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I am having some trouble with getting my daughter to sleep at a decent time each evening. She shows signs that she's tired around 7-8pm, so I take her to bed, give her some milk, read a story etc. and she will lie down for a little while but then gets up and starts messing about, wanting to play, asking for more milk etc. Most nights now it is around 10.30pm to 11pm when she will finally go to sleep. Sometimes it can be later.

Once she's asleep she sleeps well and doesn't tend to wake up during the night unless there's a good reason (illness etc) but in the mornings I am having to wake her to get her ready for nursery, which often causes tantrums. On weekends I do let her sleep in because otherwise I don't think she would be getting enough sleep.

Some background info:- She is almost 2 (in a week) and still naps during the day, this time varies, yesterday it was only half an hour, whereas some days it can be over an hour.

So my question is How do I get my daughter to shift her sleep times to an earlier bed time and earlier wake-up time?

  • When she gets up what do you generally do? – David Boshton Dec 23 '14 at 9:31
  • Usually I ask her to get back on the bed, she doesn't, so I lift her on there and then it goes back and forth with me trying to "distract" her onto the bed by saying we will read a story or watch a DVD. Usually we end up with a tantrum or two before she finally gives in and stays on the bed. – LauraJ Dec 23 '14 at 10:18
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    Watching the DVD may be the problem. The light screws with our internal clocks. You should try cutting out all electronics at least an hour before bed, and see how that goes. – Nick2253 Dec 23 '14 at 23:34
  • Do mot have a different routine on the weekends. That's damaging to good sleep hygiene. – DanBeale Dec 24 '14 at 19:09
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In my experience, getting a toddler ready for bed starts the minute they wake up from their nap. They have so much energy, it's up to you to make sure it gets burned up at the right pace to ensure there isn't a surplus at the end of the day. Unfortunately, unlike a surplus of wheat, a toddlers energy cannot be shared (in fact it sort of has an inverse relationship with a parent's energy level doesn't it?) So, here are my suggestions to help you keep your LO's output under control:

The first thing I'd look at is her nap time. It's either at the wrong time or it's too long. My kids never did well to sleep past 3 pm, or for more than 2 hours. Their bedtime starts at 7 and they are usually out by 8, 8:30 at the latest. Not napping is not a good idea at this age, except, on a day she sleeps very late, you might decide to skip a nap in order to ensure she's quite tired which will aid your effort to implement your new bedtime (not new routine, just a new earlier time).

Next, I'd look at her afternoon, starting with her activity level. Is she getting enough exercise in the afternoon? My kids swim in the morning (which tuckers them out for a nap VERY effectively) and play outside most of the afternoon-in all but the worst weather (bitter cold, lightning, downpours, or sweltering heat, all of which are par for the course here in New England). Or, if stuck indoors they will do some dancing, some tumbling, or some wrestling (I have boys). Anyway, the point is, kids need to move and be physical, (and not just because it makes them tired.) The key to this is that it should occur well before bedtime. I disagree entirely with the advice given above to engage in physical activity just before bed. It gets the heart rate up and that is exactly the opposite of what state your child should be in before bed! Quiet time should start after dinner, with few exceptions (birthday parties, holidays, etc).

The other aspect of the afternoon that I'd look at is how much mental stimulation she's getting. If she's watching tv, I'd limit it to a half hour. Instead, puzzles, coloring, blocks, duplos, play-doh, dolls, or housework (really!) all get the mind going, which wards off boredom- another bedtime killer. If kids don't play during the day, they'll play games with you at bedtime (how many glasses of milk can I get out of mommy? Let's count!) Doing these activities after some physical activity ensures they won't wiggle right out of their chair, and helps them wind down so they can be civilized at dinner.

At this point, if your naps and afternoons are just like I described, the next places you can implement change is to dinner and bedtime itself. I'm not going to get into diet too much, since I'm not a nutritionist, and since most toddlers I know are fussy eaters anyway, but I will mention that sugars and too many quick burn carbs will give your kid energy she doesn't need at the end of the day. I've become that villainous mom who doesn't let her kids have juice at dinner. It's milk or water. End of story.

