Help! My toddler’s bedtime tantrums are driving me crazy!
Handling your toddler's bedtime tantrums can be a nightmare at the end of a long, tiring day. But don’t worry! Here’s help to get her to sleep without a fuss.
By Divya Sainathan • 19 min read
It’s been a long and tiring day, and I’m looking forward to hitting the sack. My two-and-a-half-year-old son has been fed and bathed. He’s had his milk and brushed his teeth – not without some resistance. Diaper change, story time, lights-off and good night – that's all there is to do! Hopefully, we can all doze off by at least 10 p.m.
Even if we finish our tasks successfully, there are the seemingly innocuous requests...
‘Mamma, water...in a tumbler!’
‘Mamma, read ___________________ (the one title not in the bedroom)’
‘Mamma, sing songs from Lion King...hum the opening music!’
After all the requests have been complied with, the toddler unceremoniously gets off the bed to fetch his toy train, which he will run all over the bed and his parents.
Before we know it, it is 10:30 p.m. We are worn out, but our son couldn’t be more active. At our wit’s end, we abruptly turn off the lights and pray for the best.
In the quiet darkness of the room, my son looks at the lights on the AC stabilizer. He’s terrified. He wants to be held, rocked and sung to. Persistent requests give way to disconsolate crying.
Isn’t this a scene that plays out, night after night, in several bedrooms across the world? Every night I am at the end of my tether, and I wonder...how did we get here? How am I going to get him ready for play school tomorrow morning? Will my child ever get enough sleep? Heck, will I ever get enough sleep?
How much sleep do toddlers need?
According to WHO’s recently released ‘Guidelines on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Sleep for Children Under 5’, toddlers (1-2 years) need 11-14 hours of good quality sleep every 24 hours and preschoolers (3-4 years) 10-13 hours. This includes a daytime nap, and regular sleep and waking timings. The Australian National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Pediatrics concur on these guidelines. However, these numbers are just guidelines. Each child has different sleep needs.
Impact of less sleep
Let us look at how your toddler behaves when he doesn’t get a good night’s sleep. He’d be restless, cranky, tired and unfocussed, yawning a lot and lying down. He may also act aggressive, emotional, hyperactive or inattentive. These are just immediate effects. Researchers believe that consistent lack of sleep has long-term effects on the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development of children:
Physiological: Important growth and development hormones get released during ‘quiet sleep’ or deep sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Muscles receive greater blood supply, tissue growth and repair take place and energy gets restored. Shorter sleep durations directly impact a child’s growth. Disrupted sleep leads to inactivity, lack of alertness and impaired motor skills during daytime. This can result in weight gain, obesity, and a greater risk of injuries. As Dr Carl Hunt, director of the US National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, put it in the article ‘If your child has problems, it may be due to lack of sleep’, which appeared on the website psychcentral.com: “A tired child is an accident waiting to happen.”
Cognitive: Sleep-deprived children have trouble sustaining attention, mainly due to sleepiness during the day. When combined with a lack of motivation, this could result in poor performance in learning situations involving attention, memory or problem solving. A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology in 2017, led by Kocevska, found that toddlers sleeping within the recommended 11-14 hours had more favourable cognitive development when measured at six years as compared to both extremes. Frequent awakenings were negatively associated with non-verbal intelligence.
There have been instances of cognitive and emotional problems caused by sleep deprivation being misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Emotional and behavioural issues: Our sleep cycles are controlled by two hormones – melatonin (sleep hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone, which also causes us to wake up). When children have spiked levels of cortisol before they go to sleep, their sleep is likely to be short and disturbed. This will further push up their cortisol levels, stress them out, and affect their sleep.
When the child’s sleep duration is considerably lower than what is physiologically required, it results in sleep debt. A large sleep debt could lead to a multitude of problems such as:
- Poor emotional regulation
- Poor impulse control
- Stress, anxiety
Most parents put a lot of effort into getting their child to bed in good time. This is also why any resistance can be terribly frustrating. If, as parents, you have a better understanding of why children resist sleep, you will be better equipped to meet their needs and overcome sleep resistance.
How you can overcome sleep resistance
Toddlers are cusp creatures. They are on the threshold of ‘me’ as distinct from ‘mom and me’. They want to assert their independence, exercise their rapidly developing motor skills and social abilities, and let their growing imagination run riot. At the same time, they want you to be around to comfort them and calm their fears and frustrations. Sleep resistance is a normal phenomenon in the course of child development. It can have multiple, often contradictory, causes.
