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Your toddler is too young to understand “right and wrong” or why certain behavior is unacceptable, but she understands and likes routine, and thrives on your approval. As she gets closer to two years, she will understand that most behavior has good or bad consequences.

“All children crave praise, warmth, and positive attention, but if it’s not forthcoming they will settle for negative attention.”

“Praise the action, not the child, so that your toddler learns what it is about her behavior that is good. She will learn much more that way, and your encouragement will have more value.”

Behavior limits work best if they are part of a daily routine. This sets up clear expectations and eventually your child will develop control over her behavior and emotional reactions.

The most effective routes to taming behavior at this age are:

  • Routine—if she knows what to expect, she is less likely to “act out.”

  • Rewarding—help her to learn to associate “good” behavior with positive attention.

  • Distraction—she has a short attention span and will be easily diverted.

  • Ask once nicely, tell once firmly to get a message across.

  • Ignoring—this stops attention being given to tantrums/whining.

The comfort of a routine

A good routine has regular structure and familiarity, which will make your toddler feel safe, as well as reinforcing behavior limits. If she knows that bedtime happens after dinner and a bath, and that it comes with cuddling and a picture book, she will come to expect the pattern to be repeated and will enjoy and encourage it. Importantly, a good bedtime routine will encourage and help healthy sleep habits, too (see A Good Night’s Sleep).

Ignoring bad behavior

A common mistake parents make when trying to stop children at this age from doing something “naughty” is to discuss it with them. The approach won’t work because what your child really wants is more of your attention. By talking about the behavior you are rewarding her with exactly what she wants—lots of attention! It is hard not to give children more attention when they play up, but this can cause problems in the long term.

Rewarding good behavior

The more you praise and reward good behavior, the more good behavior you will get. Your toddler will crave your approval and affection. If you reward good behavior with warmth and positive attention, she will gradually learn to associate the good behavior with good feelings and learn that it is more fun to be good than not.

Being attentive

Smile at your toddler and give him lots of positive encouragement. If he has your attention and feels contented, he will be less likely to misbehave.

Distraction in action

Techniques to distract your toddler work because they put a few seconds between her thought and her behavior, and in that moment of curiosity her mood can change, for the better. With the immediate crisis over, you can both enjoy the more positive outcome. The following interactions between 20-month-old Callum and his mom show how a distraction technique is much more effective than a scolding:

Scenario 1

Callum is repeatedly throwing his plate of food on the floor while eating. His mother is desperate for him to eat his food. She snaps at him: “Callum, STOP IT! You will stay in your chair until you have eaten what’s left.” Callum bursts into tears, and she tries to spoon-feed him—with difficulty, as he wriggles his head from side to side and pushes the plate to the floor yet again.

Result

Callum is unhappy, but has Mommy’s attention. Mommy is annoyed, has a mess to clean up, and feels like a failure.

Future prospect

Is likely to repeat the action.

Scenario 2

Callum is throwing his food around and wriggling. His mom really wants him to eat his lunch, but she recognizes that he is bored. She says, “Callum, there is an airplane here that wants to deliver your next mouthful! Are you ready? Open wide…” Callum sits stock still and opens his mouth in anticipation. His mom takes the spoon again, makes another airplane noise, and swoops toward his mouth! Callum takes a mouthful of food, and swallows. “Here comes another airplane…” Callum is giggling and enjoys this long enough for the plate to almost empty before announcing, “Callum do it!”

Result

Callum is happy and fed and Mommy is pleased. She has managed to transform the difficult behavior into something much more positive. This is not a case of making mealtimes a game; the key is that the technique distracts from the disruptive behavior and not from the food and eating.

Future prospect

Less chance of repeat pattern and self-feeding is progressing nicely.

Asking once, telling once

If you want your child to do something, you shouldn’t need to ask her more than twice. It is important for safety reasons for you to know that she will obey not only you, but any adult who is looking after her, especially in an emergency. Ask her once nicely, and then tell her once firmly. You will need to use your facial expressions and body language to emphasize what you are saying.

Your child knows you well by now, and she will be very sensitive to your tone of voice, or a particular look on your face. If you are consistent in your response, you will gradually be able to teach her that you are serious about the consequences if she misbehaves. You don’t need to resort to shouting to get her to do what you want.

