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Maintaining Sleep Routines With Your Toddler’s Growing Imagination

By Margaret Ann Jessop, PsyD

There is nothing like a good night of sleep. Sleep gives us energy, the ability to focus and a better mood for the day. It also plays a role in learning, handling stress and remaining physically and mentally healthy. Children’s understanding of sleep changes through their developmental and imaginative growth. For this reason, some good sleepers can develop fears they previously didn’t have. When this happens it is important to celebrate their changing cognitive awareness and encourage this growth and avoid emphasizing the fear that sometimes comes along with it. Healthy imagination is the hallmark of early developmental stages and is important to help children see how their imagination is nothing to be afraid of. When you are anticipating this change it is so much easier to avoid worry yourself and it becomes easier to calm your child.

Here are a number of common questions asked about a child’s bedtime routine.

Q: When should I start the bedtime routine each night?

A: Don’t wait for bedtime to get ready for bed. Break-up the tasks of the evening so that you don’t feel rushed to get it all done when it is bedtime. Try to get bath done and pajamas on right after dinner (or even before). When kids know they still have time to play after preparing for bed they are more likely to comply with your request. Then, all you have to do right before bed is brush teeth and read stories.

Q: My child was always a good sleeper until recently, now he needs us all the time.

A:  Congratulations! Your child has likely just made a cognitive leap that has them thinking and using their imagination more and sleeping less. A common cognitive awareness is the fear of the dark. Most babies and toddlers take little notice of how light their room is until they start wondering about what could be happening in the dark.

When these leaps happen it is important to put your routine to the test. First, give your child time to talk about their concerns. Try to empathize with what they are feeling by commenting on their experience. (Exp. “Wow, I haven’t heard you talk about your room like that before.”)  Repeat back to your child what they have imagined is happening in their room. (Exp. “Let me see if I got that right, you thought your lamp was looking at you after we turned out the light”.)  This will help normalize the experience and model to them there is nothing to fear. Next explain how amazing their imagination is and that you like their thoughts (Exp. “I never thought of how a lamp could look at you—that is so creative.”). To follow the same example you would then explain that lamps can’t look at you in real life, only in your imagination, so there it is nothing to fear.  Finally, encourage them to follow the family routine. This will model to them there is nothing to fear. Worrying with them by changing the bedtime routine will likely prolong the problem. For example, if they fear the dark and we go out of our way to keep them in our room or light the house all night long, we are indirectly telling them darkness is something to fear. A small night light used to help them get to the bathroom, should be all they need.

Q: Why won’t my child go to sleep when she knows it is bedtime and she is so tired?

A: Many children attempt to drag out bedtime. For some they just don’t want to stop the fun of the day. For others, falling asleep is a minor separation and causes some discomfort. Children, however, need more sleep than they know. Start early so you factor in their drag-out time. This and your strong daily routine will help you avoid the annoyance that parents feel and hopefully leave you time to do the fun parts like the stories and snuggle time. If children know there is still more fun ahead, they are more willing to do the less fun stuff (bath, teeth etc.).

Q: Do stuffed animals or blankets really help?

A: YES. Attachment objects provided comfort to children similar to parental support and are often an important aspect of children sleeping through the night. Some children naturally pick a stuffed animal or blanket without any encouragement and other children do not. If your child is having trouble separating from you and demanding you lay with them until they fall asleep, it might be useful to help them establish an attachment object. Once they show some interest in an animal or blanket (or anything they find special), bring it with you and your child on family outings. Include the object during story, meal and play times. For example, make a seat for the object at the table and feed it some food or have it sit with the child while reading a story. These added activities help your child relate to the object as they do to you and will give the object more meaning when you are not with them.

Q: Is it OK to snuggle with my child at bedtime or to let my child in our bed if they are scared or needing affection?

A: Making snuggle time apart of your nighttime routine builds attachment and can help soothe your child and prepare them for sleep. If they have a fearful waking and come to find you, holding them close can offer them the comfort they need to calm back down. If having them in your bed interferes with your sleep or intimacy time, limit their time with you and help them transition back to their bed. This gives them both the comfort they need and the message there is no reason to be afraid. In the preferred scenario, decide how you and your partner want to handle these situations before they arise and stick to your plan but a little snuggle time at bedtime can go a long way.

Q: Should I bathe my child before bed?

A: Hot baths can be relaxing for some children and stimulating for others. Take note what a bath does for your child when planning the timing of their bath. When bathing is necessary at night and it is stimulating for your child, try giving the bath before dinner, giving them extra time to settle down afterwards. This can also help avoid bedtime being too rushed or running too late.

Q: Is it ok to go to bed mad?

A:  As parents our job often includes setting limits and redirecting challenging behaviors. If there has been a difficult or emotional interaction with your child, be sure to clarify that the day is done and that tomorrow is a new day to try again. Some children will have trouble falling asleep if they believe they are in too much trouble. Reassure your child that the day’s difficulties will be easier after a good night sleep. If you are not too angry yourself, letting your child know you love them regardless of the difficult interactions, can help them fall asleep and sleep through the night.

Q: How much sleep do children need anyway?

Here are some guidelines for how much daily sleep your child needs.

Birth to three months 14 to 18 hours

3-6 months                  14 to 16 hours

6 months to 2 years     12 to 14 hours

2 year olds                   13 hours

4 year olds                   11-12 hours

5 year olds                   11 hours

6 -8 year old                10-11 hours

Children who are still napping after 5 years of age may need slightly less sleep at night. The chart provides averages so some children do function well with more or less sleep.  However, in my clinical experience the more sleep children get the better. “If in doubt, the more sleep children get, the better.” is what I often say.  I often suggest that parents add more sleep to the child’s daily routine before any other behavioral interventions just to see if that lowers the number incidents of the behavioral problems we are addressing. If you are concerned your child is not getting enough sleep try adding an extra hour to their routine to see if they seem happier and more engaged during the day.

Final Note to Parents

Parents, you need to get your sleep too! There is nothing like a good night sleep to fill us with the energy we need to be ready to take on all the new challenges our children bring. Sleep disruption is seen in almost every mental health condition so the better we sleep the better we defend ourselves from mental and physical stress. As adults we sometimes forget we are just big kids with bigger responsibilities and the freedom to parent ourselves.