Recognizing Sleep Cues to Avoid Bedtime Battles
Your child could be overtired and going to sleep too late.
Babies and toddlers go through different levels of sleep cues before falling asleep. Some children begin to feel tired before they show obvious sleep cues like yawning or eye rubbing.
Watch for early signs like pink around the eyes or eyelids, staring, or other patterns. Obvious sleep cues will work well for a lot of babies and toddlers, but you can experiment with the number of cues that you see to fine tune your routine timing.
Does your child fall asleep faster and easier when you start the routine after a few yawns? Or is it better to act on early cues?
Be aware that late tired signs often lead to bedtime battles. This is when children reach overtiredness and spiral out of control.
At this stage, you might see a lot of whining; aggressive behavior like hitting or biting; hyper-activity; or crying that escalates quickly. As soon as you see these signs, your child needs to go to sleep quickly, or you’ll miss the sleep window.
Your child might not be able to fall asleep.
When babies and toddlers get overtired, they produce cortisol and adrenaline.
Once this happens, they aren’t able to fall asleep until the hormones wear off, which takes about 45-90 minutes. If this happens, you’ll want to take a break and let your child play quietly. Repeat the nap time or bedtime routine later, instead of engaging in a wrestling match.
Bedtime might be too early.
This can happen for a few reasons.
- The time that you started the routine might be too soon. The best way to avoid this problem is to set a consistent morning wake time, and plan bedtime for 12-13 hours later.
Around that time, for several days, watch your child’s sleep cues and track the time that you see them, begin the routine, and when your child falls asleep. Experiment with your timing and choose the best 30-minute range for bedtime. This will help your child fall asleep faster and easier and regulate your child’s circadian rhythm.
- Your child’s last nap might be happening too close to bedtime. You should plan to wake your child by a certain time, allowing room for a typical wake window or longer, before bedtime.
This might mean giving your child a cat nap instead of a regular nap. it’s important to protect bedtime so your child sleeps well at night. Cat naps should be between 15-30 minutes.
- Your child might be in a regression period, which can make it harder to fall asleep. It might be helpful to wait a little longer to begin the routine, until your child shows stronger sleep cues, or it’s closer to the time when your little one is falling asleep.
Look for signs of a regression and find remedies that help.
When your child is learning new physical milestones, in a developmental leap, or teething (aka regressions), they might feel wired, uncomfortable, in pain, or overstimulated.
They might seem like they are fighting sleep, when in reality it’s hard for them to fall asleep because of how they are feeling physically and emotionally. Assume that your child is doing the best that they can.
It’s important to find remedies that will help your child feel relaxed and calm.
One reliable way to do that is to use the weighted Dreamland swaddle or sleep sack, since it will help your child feel relaxed and at peace by increasing melatonin and serotonin production when it’s time to sleep.
Sometimes your child will need you to adjust your plans and offer comfort.
A lot of bedtime problems come when little ones aren’t feeling well but their parents miss the signs that something is wrong. Your baby or toddler might cry intensely when you try to follow the usual routine. This could happen while you are trying to leave the room or putting your baby down.
If your child is very clingy and resistant about being alone or being put down, they probably aren’t feeling well. Be in tune to what is going on with your child’s health and development, and watch for signs of teething, so you know what your child needs.
During tough phases when babies and toddlers don’t feel well, they go through separation anxiety and don’t know how to comfort or calm themselves. Clingy periods can last for weeks or sometimes months. Using the Dreamland swaddle or sleep sack during these times, might help your little one fall asleep with less anxiety and distress and sleep deeper.
The bedtime routine should be consistent, peaceful, and work with nature.
A newborn’s bedtime routine should be simple. For example, lights off; white noise on; a diaper change; swaddle on; a snuggle; and off to sleep. But, at some point during the early months, you’ll want to take advantage of natural processes and add relaxing elements to your child’s routine.
Follow the guidelines below for a smooth bedtime routine.
