To a toddler, every day brings an awesome new sensory experience and every bedtime brings disappointment and a fear of missing out on licking something great. Being the parent of an exhausted, sleep-refusing toddler is exhausting in itself, and can make those early days of sleep deprivation with a newborn seem quaint and adorable. If your toddler doesn’t want to stop touching, tasting and looking at things when the sun sets, establishing a sleep routine that engages all five senses can help trigger sleepy vibes.
Dim the lights
Start the bedtime routine by dimming the lights and changing what your kid sees. A study of kids in New Zealand found the more screen time kids have in the ninety minutes before bedtime, the later they fell asleep, while kids who engaged in other activities fell asleep faster. Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Sleep Book, says screens aren’t the only kind of unnatural light keeping little ones awake. She recommends dimming the lights in the living room and using red lights in the bathroom and bedroom during pre-sleep rituals.
Create the sound of silence
What your toddler hears before bed is as important as what they see. Speak in a calm, low tone during the bedtime routine and limit noises in other rooms as much as possible. Adding some background noise to a toddler’s bedroom can be beneficial – especially if you’re just moving them out of your room and they’re used to hearing you breathe (or snore) all night. Researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children want parents to mind the decibel level of sound machines, and suggest playing music at a low volume instead of white noise all night.
Let them have a taste of comfort
Ideally, we want toddlers to be able to drift off to sleep without a bottle or a boob in their mouth. If you’re having trouble with that, serving up some milky goodness earlier in the bedtime routine is one way to engage your child’s sense of taste without risking night time tooth decay. Try offering milk or dairy-free alternatives earlier in the evening and serving it in a cup. This way they’re not using a bedtime bottle to fall asleep and you’ll still have plenty of time to brush those little teeth.
Make your baby smell good
Adults aren’t the only ones who benefit from a little aromatherapy. Activating your child’s sense of smell during their bedtime routine is another way to send relaxing signals to their little brain. If you use the same scent each night your toddler will associate that smell with chilling out and calming down. A scented bubble bath is great for some kids, but if your toddler gets rowdy in the tub save the bathing for the morning and just give them a scented massage at pajama time. Many parents swear the smell of lavender oil helps kids go down, but as the Tennessee Poison Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center notes, it and other essential oils can be dangerous for kids. Luckily, several major baby lotion brands have captured the scent in a safer form.
Give them something soft to touch
Help keep your tactile toddler happy in bed by offering objects that engage her sense of touch. A soft blanket or doll gives give a child something to hold onto that isn’t a bottle, and as The Baby Sleep Site points out, these objects can help kids avoid engaging in potentially hazardous self-soothing behaviors, like pulling or twisting their own hair.
Transitional objects often get a bad rap, but as the vice-president of the Canadian Paediatric Society told the Toronto Star last year, teddies, blankies, and the like are a reassuring form of stress relief for little ones. If a kid is a little too into their lovely, parents can consider restricting access at bedtimes to avoid living with a Linus.
Calming signals for all
During daytime play parents are cognizant of engaging all five senses. We sing the songs, read the books, squeeze the silly sand, sniff the flowers, and offer new tasty treats to help our kids experience the world around them. When we continue to engage a toddler’s senses at bedtime we’re sending calming signals in a language they understand. When the toddler finally shuts his eyes and shuts out the world around him, parents can engage their own five senses – feeling the couch beneath your butt, smelling and tasting those snacks, seeing the red Netflix logo and hearing that distinctive “dun dun” – to do the same.