If you have a little one in your house between the ages of 12 months and 3 years, then this blog is for you! Living with a toddler can be glorious and challenging. Children this age are going through so much change they often meltdown at the drop of a hat just from sheer overwhelm. There are many physical changes at this age (walking, running, climbing to name a few) and lots of language development. Between ages one and three, toddlers are acquiring new words every day, and “No” is one of the most powerful ones they will discover.
So, how do you navigate this time of tremendous growth with as much patience as possible? Here are 6 common topics that I talk to parents about, and some tips to go with them.
I have broken this blog into 2 parts so it’s easier to digest.
The first 3 topics are Sleep, Setting Limits, and Toddler Conflicts. The second 3 are Potty Learning, Meal Time, and Needy Behavior/Power Struggles.
Sleep during the toddler years can be a roller coaster ride. Your kiddo might sleep great for a while and then start waking up in the middle of the night wanting you to help them get back to sleep. As your child’s imagination and language acquisition start to develop more fears might come up. Fear of the dark, fear of being left, fear of noises, and fear of imagined creatures can all wreak havoc on your little one’s sleep.
As well, there can be bedtime and nap struggles around 12 months, 18 months, 2 years, and again around 2.5 years of age. As your toddler gets older, they find more creative ways to stall naps and bedtime. Letting go to sleep can take a long time if their sleep pressure isn’t strong enough, and they fight sleep as they don’t want to miss out on anything interesting going on.
Stick to consistent nap time and bedtime routines. I know this is a broken record type thing to say, but sleep routines can easily slip, and pretty soon you are staying up way too late, and your toddler is running the show. Be sure naps are not going too late in the day, and hold steady with the time you put your toddler to bed. Keep the activities after dinner low key and predictable so your toddler doesn’t have to wonder what is coming next.
Be careful what your toddler is watching and when. Keep screen time to a minimum and if they watch anything have it be before dinner so your little one is not watching anything before they go to bed. If your toddler has a hard time turning off the screen, sit down and talk with your kiddo about what they are watching, and then give them a heads up that it’s almost over. Then have them turn it off. (As well, keep whatever books you read before bed to the ones that are familiar and not too stimulating.)
Notice the stall tactics your toddler uses to keep nap time or bedtime going. One more book, one more story, one more anything can turn into another hour of bedtime antics. Build into your bedtime routine anything that your toddler might throw your way (a drink of water, tissues, going to the potty, turning on a nightlight), and be very clear at the beginning of bedtime how many books or stories you will tell. You can build in giving them an extra hug by letting your child know that once they get into bed, you will be back to give them one more goodnight hug. You want to drive the narrative around what happens at bedtime.
Middle-of-the-night wake-ups can happen from time to time, but if your toddler is waking every night for one reason or another, it’s time to come up with a game plan for how you will be handling nighttime wake-ups. You don’t want to be trying to figure it out at 2am! And know that sleeping next to your toddler's bed on the floor, or pulling them into bed with you can be a slippery slope. If you don’t want to go down that slide, then be sure and let your little one know that if they wake up at night you will help them settle, but then you will be going back to your own bed to sleep.
Help your toddler feel safe and grounded at bedtime by spending time being close and connected. You don’t want to rush this part of bedtime. Toddlers need lots of reassurance and that often comes in the form of cuddles and kisses and soothing words of love and connection.
Say goodnight to everything in your toddler's room before you say goodnight to them. It might sound silly to say goodnight to the bookshelf and the lamp, but by naming everything they can see and by letting them know it will all be there when they wake up you are helping them feel safe and secure in their sleep space.
2. Setting Limits:
Setting limits with toddlers is a tricky business. Kids this age need to know there are boundaries so they feel safe, but they push against any limit set with all their might! This is where the word “No!” comes into play. Holding steady on a limit or boundary helps toddlers feel secure by giving them a clear container for their actions. But this doesn’t mean they won’t have big feelings about it. Toddlerhood is a time when big feelings become the order of the day and it can be tough to get through an hour let alone a day without a struggle.
Hang in! This time of big reactions will settle out as your child’s language catches up with the feelings that are bubbling up inside. By setting limits and acknowledging feelings, you are helping your toddler learn how to recognize and manage those feelings.
