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Are you struggling with toddler tantrums at bedtime? Do you dread every time you have to put them to sleep at night? Do they prefer to play and put up a fight, screaming and crying, even when you try to put them to bed after 10 p.m.?
Is dealing with toddler bedtime tantrums driving you crazy?
Help! I’m struggling with toddler tantrums at bedtime
If your toddler is constantly hysterical at bedtime, you’re probably familiar with one or more of these scenarios:
– They have a meltdown or tantrum that keeps everyone else from sleeping.
– They cry and cry and nothing you do seems to calm them down.
– They resist their fatigue – you can see that they’re tired and need to sleep, but it seems like you’re the only one who shares this view.
Dealing with tantrums is hard and takes a toll on the whole family. Your days seem endless and you feel tired all the time.
What are the reasons behind toddler bedtime tantrums ?
Toddler tantrums can occur for many reasons: feeling unwell, hungry, thirsty, overtired, undertired, teething, a wet or dirty diaper, and so on. But even when none of these are present, some toddlers are more hysterical and resistant to bedtime than others.
We now know that separation anxiety is a very common phenomenon affecting children’s sleep patterns.
It is a normal developmental stage in which toddlers have strong emotional reactions when they are separated from the person they are most familiar with, the person to whom they feel the strongest bond and attachment, that is, their primary caregiver.
Most cases of separation anxiety occur when your child is about 9 months old, but it can occur as early as 6 months in some children and last past 18 months in others.
Separation anxiety diminishes as your toddler gets older, especially when he or she has learned that being away from his or her primary caregiver is temporary.
For this reason, a toddler who is hysterical at bedtime will exhibit the same behaviors seen in children with separation anxiety:
– Crying or fussing when their primary caregiver leaves or is about to leave
– Tantrum behavior when separated from their primary caregiver
– Distress in the presence of unfamiliar people or environments
– Various types of pain, such as headaches or stomachaches
– Sleep disturbances (aha!)
The good news is that it is possible to prevent bedtime from becoming a battleground. Here are five tips to help you take back your nights and your baby’s nights.
How to calm your toddler
1) Establish a solid bedtime routine
Any sleep specialist will tell you that a bedtime routine is the easiest way to ensure that your child has a regular and calm sleep schedule.
Routines help put your child at ease. Knowing what to expect helps reduce stress and anxiety and makes the transition to bedtime easier.
However, routines work because of their consistency – doing the same thing, at about the same time, day in and day out. In other words, the more consistent your routine, the easier it will be to deal with your hysterical child at bedtime.
If you don’t have a bedtime routine, this is a good time to start one. Keep routines short and sweet – no longer than 45 minutes. For example, you can
– Start by playing with toys or listening to music.
– Then give your child a bath, a massage, and dress him or her.
– After the bath, read them a story and spend a few minutes cuddling.
– When the story is over, say gentle words to calm your child, then say a specific phrase to let your child know it’s time for bed. Even saying something like “Good night, I love you” every night before tucking them in is a great bedtime ritual.
– Turn off the lights and leave the room.
Remember to avoid anything that will overstimulate your child.
2) Propose a comfort item
Toddlers struggling with separation anxiety need reassurance. Suggesting a comfort item – a stuffed animal, a blanket – at this stage can make it easier to deal with their hysterical behavior at bedtime.
Have you heard of worry dolls? These dolls originated in Guatemala to help children cope with anxiety. They were originally used at night to calm children’s fears.
The child was expected to tell a specific doll (there were 7 dolls in total) the specific fear that they wanted the doll to take away, then caress the doll’s belly so that the child’s worries would not harm it, and then place the doll under their pillow.
I’ve always loved the worry doll idea because it’s a very effective way to help children externalize their worries and fears.
The worry doll idea can also help calm a toddler who is hysterical at bedtime. For example, you can ask your child to confide in or hug their stuffed animal in order to calm themselves (or their stuffed animals 😊).
But this doesn’t have to be just at bedtime. You can make it a habit for your child to confide in or comfort their stuffed animals by asking them to do so anytime they look sad or anxious.
3) Make your child’s bedroom less frightening
A hysterical toddler at bedtime is often a sign of fear and anxiety. An easy way to reduce this anxiety is to suggest items that make your child’s bedroom more welcoming.
Many parents swear by nightlights like this one to help their toddlers fall asleep. Others prefer white noise machines or soft lullaby music. Still others prefer to change the bedroom décor and fill it with objects their children love.
Remember that even simple things like offering your child pajamas or even sheets or blankets with their favorite characters can turn nighttime into an enjoyable moment.
4) Help your child overcome separation anxiety
If your toddler is hysterical at bedtime, it is important to help them overcome separation anxiety. This requires patience and empathy to help them build their confidence and reduce their anxiety about being separated from you.
Here are some things you can do:
– Leave your child with a trusted caregiver for short periods of time, then gradually increase the amount of time you are away. Of course, you should only leave them with someone they know during this time.
– Gradually expose your child to new environments and people.
– Establish consistent routines so your child knows when you will be leaving and when you will be returning.
– Encouraging your child to do things on his or her own and to participate in age-appropriate chores can help build confidence and reduce separation anxiety. For example, they can throw their diaper in the trash or pick up and put away their toys.
– Reassure your child by hugging and cuddling them and telling them you’ll be back. But keep goodbyes short.
– If you act anxious, your child is likely to pick up on your anxiety. Stay calm and confident to help your child cope with the departure.
– Praise your child’s positive behavior whenever it is displayed. The more you praise specific positive behaviors, the more likely they are to be repeated.
5) Don’t give up
It’s hard to watch your baby cry, sometimes to the point of throwing up. Who wouldn’t give in? Or sometimes you’re just so tired that it seems so much easier to just let them get into bed with you.
But the more you give in without addressing the underlying issues, the harder things get – your baby will want to play longer, they’ll want three cups of water instead of two, or they’ll stop sleeping in their bed altogether.
So there’s only one way out – don’t give in. Stick to your routine. Stick to your plan. Calmly insist that they must sleep in their bed.
Check in regularly, but keep it as short as possible. Tell them you love them, that you’re there, but don’t take them into your arms. It will be hard at first, but it will get better.
Dealing with toddler tantrums at bedtime can be difficult, but this situation doesn’t last forever.
Most cases of hysterical bedtime behavior are related to separation anxiety, which means that helping them through this anxiety by teaching them how to handle separations – or waiting for them to outgrow their separation anxiety – can help make nights calmer.
However, if you are concerned about your child’s behavior, or if the behavior persists or worsens, please consult your family physician.
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