Teaching a baby how to sleep is essentially providing them with sufficient space to learn a skill that they have not fully acquired yet. However, when it comes to older toddlers, sleep training takes on another reality. It is far less about the skill of falling asleep and more to do with setting boundaries and incorporating discipline at bedtime, making it clear to your child what is expected of them.
Creating a disciplined environment and setting firm boundaries for a toddler at bedtime can be difficult for some parents. We often have no set boundaries, unreasonable boundaries, or sometimes our boundary lines are continually changing. Parents are nervous to incorporate appropriate discipline and thus embark on accidental parenting. Doing what we feel is right in the moment, without having a look at the bigger picture. Bedtime with your toddler can be wrought with unnecessary tension if, we are not intentional about focusing on discipline and setting boundaries.
Parents are nervous about incorporating discipline because they misinterpret it as being synonymous with punishment. As mentioned by the authors of Parenting Young Children, many of us grew up in a generation where there was a strong emphasis on punishment and having our parents control our behaviour. We may have received threats, yelling, spanking, isolation, or excessive silent treatment. We are aware that the punishment was ineffective, as it is usually counterproductive. James Windell, a child psychologist, explains that punishment more often leads to resentment, increased aggression, anxiety and even encouraging the exact behaviour you are trying to discourage. In our generation there has been a shift away from punishment, which has caused uncertainty with regards to what is appropriate discipline. Leaving many parents swinging to the opposite end of the pendulum and becoming unnaturally permissive.
So, what is discipline?
It is important to understand that discipline is not a single act or statement, but it is a process.
For your toddler, learning to discipline themselves and learning from discipline takes time. The goal of discipline is essentially to teach children self-discipline and it is not necessary to punish your child to achieve this. Katherine Lee from Very Well Family states that Child discipline, when done correctly, is not about trying to control your child but about showing them how to control their own behaviour and validating their feelings through the process. When children misbehave, we use supportive discipline to help them choose a better way to behave and one way to achieve this is by setting boundaries within which they have the freedom to explore and experiment with the world.
Boundaries communicate to your child what is expected of them.
When children know what is expected of them, they have a better idea of how to follow the rules. Young children are not naturally rule-breakers, intrinsically they want to please us. Usually when there are discipline issues it is because a parent was either not clear about what was expected of the child, because the boundary lines continually change, unrealistic or inappropriate rules are being enforced, or because there is an actual need that is not being met.
When boundaries are appropriate, they can foster self-discipline, patience, problem solving, resourcefulness as well as responsibility. It is allowing your child freedom within set limits and children learn that their choices count and carry responsibility.
So, what does this look like when it comes to sleep training your toddler?
1. Set Limits.
Incorporate some sleep rules. A child will not behave appropriately at bedtime if you have not told them exactly what is expected of them. With toddlers, it is imperative to be specific. For instance: stay in your bed, close your eyes, lie quietly, and wait until the sun comes up.
2. Notice positive behaviour.
Children always respond favourably to positive affirmation and reinforcement. Encourage the behaviour that you want.
3. Structure their environment.
You want to set your child up to succeed. Whether you need to incorporate a clock to give them a concept of time, a baby gate to be a visual boundary to their bedroom door, a cup next to the bed to prevent requests for water, or even a potty in the corner of the room if it is necessary.
4. Involve the child.
The more you can involve the child, the more you involve them in the discipline process. This helps them to build confidence and independence. Let them put out their own pyjamas, choose a book to read after the bath, turn down their bed sheets and close their own curtains.
5. Plan some time for loving.
Your child needs your attention and bedtime is a wonderful opportunity to incorporate this special time each day. Play, cuddle, laugh together and enjoy each other. If your child falls asleep feeling important and loved, you set the tone for their night sleep. Also, toddlers can sense when you are rushing them through the bedtime routine, and they naturally display behaviour problems when this occurs. Take your time, make it special.
6. Be consistent.
Consistency is important with discipline. It might not be easy, but it is worth the effort. Your boundaries at bedtime should remain firm, no matter where or when. This will allow your child to understand what is expected of them, and they will begin to behave accordingly.
Remember that a disciplined child is not a discouraged or despondent child. It is not a child that has been punished into submission. Their feelings are not minimised, and the aim is not to create conflict. Allowing your child to learn where your boundary lines are, will help them have better control of their anxiety, learn to make better choices, teach them to express their own needs, develop skills to manage their emotions effectively and they will do all of this off of the loving foundation and safe environment you have created for them.
Written by Tammy Buitendach – Good Night Consultant