Give your child lead time on any transition that’s coming up. Even if they don’t respond, a clear 3-5 minute heads up from you will give them a chance to process the change that’s coming. Just know that they may meltdown anyway. Transitions can be hard for toddlers.
Keep your comments on limit setting short and to the point. Try not to lecture. And do your best not to ask questions unless you are truly ok with the answer being no. An example is “Would you like to get ready for bed?” This really isn’t a question. Make it a statement instead: “It’s time to get ready for bed.” If your child says no, wait a minute before you respond. Some toddlers will automatically say no to everything (even to things they want!) and then will come around to complying.
Acknowledge feelings and let them know what they can do rather than focus on what they can’t do. Something like “I can tell you’d rather keep playing. You’re having fun. You can play again tomorrow. I hear you that you’d rather not get ready for bed, but it’s time now. You can walk to your room on your own, or I can help you.”
If there’s a meltdown try to stay calm. If your child becomes dysregulated you want to stay grounded so they know you are going to hold space for their feelings. If you get upset, then they have to wonder what’s going on with you, and then it can turn into a messy exchange. It’s not easy to stay calm in the face of a toddler tantrum, but do the best you can to breathe and hold steady. And if you do lose your cool, once you have calmed down, let your child know what happened. Keep your statement short and to the point. Something like “I got really mad when you screamed at me. I’m feeling better now. Let’s keep going with bedtime. I’m here for you and you are safe.”
As toddlers get older and their language becomes more complex, negotiations begin. You’ve got a smart kiddo on your hands and they will try to get around the limit you have set with suggestions of their own. It can be tough not to get caught in the web your child weaves. Remember that your child may not like it when you hold steady on a limit, but they will feel more secure if you do.
3. Toddler conflicts:
It can be lots of fun to watch toddlers play together, but it can also very quickly turn into a screaming, hitting, biting exchange in a matter of minutes! Because toddlers have lots of big feelings and language is still forming, toddler conflicts can happen without much provocation.
It’s good for toddlers to play together and learn how to negotiate social situations, but they often need lots of help in the process. This is not the time to sit back at a distance. Someone needs to be watching closely and within a close range so if a kiddo loses their cool there’s an adult who can move in to offer support.
Try to avoid the often-used comment “Use your words.” It’s tempting to say this as we think this is what’s needed, but when a toddler is upset they have a hard time accessing the part of the brain that forms words. Their ability to be reasonable goes out the window and they need a calm adult to help them through the upset. Then you can talk about what happened. Say something like “Whoa, I’m going to stop you from hitting your friend. It looks like you are feeling pretty mad right now. Let’s see if we can figure this out together.”
Rather than ask your toddler to “share”, suggest they “take turns”. Sharing means your child has to give up what they have. Toddlers can be quite possessive. They are trying to figure out how the world works and how to have some say in it. They need to feel they can possess something fully before they can give it up. Taking turns gives them a chance to finish what they are doing and then offer it to the other person.
If your child has hit or bitten another child, it can be tempting to want to “show” them how it feels by hitting or biting them! But learning doesn’t work well that way and all that your child will learn is that someone bigger can hurt them. Instead, do the best you can to avoid the hit or bite in the first place by watching closely and “reading” the situation. Try to move in to stop the bite before it happens. If that’s not possible, keep both kids close and narrate what happened. Something like “Oh ouch, it looks like you bit your friend. They are crying because it hurts and I bet they are surprised. Let’s give your friend some comfort so they feel better.” Model statements like “I’m so sorry that happened. Are you ok? Would you like a hug?”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of 6 Topics and Tips for Parents with Toddlers. And if you need help navigating your way through the toddler years, please reach out to set up an introductory call here. I’d be happy to work with you! This can be a tumultuous time, which can go more smoothly with strategies and support. You don’t have to do this alone. Before you reach the end of your rope with your toddler, know that there is a lifeline from an experienced consultant who can give you the tools and guidance you need to thrive during the toddler years.
Please note: Elizabeth Green's Early Parenting Sleep Consultations and written materials are for educational purposes only and are not meant as medical advice. All spoken and written information is to be used at each parents' discretion.