Mindful Approach to Toddler Bedtimes

by Melanie Laguna & Dana Asby

A Parent's Perspective

My husband and I are truly lucky Ollie has been a good sleeper since infancy. We’ve never had any big problems with him falling and staying asleep...until now. His two weeks at summer camp seemed to kick start his new habit of resisting bedtime, crying for us, and eventually crawling into our bed in the middle of the night.

We sensed that his sleep anxiety is in part the product of change: school, big boy bed, and our impending move at the end of the month. We have dealt with this resistance to bedtime with lots of patience, empathy and love. After a lot of trial and error, we’ve recently settled into a new routine, one that works for our whole family.

How have we been providing emotional comfort, while still encouraging sleep independence?

  1. Assess and alter any existing bedtime routine that may not be helping: In general, Oliver gets a bath, puts on jammies, brushes his teeth, gets family tickles and snuggles if there’s time, reads three books of his choosing after he gets tucked into bed. We used to read books as a family in our bed before walking him to his room. We decided to change this practice and read bedtime books only after we tucked him in so he could associate this special, cozy time with Mama and Dada with his own bed.

  2. Re-establish bedtime expectations: After we finish books, we gently remind him that it’s time for sleep and he should stay in his bed until the sky is light. We reassure him that we’re here and he is safe.

  3. Give physical comfort and provide other objects of comfort: We allow Ollie to have a few objects of his choosing next to him in bed. These can vary night to night, but he finds comfort in polaroids of our family, favorite cars or books, and his water bottle. He likes his nightlight, sound machine, and a fan in his window. The slight weight of a toddler comforter seems to act as a gentle hug and helps to soothe and calm his body. In the beginning of his resistance to bed, we would sit with him for 10 minutes and hold his hand or rub his back. We try to leave the room before he falls asleep, though on particularly trying nights, if he still begins to cry or get out of his bed for a third time we lay our head next to his until he falls asleep.

  4. Practice patience and flexibility as you transition to your ideal sleep scenario: We are mindful to be patient and kind in words and actions. If he cries for us, we return to reassure him that we’re here and he is safe. If he gets out of bed, we return him and tuck him in with more hugs and kisses. But in both cases we gently remind him that it’s time to go to sleep in his own bed. We’re flexible in our expectations. Ideally, we want him to go to sleep in his own bed and remain there until morning. A month ago, we struggled with frequent visits to our bed throughout the night, but we set boundaries about returning Ollie to his bed in the middle of the night. Currently, I’m happy to say that Ollie goes to sleep independently (no more crying or getting out of bed) and in general only wakes around 3 am to crawl in between us. There are some off days (remember flexibility!) but he will willing walk back to bed if we ask him. We are moving in the next few weeks and thus embracing the unknown--we may end up back at square one--but once he settles into a similar rhythm, we will begin put him back to bed if it’s before 6am in the last loving nudge in the direction to full sleep independence.

A Developmental Psychologist's Perspective

As children move from being one-year-olds, dependent on their caregivers to fulfill most of their needs and desires, to independent two-year-olds who strive to do it all themselves, they begin to relate to their world in new ways. As they are exploring their waking world through this new lens of self-sufficiency, their sleeping is changing, too.

This is the age where nap times morph and shrink. This is also the age where children begin having nightmares. Young children’s worlds are constantly changing as they take in new information from the environment. The sheer volume of novelty that a child experiences each day can be a lot for them to process. Sometimes, things that are confusing, overwhelming, or a little scary might not seem to make much of an impression on your child in the moment, but their brains are logging these experiences to be worked out during sleep. When this happens, toddlers can have nightmares.

It’s important for you, as your child’s calm center, to help them process these confusing emotions. Allow them to tell you the narrative of their dream. Merely talking out a scary scenario can drain it of its power. Try not to explain their dreams away, but rather validate their feelings: “That must have been so scary!” instead of “You know that trees don’t really eat people, so don’t worry.” Hold them, hug them, let them know that they are ok, and lay with them until they can once more fall asleep.

Sometimes, children can have anxiety about their day that makes it difficult to fall asleep. Practicing some of the breathing techniques, like deep belly breathing, that we’ve shared before can help ease that anxiety. A meditation especially designed for sleep can also help calm anxious minds before bedtime. No matter whether your child’s anxiety is happening in the middle of the night or right before bedtime, here are some tips to help your child have a peaceful night’s rest:

  • Turn off all electronic devices at least one hour before bed

  • Create a calm environment using soft lighting and gentle music or a noise machine

  • Use lavender room spray, candles, or essential oils to quiet your child’s mind

  • Adjust the temperature in your child’s room so it is slightly cool

  • Move bath time closer to bedtime, so pajamas are only worn to climb into bed

  • Make the bed a place for sleeping, not playing or hanging out

  • Read one of these 20 books about nighttime fears

  • Do some gentle massage to relax your toddler's body and mind