Bedtime conundrums: a sleep expert answers your questions

Most parents will agree that bedtime can sometimes feel like a battlefield, especially around the clock change. So, we posed some of your most asked questions to Heidi Skudder, sleep expert and founder of The Parent and Baby Coach.

Heidi Skudder
A photo of a mother and her son lying in bed and reading a bedtime story together
Image: Werner Pfennig from Pexels

What do I do when bedtime is resisted, e.g. asking for one more story, etc?

Bedtime resistance is a really normal stage for any toddler to go through and it tends to start happening somewhere around the age of two! This is really common, so try to think of it as them starting to test their independence and control over certain situations.

The very best way to deal with this is not only to look at your bedtime routine but to also look at what is happening during the daytime too. I like to use the analogy of buckets. Toddlers have two ‘buckets’ that need filling in the daytime; one is their love and attention bucket, and the other is their power and control bucket. If both are filled, they are less likely to want to play up at bedtime and push back on you asking them to go to sleep.

Giving your toddler choices throughout the day helps them feel like they are practising their new-found sense of independence and control – with the idea being that they will feel less need to do this at bedtime. Asking closed-ended choice questions like ‘Would you like to wear the blue or red PJs tonight?’ or ‘Shall we run upstairs really fast like superman, or slowly like a snail?’ Make it fun, but also give them the opportunity to make decisions – with you then being the one making decisions for bedtime!

If boundaries change constantly, then you will find that your toddler will start pushing back even more so ensuring that you know what is included in your bedtime routine will be helpful. If you decide that it is three books and then bed, stick to three books! Otherwise, parents find themselves in the trap of ‘one more, one more’ and bedtime suddenly starts taking much longer. If bedtime is still a struggle, think again about the daytime and where you can weave in more books and connection time with your little one.

How do I deal with separation anxiety at bedtime when I have been at work all day?

Separation anxiety and wanting more time with you in the evenings is a wonderful sign of attachment. So, although difficult evenings can be tiring and tough, try and see it as a sign that your child loves you to pieces and just wants more of you! When you are a working parent, the end of the day can often feel exhausting; rushing home from work, picking them up from childcare, making sure they are fed, bathed, and then getting them into bed before collapsing yourself too.

One of my top tips on helping deal with this transition is to try and create as much time between picking them up and going to bed as possible. Whilst I totally understand that this is not possible for everyone, allowing more time so that you can do things slowly, means more time for cuddles and connection.

Connection at the end of the day can look like many different things; it could be a bath with your child and lots of skin-to-skin contact, or it could be puzzles, train track building, or any of the many activities that your child enjoys doing, but done with you! This is a perfect time to take the pressure off, stop rushing, and put your phone away. Focusing on eye contact and touch, whilst talking to your child about their day and yours, really helps fill up their love buckets so that going to bed and being away from you again feels more manageable.

Often parents ask me how they can manage love bombing when the end of the day is fraught and with some parents unable to do pick up any earlier. In this instance, I would always recommend skipping bath time every second day, so that you can use that time instead to connect and play. Your child can go to bed a little dirty without any concerns but falling asleep without connecting to you can mean a push back on bedtime and possibly even night waking too.

A child who is really struggling with being away from you in the daytime may benefit from you sitting with them whilst they settle to sleep. Whilst I understand that you may have lots to do and be exhausted yourself, one way of combatting their fight to go to sleep can just be giving them more of what they want – your presence. It is a difficult juggle but doing what feels best for you and your child means that bedtimes will go more smoothly. 

How should I deal with bedtime after the clock change?

The science of sleep shows us that darkness helps the body produce melatonin, and with the autumn clock change, we do have darkness on our side. However, you will be trying to put your little one to bed at, for example, 7pm but their body clock will still be an hour behind so they could be less likely to feel sleepy.

One way of helping them is by reducing or removing screen time in the run-up to bedtime. Screens produce the worst kind of light to impact our melatonin production, making your child more wired and less sleepy. By removing this sort of light, you’ll find that it will be easier for them to wind down.

Getting out and about in the late afternoon and running off some energy is also a brilliant way of making them sleepier. Running, climbing, and being active helps physically tire your little one out, meaning they are more ready for bed even if it’s a lighter evening!

Finally, the use of a black-out blind or heavy curtains can be useful in helping with the wind-down process.

How do I encourage my toddler to fall asleep on their own?

One of the main reasons I will be contacted as a sleep coach is to help parents towards being able to put their child to bed independently. This is something that is very family-specific and will depend on each family’s parenting style. Some are very happy to sleep with their children until they decide it no longer works, and other parents feel they need their evenings back and so want their little one to settle to sleep on their own. There is no right or wrong answer.

When moving towards independent settling to sleep, we want to look at what it is that the parent is currently doing to help their toddler. If sleeping with them, perhaps the first step is to put their toddler to bed in their own room. If sitting with them, perhaps the next step is to sit a little further away from the bed and then slowly every few days, get a little further away whilst still reassuring from the bedroom. Gradually moving towards being able to say goodnight and leave the bedroom takes time, but it is possible.

Consistency has to be one of the most boring words used around sleep, but it really is the secret to things going well. If you decide to work on a plan to help your toddler to fall asleep on their own – write it down! This really helps you to commit to it, because it is always easier to do the thing that gets them to sleep quicker in the short term than to do the thing that moves towards you being able to leave your toddler and say goodnight. Change is always challenging but knowing that with time you can slowly move away from helping your toddler to sleep, to them falling asleep on their own, hopefully, helps reassure you.

Being able to fall asleep without any support can often mean that there is less night waking and possibly not as early waking too, typical for toddlers who otherwise have no medical conditions, but are reliant on their parents to get to sleep initially.

For more help and support, see Heidi’s Toddler Sleep Course: www.theparentandbabycoach.com

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