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Refuses to Go to Sleep at Night, Even If Tired

"Bath time is bedlam. My two toddlers splash water all over the floor. They get so wound up, drying them off is like toweling windmills. Then once in bed, they are wide awake for hours. They each make at least a dozen curtain calls."
"My daughter goes selectively deaf after dinner. She can't hear calls to go to bed. I might as well ask her to go before a firing squad."

Why Does This Occur?

Intense toddlers get so wound up in play, their adaptability drops through the floor. Making the transition to bed and then winding down into sleep can take more than an hour.

For the active toddler who frustrates easily, calls to go to bed are another frustration. When told to stop playing and get ready for bed, their reaction is pure negative persistence. They act deaf and continue to play.

What Works:

With toddlers that easily get wound up, the first task is to keep a lid on positive intensity in the evening. Parents who have not seen their toddler all day may enjoy roughhousing before bedtime, or enjoy watching their toddler splash around in the bath at night. Depriving their toddlers of this kind of fun makes parents feel like the Grinch That Stole Christmas. But depriving their toddler of the sleep they need is a worse offense.
  So move exciting baths to sometime before dinnertime. Avoid whoop-and-holler activities right before bedtime. Like large planes, intense toddlers need to follow a gradual glide-path down to bed.
Intense, slower-adapting toddlers also need a "soft" landing. You can't just put them to bed and expect them to fall asleep. They need to transition with a routine, like several favorite stories, often read exactly the same way.
Once you build a quieting routine, stick to it. No extensions. Remember that going to sleep requires children to give in to the feeling of being tired and give up control. If toddlers feel they can extend the "soft landing", they feel still in control and won't fall asleep.
Parents of toddlers who are active and easily frustrated shouldn't accept negative persistence at bedtime. These parents need to be firmly in control of a soft landing into bed. But the approach to that "landing" needs to be different than with active toddlers who are slow-to-adapt.

First, remember that easily-frustrated toddlers have relied on parents since infancy to help manage frustration. So as toddlers they are often fearful of any separation including going to bed alone at night.

  Second, remember that words like "NO", "DON'T", and "STOP" are red flags to children who are easily frustrated. Frustration lowers adaptability and raises both negative intensity and negative persistence (limit testing). So commands to "STOP PLAYING" and "GO TO BED" are likely to be counterproductive. For these toddlers, the glide-path to bed has to be attractive, enjoyable, and comforting. Somehow, it has to be "better than" the play they were involved in before the bedtime call. Bedtime "friends" (dolls, blankets, favorite toys, other objects with strong attachment value) need to be present. Enjoyable stories again are helpful as part of the glide path down.
  Finally, a more personal touch is often needed. Parents of these toddlers say, as a final comfort-step, they often lie down next to their child while the child drifts off to sleep. There is an advantage to giving needed support in your toddler's bed rather than taking him to yours. As he gets more confident and comfortable in his own bed, you can gradually spend less time there. If you take him to your bed, at some point it will be a big change for him to move to his own room.

Your Temperament:

Fast-adapting parents can be unrealistic if they expect their slow-adjusting toddler to be like them, able to make quick transitions to sleep. Dream on!

Active, intense parents who enjoy lively evening activities may themselves have a harder time slowing down with their toddler. Believe it or not, these years really will pass!




[rev: 6/2014]

© 2013, The Preventive Ounce, a Non-profit organization