Timing. Start your bedtime routine within a half hour of the same time each night. Base this time on your child’s sleep cues.
Avoid blue screens for an hour before bedtime. A lot of little ones become overstimulated or have trouble falling asleep when they are exposed to artificial lighting and screens before bedtime. Decide what length of time works best for your child.
Follow the same order of activities every night. Every step of the routine will trigger your child’s brain and body to slow down and prepare for sleep, especially when your child knows what to expect!
Use a white noise machine. Studies show that white noise helps babies and toddlers fall asleep quickly and sleep better. Make sure that the white noise machine is at a medium setting, about 50-70 decibels.
Use a diffuser with essential oils like lavender and chamomile during the bedtime routine. The safest way to use oils in a diffuser for babies and toddlers is to buy an ultrasonic diffuser and dilute 1-2 drops of pure essential oils in the water. This way only a tiny amount of oil will be released into the air. Lavender and chamomile oils will help calm and relax your little one. (for babies 3 months and older)
Use soft lighting during the routine. This will set the stage for a peaceful experience.
Use a Dreamland swaddle or sleep sack. Studies show that babies sleep for longer periods when they are swaddled. Using a swaddle or a sleep sack is also the safest way to keep your child warm and cozy at night. But there is still one more advantage.
Using a Dreamland swaddle or sleep sack during the routine will help your child’s body slow down and limit their activity. There is no way to “wear your baby or toddler out.” They continue to release energy when they do a lot of crawling, climbing, walking or running. Little ones often wake themselves up when they move their legs during the routine.
Stick to the same area of the house. Limit the routine to a smaller area of the house by using a bathroom and bedroom that are close to each other. Move slowly between rooms by carrying your child or holding their hand. Going into the bedroom will be a cue to the brain that it’s bedtime.
Choose calm, mellow activities. Bath-time might be an appropriate bedtime activity for little ones who lie down or sit in the tub. Your little one might enjoy playing on the floor, in the crib, or sitting on your lap, while you read books or tell stories using your imagination. You might try teaching your child hand motions while you sing songs. A sweet phrase, prayer, or poem could be recited as a loving gesture that communicates your feelings to your child.
- Use black-out curtains and turn off the lights completely when it’s time to sleep. Get your child to sleep quickly in a dark room when they are very tired. Melatonin is released when it’s completely dark. If you need some light to move around safely, or your toddler is used to having a nightlight, use a Himalayan salt lamp or switch out yellow or white bulbs for red bulbs. Other types of light trigger the brain to wake up in the night, because they mimic sunlight.
Be realistic about your expectations.
Making these changes could take some time. Focus on one problem area at a time to improve your evenings quickly. During this process, remember that it’s normal for young babies and children to struggle at bedtime, on occasion. Try not to get discouraged when this happens. Soon, the bad nights will be far and few between, and you’ll be enjoying peaceful bedtimes on a regular basis.
This is a guest post by Meredith Brough, a sleep coach, childcare expert and mother of five. She developed natural sleep coaching skills while caring for children in her in-home daycare and raising her babies for 15 years. In 2017, she turned her passion for helping mothers and young children into a full-time career by founding her company, Sweet Slumber.
Meredith worked with local families in their homes for several months, then suddenly found herself working with people from all over the world on FaceTime. This is when she began working with challenging, sensitive children which is now her specialty. She built a Facebook support group called Successful Sleep, where women gather from more than 100 countries.
Meredith has developed several non-crying methods, the Successful Sleep online programs and membership site, and solved hundreds of families' sleep problems. She is the host of “The Sweet Slumber Podcast,” as well. Meredith is known for her encouraging warmth and kindness, compassionate and responsive (non-crying) solutions, and mommy-whispering skills.
Meredith teaches parents about the natural sleep disruptions that cause regressions, the emotional connection between mother and child, the benefits of building security, and the effects of temperament on sleep. Her knowledge enlightens and empowers parents to successfully build sleep habits and confidently care for their children.