Sleep - a parent’s best friend, and one of those friends it’s really hard to schedule a time to hang out with, because they’re so busy and you’re so busy, and maybe you’re both free for lunch next Sunday? But only if you start late and leave early, and you miss them, but you can’t remember how you found enough time to hang out to become friends to begin with. Right?
Most toddlers have a different kind of relationship with sleep, though, and some of them have the kind of relationship you can best describe as “arch-nemesis.” If getting your little one ready for bed feels like as much of a struggle as the last fight scene in a superhero movie - and takes just as long - you’re very much not alone. There isn’t a magic solution to this problem, but there are a few different strategies you can use so that the epic struggle might eventually get solved.
If you’ve reached the point where you and your baby have been battling it out over bedtime for so long that it’s hard to remember when either one of you last had a good night’s sleep, it may be that you’ve fallen into a holding pattern, and it’ll take desperate measures to get you out of it. Desperate measures might mean allowing something that’s on your “never ever” list happen - for example, letting her fall asleep in your bed, letting her fall asleep watching a movie, rocking her to sleep like she’s a newborn, or letting her stay up, snuggled up next to you, until she falls asleep. None of these are habits you want to get into, but one night won’t create a habit, and the novelty of it might give you a chance to regroup.
The reason to do this isn’t just to finally get a good night’s sleep - although it’s amazing what a difference even one night can make. It’s hard to switch from a regular pattern of resistance to bedtime right into a healthy, easy bedtime routine. So if your pattern of resistance gets broken up, even by just a day or two, you may be able to turn this into an opportunity to build a new pattern.
Taking a night to break the cycle is great to do on a weekend night or some other time when neither of you has to be up at a specific time the next day. You’ll both be much better able to take on a new plan of attack for bedtime once you’ve actually had the chance to get some rest.
If your current bedtime routine isn’t working out, that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t need one - or even that there was anything wrong with the first one - but if a routine has become part of a pattern of bedtime resistance, it can be hard to convince your baby that following the same pattern she is used to fighting back against should go differently.
Even if the bedtime routine you try next has a lot of the same ingredients as the first one, see if you can mix up the order and presentation enough that it feels fresh - maybe you can read your baby a (pretty hardy) book while she’s in the bath and sing a song with her as you’re tucking her in, instead of saving stories for once she’s in bed.
If you think your baby is feeling out of control at bedtime, you could have her put her toys to bed first before it’s her turn to be tucked in, or even have her help you out with a few end-of-day, bedtime tasks, like turning out the lights in most of your home or watering any houseplants. Whatever you choose to do, with a little luck, your new bedtime routine can help you reframe the way your baby thinks about bedtime.
When it comes to your baby resisting bedtime, it’s easy to get caught up in the loop of “She’s defying me, she won’t do what I ask,” and to dig in your heels on issues that don’t really matter much but can lead to very intense battles. This can include things like wearing pajamas to bed - not, in the end, a completely necessary step. PJs are generally more comfortable to sleep in, but if you give your little one the chance to find that out for herself, there’s a good chance that she’ll agree and will have fewer objections to getting into her jammies before too long. And if she doesn’t? It’s still not that big of a deal.
In the same vein, skipping brushing her teeth once or twice isn’t the end of the world, especially if the natural consequence of not brushing her teeth - which may be that she doesn’t get to have any sweets, treats, or juice because she needs to protect her teeth from cavities - might make her that much more willing to brush. Another strategy for cutting tooth brushing out of the battle over bedtime is to make tooth-brushing something that happens just after the last meal of the day, instead of just before bed. It’s a small change to the routine, and may only change the timing a tad, but the reframing can help tooth brushing happen more easily.
Another part of many families’ bedtimes that could be shifted around to help things run more smoothly is bathtime. If taking a bath just seems to energize your toddler, it might be a good activity to try out as part of your morning, rather than evening, routine. This kind of narrowing down is helpful because if you and your little one are fighting over every step of bedtime, by the time you’re ready to actually put her down for sleep, she may be overtired and worked-up - and you’re exhausted and maybe not feeling up to standing firm.
If you start to be concerned that your toddler just isn’t getting enough sleep, her pediatrician may be able to talk you through more unusual strategies or may evaluate her for any medical reason why she might be unable or unwilling to sleep.