1. Excitement and overstimulation
The cause: Toddlers get excited by a wide variety of things – a new toy or book, a new playmate, weather changes, a thrilling game at school or an engaging video. Either they don’t want to miss the fun, or they are overwhelmed by too many sensations. In each case, they do not want to go to bed. They may also be up late in anticipation of greeting and playing with a parent who comes home late from work.
What parents can do:
- Talk to your child, calm him down
- Play soothing music
- Don’t introduce new things close to bedtime
- Remove stimulations such as screens, noisy toys and bright lights
- Avoid sugary foods and caffeinated items (such as colas and chocolates) after 4pm
- The parent who comes home late can spend time with the child in the morning
The cause: Your child might be overtired. This could be because of insufficient sleep the night before, or a skipped daytime nap or early rising followed by an early nap. It could also result from exhausting activities during the day such as intense play or travel.
An overtired child has gone past a sleepy stage into a cortisol- and adrenaline-fuelled ‘active and alert’ state. Instead of winding down, she becomes hyperactive and irritable. Exhausted toddlers are likely to throw spectacular tantrums and are harder to calm down.
Neha Bhatt, co-founder and admin of India’s largest baby sleep support group, Gentle Baby Sleep India (GBSI), worked with her husband to calm down their son whenever he was overstimulated. Speaking to ParentCircle, Neha said: “Some days, my son was too stimulated to sleep at bedtime. He wanted to play more or read another book. When he resisted sleep, my husband and I talked to him and calmed him down by walking/nursing/patting. My husband often walked him to soothing music for as long as our boy took to drift to sleep.”
What parents can do:
- Try setting earlier bed and nap times
- Keep the room cool and quiet and dim the lights
- Use activities such as colouring or storytelling to calm your child down
- Make sure she is not hungry
- Give her a warm bath and a soothing massage
3. Not tired enough
The cause: A delayed afternoon nap or insufficient physical activity during the day can leave you with a bubbly and active toddler on your hands. He doesn’t want to wind down and doesn’t see the need to sleep at his usual bedtime.
What parents can do:
- Ensure that your child gets adequate physical activity during the day (moderate to intense)
- Make sure the child’s afternoon nap isn’t pushed till 3pm
4. Asserting independence
The cause: Toddlers strive for autonomy – greater control over their bodies and environments. They may want to have greater control over bedtime too. Toddlers use various stalling tactics such as asking for water or saying they want to use the toilet, and resisting activities such as brushing or getting into night clothes.
Parents Vaishnavi Parthasarathy and Anjana Ramachandran have become pros at dealing with stalling. They recommend being gentle yet firm with the child. “If we give in, the requests keep coming. Water is my daughter’s favourite weapon. I firmly limit her intake before bed,” says Vaishnavi.
What parents can do:
- Give your child a choice over nightclothes and bedtime book/activity/song
- Firmly retain control of bed timings
5. Fear, anxiety or stress
The cause: Changes disrupt a child’s routine and upset her expectations. Toddlers can be distressed by events such as joining play school, making new friends, changes in a parent’s work schedule, scary stories or movies, etc. Or, they may simply be afraid of the dark. Such anxiety can prevent a child from falling asleep.
Speaking to ParentCircle, parent Swapna Arulraj shared a unique ‘magic ritual’ she developed to deal with her daughter’s night-time fears. “I sing a song with happy thoughts and dreams, reassuring my daughter that nothing will bother her after we sing the magic song. It works most of the time!”
What parents can do:
- Hug your child, stay close to her and sing to her
- Try to remove the source of fear
- Do not threaten your child with imaginary creatures to force her to sleep
6. Feeling sick or unwell
The cause: Sick children are terrible sleepers. They might be down with the flu, have a cold or fever, suffer from ear ache or allergies. Their discomfort makes them cranky and clingy. In the midst of hugs, cuddles and a flurry of requests from a child stuck in bed, sleep schedule and routine go for a toss. Sick children need more rest so that they can recuperate.
What parents can do
- Spend a lot of time with the child, holding him and giving him what he needs
- Sing songs or read books to keep up his spirits
- Enforce a naptime and bedtime routine once he recovers
7. Sleep regression
The cause: Sleep regressions are phases that last anywhere from a week to a month when a child who has been sleeping well suddenly starts resisting sleep, skipping naps and throwing bedtime tantrums. Sleep regression usually hits toddlers at around 18 months and at two years.
Common causes include teething molars (18-month), separation anxiety, transition from multiple to single daytime naps, developmental leaps such as potty training, having nightmares and night terrors and major events such as the birth of a sibling.
