Sleep Disturbances: Sleep disturbances occur during the toddler years for the same reasons as the developmental disturbances of the toddler. There are several types.
The first type is a related to feelings of abandonment. During the second year of life, children are still vulnerable to separations from primary care givers. Falling asleep means leaving Mom and Dad. In addition, as fears and nightmares begin to appear during the third year of life, the toddler resists going to sleep because of her inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. To the toddler, the tiger in the closet is real!
“Zack, it’s time for bed now. That was a great bedtime story, wasn’t it? I want you to stay in bed tonight and not ask for drinks like you did last night. Mom and Dad will be in the living room. We’ll check on you before we go to bed.”
The second type of sleep disturbance is related to the emergence of new abilities. Toddlers do not want to give up the pleasure of practicing these new- found skills. As always, the solution is mature adult judgment and consistent firmness.
The situation may be managed as follows. A regular bedtime should be established during the first year of life. As the second year progresses, the routine leading up to bedtime may be expanded to include a small snack, a bath, and a few quiet minutes with Mom or Dad reading from a favorite book. This shifts the focus from intense motor activity to a calm mental activity. Despite the intentional “winding down,” the “moment of truth” arrives as the parent says good night, turns off the light, and leaves the bedroom. Screams of protest inevitably follow, if only for a few seconds or minutes.
Predictable requests for a drink of water or another story should be gently, but consistently, refused. If this limit is enforced calmly, but firmly and, day after day, the toddler will gradually her her parents’ expectations. And a peaceful bedtime routine will be established.
The third type of sleep disturbance is related to the developing capacity to control impulses and internalize parental demands and restrictions, while at the same time fearing loss of control of those recently-mastered urges. As the toddler regresses and starts to fall asleep, his still- tenuous ability to control impulses, as well as his newly- acquired physical capabilities (bowel and bladder control) diminish. The toddler experiences as a threat to her inner sense of calmness and stability.
Nearly all children will attempt to sleep in the parents’ bed instead of their own. They can be quite ingenious in their efforts to persuade Mom and Dad. However, when parents take infants into their bed on a regular basis, they create an expectation which may be very difficult to change in the second or third year of life. Sleeping with parents can make the separation-individuation process more difficult for the toddler. And it undoubtedly puts a monkey wrench in their parents’ sex lives.
When should children sleep in their own bed? Always.
At two o’clock in the morning Isabel enters her parents’ bedroom. “Isabel, what are you doing in here? OK, I’ll take you to the bathroom. But then you have to go back to your own bed. You know that this is Mommy and Daddy’s bed. You have a great room of your own.”