower myself into the cot.'

"Also they're more mobile so they can climb out of the cot. They're more vocal so they're learning that shouting gets a reaction... Head butting the floor gets a reaction. That kind of cause and effect scenario comes into play massively.

"For parents it's important to know that it's really normal and you need to continue with your boundaries and your settling technique and not see it as a reason to get them out of the cot."

What parents get really hung up on is that their child DOES NOT STAY LYING DOWN when put to bed.

To leave them standing in their cot is absolutely fine, Annette assures. So is putting them to bed knowing they'll get up and start playing with their toys.

"If you've put your child in a bed that they can get out of, of course they're going to want to get out and wander round their room and have a little look and explore because they've never been able to do that before," she reminds parents. "The novelty will wear off as long as you don't react to it."

Some kids will get back in bed; some will fall asleep on the floor. Just scoop them up and pop them back in bed later.

Toddler sleep expert Annette Faamausli helps parents overcome toddler sleep issues.

The yo-yo effect

But what if they won't even stay in their room? What if they follow you out and you have to spend the next half-hour returning them to their bed? (Another fantastic cause-and-effect game in a two-year-old's mind.)

Or they wait until you're distracted and sneak into the bathroom to squeeze the toothpaste out all over the bathroom mirror?

"I always recommend a safety gate," Annette advises. "It's a gentle barrier that keeps your child contained in their room. You can still see them and they can still see you - although you don't want them to be seeing you."

Stay one step ahead, Annette advises.

Follow a strict bedtime routine

Between the ages of 18 months and three years it's particularly important to give toddlers very strict, clear boundaries around bedtime, Annette says.

"If they see that the boundaries are quite lax and open for movement then they'll just push and run with it.

"Have a short, sharp routine of bath, into the bedroom, pyjamas on, stories, milk (if they're still having a milk drink) and then bed," she advises.

"If you can keep that to 30-40 minutes then over time the routine is going to kick in, and if you stick to the time frame then they don't have as much of an opportunity to stretch bedtime out with delaying tactics."

The worst thing you can do is bring them back out into the living room after bath time, she says, because you're bringing them back out into the environment where daytime activities happen so it's confusing for them.

"They end up watching a bit of TV and then you're distracted by doing the evening meal or washing the dishes and time goes, then trying to get a child from the living room out to the bedroom is really hard."

With particularly determined children Annette advises effectively shutting down the entire living area.

"So we 'finish' with the living room - we close the curtains, say goodnight to the toys, turn the lights off, shut the door to the lounge and then the child knows that the play environment is no longer available so it's time for bed. Sometimes they need those physical props or cues."

Night wanderers

Night wakings cannot be avoided. Young children get sick or have bad dreams and absolutely, genuinely need you in the night. But how you respond sets the pattern for future times, Annette warns.

"A lot of the time with 'I'm scared, I had a bad dream', if a child uses that and you react and you are like 'oh gosh, you must be scared, come into our bed' then of course they're going to use that every time if that's the one way they can get into mum and dad's bed.

"Children do have bad dreams [and absolutely need your reassurance] but your reaction as a parent to that is key. You could be fueling it."

The other factor to consider is how your child falls asleep when put to bed. If they're reliant on you to lie down with them until they fall asleep then you become their sleep aid or association.

"So of course if they wake up at midnight or 1am or 2am they're going to go 'Mum's gone, I'm going to to find her.'

"With night wanderers you need to continually put them back to bed but you also need to stop lying down with them at bedtime."

Or could they be under-tired?

Before you do anything, though, check first that your toddler is not simply under-tired, Annette suggests.

"Children have a night sleep quota and a day sleep quota and as they get older their day sleep quota decreases and their night quota increases. At around two years old they need an hour in the day and 11-12 hours at night but if they're having, say, two hours in the day then their body is going to go 'okay I don't need as much at night because I'm getting quite a bit in the day' so at either end of the night sleep starts to fall away."

Toddlers become either difficult to settle at night or begin waking extra-early every morning."Interestingly, 70 per cent of families I see with toddlers either need to cut the day nap or ditch it altogether," Annette says.

"Parents say, 'well, he needs his day sleep, he loves his sleep in the day', but that's because he's making up for the shortfall at night.

"Another sign that they're ready to drop the day sleep is if they're out cold for two to three hours during the day and you can't wake them. When they do wake they're very groggy, grumpy and tearful. That's because they're having very deep, restorative sleep during the day to make up for that shortfall at night."

A child should only take five to 10 minutes to fall asleep and if they're getting the right amount of sleep during the day and night, they will consistently fall asleep like this. That's the toddler sleep goal to aspire to. Wishing you the very best of luck!