While infants also go through sleep regressions, toddlers are particularly difficult to manage during this stage. As children capable of walking, talking/babbling, and voicing their opinions loud and clear, they can be quite a handful (and an earful).
What parents can do:
- Offer extra feeds, if you still nurse your child
- Offer as much comfort as she requires, through cuddles, kisses and by holding or rocking her to sleep (till regression lasts)
- Take the support of your spouse and family members
- Adjust bedtime to meet the needs of your overtired child (till regression lasts)
Mistakes parents make
While children can make bedtimes challenging for parents, parents too can make some poor choices that affect their child’s sleep. With an average bedtime of 10.26 p.m., Indian 3-year-olds sleep later than children in other countries, according to a study published in the journal Sleep Medicine.
Here are some common mistakes:
- Choose the wrong bedtime: Age-appropriate bedtimes must be chosen. Experts recommend that toddlers must ideally be awake for no longer than 4-5 hours at a stretch. Bedtime must be chosen based on when your child wakes up each morning, time and duration of her nap and the time she shows sleep cues. Your work, meals, trips outside, and other activities must be planned around the bedtime.
- Assume toddlers sleep like adults: Parents may not know that toddlers need about 11-14 hours of sleep per 24 hours. Also, while some toddlers may be able to sleep on their own, many need to be gently guided to sleep. Allowing them to stay up late will disrupt their schedule and cause overtiredness.
- Miss toddler’s sleep cues: When children are sleepy they show some signs/cues such as slower reflexes, glazed eyes, rubbing of eyes and ears, etc. You should respond promptly to these signs.
- Not enforce a bedtime routine: If children have a predictable bedtime routine in a dark, cool, and cozy room, they are more amenable to sleeping on time.
A bedtime routine is a great way to help your child get enough sleep and prevent bedtime tantrums. Here are a few things to keep in mind while creating one:
- Decide on a bedtime for your child keeping in mind the number of hours of sleep she requires for her age
- His meal time (and screen time) should be over 1-2 hours before bedtime
- Include a winding down period, one hour before bedtime. During this time all gadgets should be off and lights should be dimmed
- Give your child a warm bath, brush her teeth, and change her into her night clothes
- Remind your child to use the toilet one last time before getting into bed
- Get into bed, say a prayer together, and read or sing or talk about your day. Use this time to snuggle with your child
- Your child can’t (and shouldn’t) decide what bedtime is apt for him, but give him freedom to choose his own night clothes or the books he wants you to read or the blanket/stuffed animal he wants to sleep with
How to prevent bedtime tantrums
A tantrum usually signals an unmet need of a frustrated, overwhelmed or overtired child. She cannot be reasoned with or calmed down easily, since she is already too worked up. She needs to be calmed down first, before her actual need is met and the bedtime routine can be resumed. And, you must not lose your cool during the whole ritual! Thus, preventing tantrums is probably the best thing to do.Tantrums are a part of a child’s development. In an article appearing in The New York Times titled ‘Managing the storm of a toddler’s tantrum’, Dr. Helen Egger, US-based psychiatrist specialising in the mental health of infants and preschoolers, says that 75% of two-year-olds throw at least one tantrum in three months. Bedtime tantrums are commoner than you think. One just has to scroll down the posts in a support group like Gentle Baby Sleep India, where the commonest response to a sleep query is: “I am sailing in the same boat.”
Your approach to your child’s tantrums has a great bearing on the relationship you develop with your child. Finally, sound advice from American paediatrician Dr. William Sears who encourages parents to look at sleep not as a battle but as ‘night-time parenting’. Children don’t have ‘sleep problems’ but have ‘bedtime needs’, he says. “You can’t force your baby into a state of sleep. Your role in night-time parenting is to create a sleep-inducing environment that allows sleep to overtake the baby naturally,” he advises parents.
In a nutshell
- Bedtime tantrums are commonly faced by parents of toddlers
- Toddlers resist sleep for a variety of reasons
- Sometimes, parents make a mistake by keeping their child up way past bedtime or by missing sleep cues
- Parents need to establish a soothing bedtime routine in partnership with the toddler
What you could do right away
- Maintain a sleep diary for your toddler and note down what time she goes to bed every day. This will tell you what to expect
- Reward positive behaviour. For instance, if your toddler goes to sleep without any fuss praise her the next day with an extra story during the day
- If nothing seems to work, hug your child and breathe deeply. This will calm your child down and lull her to sleep
About the author:
Written by Divya Sainathan on 15 July 2019.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 5 August 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
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