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Challenge: Bedtime Secrets

Tactics to Use When Your Toddler Calls For You at Bedtime

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This post originally appeared at Twin Mom and More in January 2018.

Does your toddler call for you a gazillion times at night? Does she need water, or to go potty AGAIN, or hugs? Does she claim to be scared? Does she want another stuffed animal in bed, or a different book to look at? Does the list just go on and on?

If so, you aren't alone. 2 year olds are smart. 3 year olds are even smarter. They know exactly what to say to get you back in the room and giving them attention. It's possible that on occasion they actually need something, but it's really hard to tell when they actually need something, versus when they are just making lots of excuses to get you back in the room.

Somehow, as parents we have to figure out when they really need something, what they actually need, and filter through all of the excuses. Not an easy task. We have to set boundaries and be consistent, while also addressing any real needs.

With our daughter (turned 3 in November of 2017), we've noticed that she goes through phases. She will do great at bedtime for several weeks, then struggle for a few days to a week, etc. We usually have to make a change, or address her growing curiosities/needs, while still staying consistent with our expectations. She's responded very well to a few simple things that we've tried.

Before we go over the tactics that we use and that have worked very well, I have to first mention that two things need to be in place in addition to using these tactics:

1. There must be a consistent routine before bedtime.
A routine provides a clear and consistent chain of events that happens before EVERY bedtime. It can be simple (ours is). Our daughter knows our routine, and as a result, she knows when it's over. And when it's's bedtime. There's no wiggle room, no room for error, no begging for more time, no grey areas. When it's done, it's done, and bedtime has arrived.

2. There must be a consistent bed TIME and schedule that is followed.
If your child is overtired or undertired, bedtime is simply going to be a struggle. An overtired child is cranky, hyper, and SO hard to put to bed. An undertired child isn't going to fall asleep easily, and is going to want to do more since they have more energy to burn off. It is so important to find a balance and the right bedtime for your child. Take a look at our toddler schedules if you need some help on this front.
Ok, so now to the tactics to use when your toddler is calling for you at bedtime. Once you have a routine and schedule in place, these next steps will be easy to implement and stay consistent with...

Bedtime Tactics

1. Require the request to be polite
We always tell our daughter, that if she asks for us nicely, we will answer her. The answer is not always yes, but we give an answer and address her. If she is crying or screaming for something and throwing a fit, the only thing we say to her is that she needs to talk to us nicely.

She is also expected to stay in bed. For the most part, she listens to that, but on occasion she's decided not to. Her door gets locked if she opens it and comes out. We have the doorknob turned around so we can lock it from the outside. Only if she asks for us to come in the room nicely, do we then come in and give her a hug to help her calm down.

2. Don't accept excuses
"If you need a hug, say that". When our daughter makes up excuses, we call her out. We are much more likely to give her a hug and some extra attention if she just tells us that's what she needs, instead of making up excuses like needing water, or to go potty again, etc. We expect the truth and reward her for telling the truth instead of making excuses.

3. Ask what else your child needs before leaving the room the first time
Before we leave the room, we ask if she needs anything else. This way, she can't call us in two minutes later and say she needs a drink or an extra hug, etc. She had an opportunity to ask for these things. We remind her of that.

4. Set clear expectations
We expect our daughter to stay in her bed. We expect her to call for us nicely if she needs something. We expect her to not make excuses and only call us if she really needs something. We expect her to stay quiet after we leave the room. She is allowed to "read" her books and talk quietly to her stuffed animal friends while in bed.

5. Give consequences and also leave room for rewards
Consequences and rewards are both a must. Let's say our daughter calls us in nicely. She doesn't make an excuse. She simply asks for an extra hug. We give her the hug and praise her for being honest. We then tell her that this is the last hug and that we expect her to not call again. We allow for this wiggle room to show her that we are here for her and listening. We value her honesty.

Let's say she calls us and makes an excuse. Maybe she told us she had to go potty even though she just went. We explain to her what the consequence is. She is to bring one of her stuffed animals from bed into the hallway. If she goes potty (something has to come out), then she gets the toy back and all is good (she was telling the truth). If she doesn't go potty, the toy will stay in the hallway as a consequence.

We give her a chance to tell the truth and change her mind before getting out of bed. Many times she's changed her mind and told us she really just wanted a hug. Many times, she's really needed to go potty even though she JUST went. We never know, so we just tell her the consequences ahead of time and implement as necessary.

Let's say she has called us in for hugs over and over and is taking advantage. We clearly state when is the last time, and we follow through. Follow through is key. If you said it's the last one, then don't go in when she calls again.

A GREAT reward system that we just started is a token system. We give her two dollars from one of her restaurant toys (any items would work, however). If she has her two dollars in the morning, she gets two rewards. Right now that is in the form of a food treat and a Paw Patrol show (the rewards will change depending on what is motivating to her at the time). If she doesn't go to bed like a "big girl" she loses her two dollars (one at a time). This gives her control of the outcome. She has a choice... go to bed quietly and listen well, or lose a dollar and a reward the next day.

She's responded very well to the token system and we are really liking it at the moment.

Consequences can be hard to implement at bedtime, so we've gotten creative. We like to implement logical or natural consequences. There aren't many at bedtime though, when your toddler is simply delaying bedtime. For example, a natural consequence to not eating, is you are hungry later and don't get a snack. A logical consequence for not playing nicely with your toys, is that you don't get those toys for the rest of the day.

But what's the logical consequence for calling for Mama and Daddy when you are supposed to be sleeping? There isn't much. This is why we often focus on the positive behavior that we want to see, and reward that behavior. Taking a stuffed animal away from her bed is simply a punishment with no logical connection to her calling for us. But in the moment, it's the only consequence that has to do with bedtime.

We put a spin on it to make it fit better..."If you can't behave like a big girl at bedtime, you can't have big girl things. Only big girls can be trusted to have stuffed animals and books in bed". We make the "punishment" more logical in nature so that it makes sense.

6. Empathize
We get to snuggle with our significant other and not be alone. We get to get water if we need it and suddenly feel thirsty. We get to get up and get an extra blanket if we are cold. We get to turn the TV on if we aren't yet tired. We get to get up and go to the bathroom if we need to.

Don't forget your child is a little human like you. They have wants and needs just like we do. They need our help, though. Just because they just had a drink of water, doesn't mean they truly aren't super thirsty one night and would like another. They aren't out to annoy us. Sometimes they have real needs. Sometimes they just want company. Just like we do.

So, it's our job as parents to find the balance. To help them communicate better and not make excuses, but to rather tell us the truth. It's our job to empathize with their needs, while still setting boundaries and expectations.

It's a hard job, but it's doable. It's easy to lose sight of the actual wants and needs that our children have, when all we want to do is go to bed ourselves. Let's allow them to be human though, and give them a little credit, along the way. I know I always need a reminder about this! It is possible to be consistent with our expectations and enforce consequences, while still giving them some room to have needs and desires met and heard as well.

Other Posts of Interest:

Using Sticker Charts

Transitioning Your Focus to Positive Behavior & Natural Consequences

Puzzle Reward System

Toddler Bedtime Routines- How To Stop Your Toddler From Delaying Bedtime

Sleep and Behavioral Disruptions- Making a Big Change to Get Back on Track

How Schedules and Routines Support Good Sleep Habits for Babies


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