Bedtime Bliss: Tips and Tricks for the Tired Parent

Toddlers, on average, should be sleeping for around 12 hours in a 24 hour period. This doesn’t necessarily mean overnight (although it can do) since it can include any naps that your child still takes.

It should be easy, shouldn’t it? Getting your tired toddler to sleep. It should, in fact, be the easiest part of parenting. They’re exhausted after a long day of learning, experiencing, experimenting, and generally being active, so the call of their own comfortable bed should be a wonderful one; one that, by the time bedtime rolls around, they should even be looking forward to.

It should be like that…

But as parents, we know that it rarely ever is. And even if they do go to bed without too much fuss, they can often wake in the night (numerous times) and have trouble getting back off to sleep again.

Although, since every child is different (just like every adult is different; we all like our own routines), there is no one foolproof way of ensuring that they – and you – get a good night’s sleep. There are, however,  ways to ensure that bedtime is as calm as possible, which in turn means, there is more chance of getting a restful night. A calming bedtime routine, coupled with healthy eating throughout the day, will help enormously.

An active brain – and with toddlers, there is rarely a moment when the brain is not active! – is sleep’s worst enemy. Therefore it is important that the brain is relaxed before bedtime. This isn’t just about sitting quietly for a while – there are physical internal components that need to be stimulated for this to occur. The most important of these is called serotonin. This is a neurotransmitter that activates the feelings of happiness and sleepiness within the body and brain.

One way in which to get this particular neurotransmitter activated is to use tryptophan-rich foods (serotonin is created from tryptophan, an amino acid) such as cherries, chicken, milk, eggs, bananas, fish, and cheese. An early evening snack containing any of these things (and many others besides) can raise the serotonin levels in your toddler’s body, and make them feel comforted and sleepy.

Other foods can be useful too, especially those containing calcium and magnesium, since these minerals have been found to promote sleep by calming the nervous system (this keeps your child sleeping through the night). Try dairy, leafy greens, oranges, sardines, nuts (as long as there is no allergy issue), and green vegetables. These will, along with many other varieties of good food,  give you and your toddler a head start on bedtime. So be mindful when cooking their evening meal. It could have an impact on the whole night ahead.

Of course, there are certain foods that should be avoided at all costs too, if you want your child to go to sleep easily. Chocolate and soda are good examples – these contain sugar and caffeine, and that’s never a good combination when you are looking for rest and relaxation. The sugar also increases blood sugar levels, but these levels drop quickly not long after the sugary snack is eaten. The body tries to compensate for this by releasing adrenaline into the body, to regulate the blood sugar, but the adrenalin also causes your child to awaken once they have already drifted off.

A very full stomach at bedtime is as bad as an empty one, leaving a child feeling uncomfortable. It is better to give your toddler a few smaller snacks around an hour before bed so that their body stays fuelled but doesn’t feel the need to awaken and search for something else to eat.

A child who has not got enough sleep – whether for one night or for a prolonged period of time – is grumpy, irritable, and finds it more difficult to control their emotions. They can lash out angrily, throw a temper tantrum, and be generally uncooperative. If the problem of lack of sleep goes on for long enough, the child will also be more likely to develop long-term behavioural problems, and even potentially become overweight.

So it’s not just about not feeling tired; sleep is much more important than that. That’s why it is essential that, as a parent, you are able to help your child as much as possible to get the right amount of sleep. Finding a routine that lets your child fall asleep easily, stay asleep, and wake after a long enough time period may take some trial and error, but once you have found it, it makes all the difference. Bedtime becomes a pleasure rather than something to dread.

Create a Routine and Stick to it.

It is important to explain a bedtime routine to your child. A good way to do this is to make a chart – perhaps a flow chart made with pictures – of exactly how bedtime is going to go. Everything from bath to putting on their pyjamas, to that last snack to cleaning their teeth and everything that comes in between should be on the chart. Once an activity is completed it can be ticked off. After a week or two (or however long you choose) of well-behaved bedtimes, you can reward your child. Everyone will be happy with that! Rather than presents make it your time. Your child will feel excited to be able to choose a special activity to do with mummy or daddy.

The Gentle Sleep Solution

There are no hard and fast rules for the gentle sleep solution it’s all about spending quite time with your toddler before bedtime. Since each child – and each parent – is different, what works well for one may have the opposite effect on another. As long as the essential bedtime ingredients are featured (a drink, a snack, brushing their teeth, getting washed and dressed for bed) then anything else is up to you and your child. Will it be discussing the day you have just enjoyed, reliving the best parts and talking about what they have learned? Will it be story time? Will it be planning for the next day? The bedtime routine should be under 30 minutes (not including a bath), and should be the same each night. Changing the routine unexpectedly can unsettle your toddler and make for a difficult night.

Keeping the sleeping area calm is also a good idea. It is all part of making your toddler’s bedroom a safe, secure environment in which to settle down for the night. Their bedroom can be seen as a sanctuary away from the stresses and strains (and yes, small children can feel stressed and overwhelmed, it’s not just an adult condition) of everyday life. Diluted aromatherapy oils can be used during the bedtime routine – this not only calms the child, but also keeps the adult in charge of the routine relaxed too. Children take their cues from their parents, so staying as calm as possible is always a good way to teach your child to settle well.

Calmness isn’t just a mental state; it’s a physical one as well. The stress hormone cortisol is responsible for the sometimes irrational, often angry signs we exhibit when we are irritated and annoyed. Aromatherapy helps to reduce the amounts of this hormone in our body by triggering an emotional response in our brains. It’s clever stuff, and perfect for the bedtime routine. Eventually, your child will recognise the beautiful scent as part of bedtime, which comforts and calms.

If you infuse the air in your toddler’s bedroom with aromatherapy oils such as lavender or chamomile (put a couple of drops into a bowl of hot water – the steam will disperse the scent around the room) while you’re giving your child a bath, or their bedtime drink of milk, then by the time they get into bed, their room will be full of the calming scent.

Speaking of baths, it may be tempting to skip one every now and then, especially if your child is especially grumpy, tired, or just doesn’t seem to be in the mood. However, it is important to stick with the routine as much as possible, and a bath is a fantastic way of ensuring that your child will sleep well. Warm water on the skin produces oxytocin within the body. Oxytocin also helps to reduce the amount of cortisol hormone, and facilitates bonding, making bedtime so much easier!

If your toddler requires some kind of comforter at night, it is a good idea to let them have it. Bedtime can be a time of separation – you physically walk away from them and ask that they stay where they are, which doesn’t generally happen in your day to day dealings with your child. Your toddler might feel scared, sad, or worried, and having a comforter – a favourite stuffed toy, a blanket, something that brings them peace – can be a good way to keep them content . It is all part of having security and reassurance at bedtime. If your child still feels anxious, even with a comforter, it really is ok to cuddle them to sleep. The bedtime routine will make them sleepy, so you won’t be laying there for hours on end.

No matter what you do, there will still be times when your toddler gets up during the night. After all, you may sleep through nine times out of 10, but even adults have nights when they just can’t get to sleep, or they have nightmares that wake them up, or they are excited about something that is going to happen the next day and wake up earlier than they might usually… So it is only natural that, on occasion, the same thing will happen to your child.

The key is not to react if your child appears downstairs or by the side of your bed. Simply take their hand and guide them back to bed. Tuck them in with a cuddle and remind them that it is time for sleep and you love them.


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