Why Toddlers Stall at Night
If you think about it (outside of the heat of the moment), your toddler's bedtime resistance is kind of sweet: She's having fun being up with you and doesn't want to miss out on the fabulous activities that must take place after their bedtime—even though you know it's just Scrubs reruns. Bedtime means being in a dark room (scary!), all alone (as your child's social butterfly wings are just unfolding). Sleep is contrary to everything toddlers are about: crawling, walking, running, dancing, playing, throwing. Bedtime gets in the way—and toddlers know it. Plus, they lack the logic to understand how sleep helps recharge them for even more fun (although you can still try this line of reasoning).
As with many "bad" toddler behaviors, a battle over bedtime signals a child's understanding that she is her own person and can decide for herself when she does what. She's learning that she has the ability to change things: Throwing a tantrum before bed means 15 more minutes of being awake, plus maybe an extra story. And, to her delight, she can change your mood. Exercising that power is a thrill, even if it means punishment.
Physical developments could also be to blame for bedtime stalling. Toddlers that are learning to stand and walk work relentlessly to master these skills. All the daily rhythms of sleeping and eating are disrupted at night. Even if a toddler is able to fall asleep, until she's mastered walking, she'll be driven to stand up in her crib with each light rousing.
What to Do
The bottom line for bedtime is to stick to a routine. "People want to bargain with their children," says Gretchen Kinnell, Education Director of Child Care Solutions in Syracuse, NY. "But it just is what it is. You say, 'When the clock looks like this it's bedtime.'" Come up with a short list of going-to-bed activities that happen every single night: brush hair, don pajamas, drink some water, read two books, tuck in ... and then lights out. The best routine is one that makes sense to your child—whether that means letting your child choose a week's worth of pajamas on Sunday nights, lining up stuffed friends who can "read along," or listening to a favorite CD.
These predictable activities are an important transition for the child. Turning off the TV and jumping right into the bedtime routine can make bedtime synonymous with being torn away from something they love. Spend five minutes picking up toys, looking out the window, or saying goodnight to pets. The more your child believes this schedule is iron-clad, the less she'll try to argue it. If she does, say, "I know you don't want to go to bed, but it is still bedtime."
Kinnell suggests reminding children that life goes on after bedtime. "If parents can also talk about what the child will do the next day ('Tomorrow we're going to play in the park!'), it doesn't make it sound like bedtime is the end of everything."
Then, hold the line. Remind yourself that your toddler is safe and is not going to die without another drink of water or a fifth story. You can be loving and firm. "If they're crying, you go to them, say, 'I'm right here, you'll be alright. But you have to stay in your bed.' But don't let them get up," says Kinnell. The next time, just stand at the doorway and say the same thing again. For toddlers in a crib, Kinnell suggests kneeling down to comfort them so they don't have to stand up to see you. "You go in but you always go back out again. They'll cry mercilessly, but eventually they'll stop. It's not like you're ignoring them. You have to keep saying this to yourself," says Kinnell. A lovey or blanket can be a great source of comfort while children learn to put themselves to sleep. (Check out these other bedtime routine tips.)
Keep in Mind
You can work toward a happy bedtime during the day by celebrating your toddler's independence. "Make sure they have some opportunity to do things that let them show their own preferences and power," says Kinnell. Give them choices: "Do you want to put on your jacket first or your hat?" or,"You can drink milk or water. Which do you want?" Recognize and encourage small accomplishments—putting on their own shoes, holding a spoon, using words. Encouraging your toddler to flex her muscles at appropriate times will make her less likely to test boundaries at bedtime. A little less, at least.