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Is your toddler restless at night?

Bedtime is a miserable struggle at our house. Our toddler fights it with every ounce of determination he can muster. When he does finally get to sleep, it’s not unusual for him to be up several times during the night, requesting water or a snack or begging to be allowed to sleep in our bed. We’re at our wits’ end! Any suggestions?

Sleep problems in young children—that is, children of toddler age and older—should be handled with care. They may be due to any of a number of different causes, some serious, others not. (Keep in mind that our comments here do not apply to infants, since the sleep patterns of babies are a very different matter.) At this stage of a child’s development, restlessness or an inability or unwillingness to fall asleep may in some cases be a sign of emotional distress. But this is not always true. Sleeplessness is sometimes traceable to physical causes, such as allergies or nutritional deficiencies. For this reason, we suggest you begin by discussing the situation with a qualified nutritionist or your child’s physician.

If your pediatrician or family doctor is satisfied that you are dealing with a mere behavioral problem, we recommend that you initiate action to break the pattern as soon as possible. The longer it continues, the harder it will be to change.

Due to their innately more active temperament, boys tend to have a harder time calming themselves down and getting to sleep than girls. For this reason, it’s wise to steer them away from boisterous or rowdy games (like “wrestling with Daddy”) for at least an hour before bedtime. The same observation applies to television, which has a highly stimulating effect on young brains.

An appropriate bedtime routine is extremely important for both boys and girls. To achieve the level of physiological calm most conducive to sleep and rest, they should be allowed a period of “winding down” before hitting the sack. This means intentionally adopting measures to make evenings a quiet and restful time in your home. It might involve reading a book together, or singing lullabies or kids’ songs. Sometimes it’s helpful to buy an inexpensive CD player for the bedroom and let your son or daughter listen to some soothing music before falling asleep. You can also make use of a night light (be sure that it doesn’t cast any scary shadows on the wall) and have your child pick out a stuffed animal to be his or her special “bedtime buddy,” providing comfort and security when you’re not there.

If your child is getting up several times during the night, take steps to encourage him to return to his bed and stay there. Instead of scolding, ask questions like, “What do you need in order to go to sleep?” This will endow the child with a sense of empowerment. Once the request has been made (a night light, a stuffed toy or a goodnight kiss) grant it immediately and escort him back to his room. A few words of comfort and reassurance from mom or dad are appropriate, but don’t overdo it. Above all, make it clear that he will not be staying with you for the night—it is definitely not a good idea for you to sleep in your child’s room or to let him sleep in your bed. That will only reinforce the behaviour you’re trying to extinguish, encouraging him to act helpless and dependent.

Once you’ve set your boundaries, stand by them, even if it means allowing your to child cry it out for one or two nights. This isn’t easy, but once a child realises that you aren’t going to give in, the first of many battles of the will has been won, and the necessary adjustments will soon be made. If, on the other hand, you let him have his own way, you will establish a pattern of manipulation that will make parenting a much harder task in the days ahead.

If you would like more help on this, Focus on the Family Singapore organises regular parenting workshops to equip and encourage parents of children in different age-groups. We also offer counselling at our office (during office hours). To make an appointment with a counsellor, contact us at 6491 0700 or [email protected].

Last Updated on 9 December 2020

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