Depending on what time you have dinner, you may go right into your bedtime routine or you may have a few hours. If you have a few hours, try to: • keep the energy level mellow by enjoying some reading, soft music, and light housework (include your daughter with clearing dishes, laundry, tidying) •avoid tv, computers, and bright lights

From your post, I'd say that your actual bedtime may need adjustment. If your daughter is showing signs of sleepiness at 7, you should aim to have her in bed by then, not just starting her routine. Kids quickly go into overtired mode, especially if they have energy reserved. You want to avoid that at all costs! So, whether or not you are already doing all of the stuff I mentioned, the only thing you may need to do is move the routine start time to 6 pm so she's settled in bed by the time she's usually tired. Otherwise, go ahead and try any/all of the other suggested changes to her activity level or nap schedule. They should intensify her tiredness to the point where she falls asleep much quicker, and ensure there are no reserves to available reanimate her if a window of opportunity exists.

As for the bedtime routine itself, which you seem to already have established, I'd strongly suggest adding a bath. A warm bath works to calm kids by raising their body temperature and then dropping it (as the water cools, and then when they get out). This helps trigger sleep. A shower can work too if it's all you've got but a bath works better. A bath with calming aromatherapy (such as lavender) bubble bath works even better! This will extend your routine a bit, but should shorten the overall time from when you start to when she actually falls asleep.

Finally, I'd stop allowing my toddler to hold me hostage at night. If you're starting her routine at 7, and she's still demanding drinks from you at 10, that means she's dominating (at most), or at least disturbing, 3 hours of your evening. As long as you are giving her attention, she'll continue to take it. After you tuck her in and say good night, leave. And stay out. Let her cry. At 2, she's got to learn to settle herself. If she gets out of bed, put her back in and that's it. I won't elaborate bc there are other good answers on parenting se that go over this, but basically she'll eventually learn to just go to sleep because there's nothing else to do. (Staying up is boring if nobody's gonna play games or keep company!) some nights she might stay up for hours, but at least she'll know enough to stay quiet. If she's sufficiently worn out though, these nights should eventually be the exception and are nothing to worry about. You just can't make them them sleep sometimes. We all have those days, right?

To sum up: 1) keep nap short; time it right 2) get busy in the afternoon ; first physically, then mentally. Definitely both. 3) avoid sugars, especially late in the day. 4) promote quiet time after dinner to encourage winding down. 5) trigger sleep naturally with a bath and aromatherapy. 6) tweak your timing based on cues 7) be patient and persistent.

I'm confident you will be successful on your quest for a sleepy toddler before 10. You're on a path well trodden by weary, frustrated, and impatient parents. I hope my breadcrumbs hasten your journey, but if not, you'll find your own way. Good luck!

  • Thank you for another comprehensive answer. I am definitely with you on the tiring them out. I took her to a forest yesterday for a long walk in the fresh (cold) air. She was asleep by 8.10pm. The issue is, I work full time, so I have no control over her naps or afternoon activities Mon to Fri. She is in nursery 3 days and with her Dad the other 2 days. I will definitely ask nursery what they do with them in the afternoons. I also wholeheartedly acknowledge your advice about not being a hostage, as I do feel exactly like that. Thanks again. – LauraJ Jan 5 '15 at 14:38
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    @LauraJ absolutely find out what's on her agenda at the nursery school in the afternoon. A couple of the schools I interviewed did quiet/nap time most of it, and I looked elsewhere as a result. My oldest was the only one who went to childcare (I have a nanny now) and whenever I had issues at home the school was my first stop. They were always willing to 1)meet with me to go over my concerns, and 2) execute a "dual front" plan (at home and school) to work out the issues. This is the sign of a good school. – Jax Jan 6 '15 at 12:05
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    @LauraJ ...what I'm getting at is if you ask them to limit her nap or allow her some more opportunity for physical play they should try to accommodate you. If they won't, well...my son's school placed him in another classroom during afternoon nap time because he didn't need it. Pretty soon he stopped shrieking for an hour at bedtime. – Jax Jan 6 '15 at 12:10
  • Hi @Jax, thanks, I did speak to the nursery and they said they are more than willing to limit her nap time etc. I have been trying some other suggestions too, such as making her more active during the time I do spend with her. We've also been having quiet time and going upstairs a little earlier. There's definitely been an improvement, not perfect of course (last night it was midnight to sleep but I suspect it was directly related to the fact her Gramps gave her a cup of non-decaf tea with her evening meal) but most nights it's around 8 to 9 rather than 10 to 11. – LauraJ Jan 9 '15 at 10:11
  • Updvoted and agree with most of the answer but ... "And stay out. Let her cry." - my experience of doing exactly this with my 22 month old son was (1) he cried until he threw up, and (2) for weeks afterwards he was so afraid we would leave him alone again that he would only fall asleep if sitting on one of our laps rather than in bed and would wake instantly if we tried to move him into the bed within 10 minutes of him falling asleep. Don't say I didn't warn you. – Stevie Feb 17 '16 at 12:33
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One of the things we have learned, and this is very much in line with the likes of Supernanny, is that when putting the child back to bed there is no talking, no eye contact, no communication; just picking up the child kindly (no cuddling) and putting them back in bed. Obviously this is after a good bed time when you've done stories and cuddles etc, but after the last cuddle (and tell them that it's the last cuddle, last drink etc) it's bed time. If they ask for a drink, say "You've had your last drink and you can have another one tomorrow morning" obviously illness etc aside.

