Terrified of bedtime: Help with toddler sleep regressionWritten by Todd Foley
What's inside this article
For parents of young children, it feels great to establish routines. It’s even better when these routines happen to stick.
That’s how I felt about my two-year-old son’s sleep habits. As we did with our first two children, my wife and I worked hard to establish a solid routine. He took to bedtime and nap time with ease. Then one night everything changed, and all our tried-and-true techniques were rendered useless.
We used to be able to settle a nighttime waking with ease. But after a particularly horrific bout of the stomach flu in his crib, my son started to wake up with significantly louder screams and tantrums. We weren’t surprised by the screams; we weren’t prepared for his uncontrollable thrashing and we had to physically restrain him to prevent him from hurting himself. When we seemed to get him settled, he would immediately wake up and leap out of his crib, falling to the floor. He seemed to develop a fear of the place that was once his safe haven: his bedroom and his crib.
On top of this, he refused any comfort from my wife and would only calm down in my presence. Two years of successful sleep structure and routine suddenly flew out the window and nothing worked anymore. It has been like sleep training a newborn all over again, but a stronger and more mobile version and with no map to guide us. I found myself asking, will we ever get back to our old routine?
Sleep regressions are a natural part of child development, and the less common but perfectly normal night terrors truly live up to their name; however, both factors are difficult to navigate and are taxing on children and parents alike.
While this all-encompassing exhaustion felt inescapable, we did find our way back to a normal sleep routine for our son. These four approaches helped us through this difficult territory and will offer some guidance as your own child goes through sleep regressions. Each step also includes a short script which you can recite or customize for your toddler.
Be present and pray
I quickly learned that no amount of coaching or structure would settle my son in his distress. After trial and error, I found a soothing song; within seconds, he melted into my arms. I rubbed his back so that he knew he was safe and held. And I did the only thing I knew to do: I prayed. I prayed for God’s perfect peace to flood his small heart and body. Throughout all of the changes and the trials and the errors, I kept praying for him.
Try saying this to your child: I know you are scared. It’s okay to feel afraid. It’s so hard to not feel safe. But I am here, you are safe with me, and I love you.
Improvise for an immediate solution
As with a newborn, toddlers often leave parents struggling to translate what their child is feeling and so badly wants to be understood. At this time, our son wasn’t yet able to articulate what it was that made him so afraid. But from the screams that came when we put him in his crib, we realized he was no longer at peace in his bed. We knew he needed something different.
This change in routine forced us to improvise and try new things, and after some trial and error, we found a better rhythm. Rather than trying to get our toddler back in his crib, we set up a sleeping mat with blankets and pillows and stuffed animals on the opposite side of his bedroom. We had our nightly battles where he tried to run out of the room, so I would lie down on the mat beside him. Once he was settled into a deep sleep, I would leave the room.
When we chose to find a new solution instead of repeating our battles, we discovered a better way to help him embrace sleep and peace.
Try saying this to your child: I know this is a strange place to sleep. But we are both very tired. Let’s use this spot to get some rest tonight so we can have fun tomorrow.
Reclaim their bedroom as a safe space
We had established a new area of the room for sleep, but the sleeping mat was only meant to be a temporary solution. Rather than simply moving my son’s crib to this spot, we took the opportunity to transition to a toddler bed.
I took out all the blankets and the sleeping mat, put the new bed in place and introduced it as a present to him. This approach helped him see his bed as something to be excited about, and that his room was a safe space for it to live – something just for him.
We spent time during the day in his room with stuffed animals and his favourite books. We encouraged his two older sisters to play in the room with him as well. This established his re-arranged bedroom as a place to build fun memories. More than anything, we were able to help him reclaim his room as a safe space.
If your child shares a room with a sibling, rearranging the bedroom might not be possible. Consider a new comforter, a new stuffed animal or some lantern lights to make it feel fresh.
Try saying this to your child: It’s so fun to have a space just for you. I know it’s a little different, and that you might have some memories that aren’t fun. How about if we start building some new memories?
Demonstrate God's love and patience
As our heavenly father, God demonstrates his love to us each and every day. He meets us where we are and is big enough to handle whatever emotion we are feeling. Like getting a newborn acquainted with sleep patterns and routines, everything needs to be taken one day at a time. Ensure your child is reminded of your unconditional love, especially in their scary moments.
Try saying this to your child: I’m sorry you are having trouble falling asleep again. I’m so proud of you for trying new things, and I know you will be able to settle into a good sleep. I love you.
Sleep regressions and night terrors will come and go – even if the current situation feels like it will never improve. Remember to ask God to fill you with grace for yourself as you walk alongside your child in this challenging season.
Todd Foley is on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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