We have tried doing this and not doing this, and I can say from my experience doing it really does work well and in our house shifted the time at which they actually go to sleep from past 9 to within half an hour of going to bed. Which meant our LO's were much better in the morning, much more lively in the day, and there were far fewer battles.

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    Thanks for you answer. Do/Did you have a set bed time each night? We have always had a varying bed time but this never used to be a problem, I waited until my LO showed signs of being tired then took her to bed. I will definitely try out your suggestion with giving her the cues of "last cuddle" and "last drink". Thanks again. – LauraJ Dec 23 '14 at 12:25
  • @LauraJ - you need to set a routine for bedtime. This will involve starting the routine at the same time every night and getting into bed at the same time every night and getting out of bed at the same time every morning. No DVDs at night! (US pediatricians recommend no screens for under 2s; no screens in bedrooms or at meal times; severely restricted screen time at other times. aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/… – DanBeale Dec 24 '14 at 19:13
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Find the Pattern:
If you notice that she shows signs of sleepiness at 7-8 but never ends up going to be at that time, I would actually stay away from the bed until after 9. Instead of winding DOWN at that 7-8, you might want to consider turning UP the energy. Get excited, and EXHAUST her energy. I'd also avoid naps or relaxing behaviors within a few hours of bedtime.
You can keep a journal of nap times, meals, snacks, and shows. See if you can notice any pattern. The time it would take is far less than the tantrum wastes. If the tantrums are really bad, this is something to consider.

Energy Use:
What I do to encourage sleepiness is use up all the energy that my daughter has left by having "Dance Time" or something physically demanding. We will put on some music and dance and run all around. Games of "chase" and "hide and seek" work really well at that time of the evening. One minute, my little girl is running up and down the hallway, and the next is passing out with a thumb in her mouth (her tell-tale sign of being ready for sleep)

Nutritional considerations:
Also, make sure not to be giving sugar anywhere near bedtime. Milk has a tryptophan in it, and can help, but as stated in THIS ARTICLE - "Sleep and Tryptophan", is best when combined with other proteins or carbohydrates to make the tryptophan more accessible to the brain.

From above article: "Consuming milk or milk products alone is probably not going to induce drowsiness or sleepiness, because milk in itself does not contain a sufficient amount of tryptophan. Hence, milk and milk products can be consumed at any time of the day. Nonetheless, milk coupled with a carbohydrate food at bedtime can be a potential sleep aid."

TV & DVDs:
On a side note. DVD's and TV have an incredible addictive effect on children that young and it takes little to no energy to watch them. Speaking as an adult of course, I know I can be virtually exhausted and still manage to get through a few movies or several episodes of a show, hours beyond the point of falling asleep if I didn't have that input.

From this article on "How TV Affects Your Child"
"The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming."

Most of the factors in research about toddlers and TV or DVDs is about psychological reactions. With several sources also stating that QUALITY programming is not harmful and in many people's opinions and studies, considered beneficial. So I am not saying to stop watching TV or DVDs. However, being deprived of it could be a PARTIAL source for the tantrums while adding using minimal energy to stay awake to watch it. It's something to consider.

I would definitely NOT recommend using a DVD to help put the child to sleep as there are considerations on impacting their dreams, not to mention the reasons listed in David's answer. Soothing and relaxing MUSIC might be a good alternative to a video.

Note: I am just a parent with no psychological training. I DO spend much time working with and producing media and know that DVDs and shows that have products associated with them are also making efforts in the production to get children to crave their product, preferably in the form of a purchase of more DVDs or toys in the product line. So there IS intention on the part of the production team in most cases to make your child WANT that show.

I hope some of this helps, as they are just things to try, or be mindful of. Every child is different. For the record, I don't always succeed at getting my girl in bed at the times I want, but these methods have helped me. Good Luck.

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    Thank you for taking the time to write such a comprehensive answer. I've cut the bed time DVDs which does actually seem to be helping. I will definitely try getting her to use up energy during the evening. Thanks again – LauraJ Dec 27 '14 at 18:36

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