Ask once, nicely

“I’d like you to get in the stroller now, please.”

Tell once, firmly

Get down to her level, look her in the eye, and say slowly and firmly, “Get in your stroller now, please!” Be patient and don’t say anything more until she has done as you have asked. If that doesn’t work, you will need to take an action-based approach; that is, put her in the stroller to show her that you mean what you say.

Use distraction

“Did you see that squirrel run up the tree.” While she looks, pick her up and put her in the stroller.

Stand firm

Do not give in. If a massive tantrum or aggression results, ignore it, and remember she will grow out of this phase before long.

A Good Night’s Sleep

There is nothing more restorative than the power of a good night of uninterrupted sleep—and toddlers need more sleep than most. For many parents, however, bedtime battles and nighttime waking deprive the whole family of sleep.

“We used to be so exhausted by Robbie’s night-waking that we gave up and let him sleep in our bed.”

—“We used to be so exhausted by Robbie’s night-waking that we gave up and let him sleep in our bed.”

A toddler who has less than 10 hours sleep per night is in a state of chronic sleep deprivation and her exhaustion will have an effect on her behavior during the day, too. Her brain will be tired, her physical and mental responses will be slow, and she will experience even more frustration than usual. The result: more tantrums and less chance of being able to control her behavior—at any time of day. Inadequate sleep in toddlers is often at the root of their behavior problems during the day. If you create a good sleep pattern, you may solve the daytime problems, too.

Relying on you

Your toddler needs to be able to settle herself to sleep without your help, so that if she stirs in the night she can settle again without waking herself up, and without becoming distressed.

Most problems occur because there is no routine at bedtime, and the toddler hasn’t learned the right cues for when she is meant to go to sleep. For example, if a child is used to falling asleep in her parent’s arms in front of the TV, her sleep cues will be her parent’s body warmth, and the TV. Cuddling your toddler is very loving and comforting, but you are sending her the message that she cannot sleep without you being there, and cannot get back to sleep without having you as comfort. The longer this goes on for, the harder it will be for her to settle or sleep on her own when she gets older.

A healthy sleep routine

The key to ensuring sweet sleep at 18-24 months is to develop a healthy sleep routine:

  • Plan your routine.

  • Use appropriate sleep cues.

  • Use the gradual withdrawal technique.

  • Be patient.

  • Be consistent.

Life and work patterns often mean that children see more of their parents and get more one-on-one attention in the evenings than at any other time of day. Understandably, toddlers will try to extend this attention as long as possible—preferably with lots of fun and games. If you have been parted from your toddler during the day she will be excited when she first sees you, but try not to overstimulate her if it is less than an hour before her bedtime. It will be harder for her to calm down before going to sleep.

Playtime and mealtime often go together very well since your toddler can play while you prepare food, or play with you while it cooks. Digesting food will give her energy levels a boost, so try to feed her early in the evening, so that she has time to burn off some energy, before her bath. Bathtime is the ideal time for winding down, ready for a cosy night’s sleep.

The easiest way to give your toddler what she wants, while managing to get her to bed, is to create a routine that gives her warmth, fun, and attention, but also gives her very clear and positive sleep cues that let her know she is in the process of going to bed and to sleep.

An ideal bedtime routine might go:

Babysitters

If your child has a consistent routine, it will make it easier for others to put her to bed, giving you more freedom to go out!

  • Mealtime.

  • Playtime.

  • Bathtime.

  • Into pajamas.

  • Final drink.

  • Teeth brushing.

  • Into bed.

  • Bedtime story.

  • End of story warning.

  • Finish story.

  • Kiss and a hug.

  • Lights out (or leave a night-light on if necessary).

Being firm

Do not give in to pleas for longer bathtime or more stories, or you will reinforce them as habits that mean settling your toddler takes longer. Simply put her to bed and leave the room quietly. Of course, this is often easier said than done.

A child who has gotten into the habit of getting out of bed, or waking in the night, will take time to adjust, but be patient. If your child is very anxious, you may need to take a more gentle approach, by using the gradual withdrawal technique.

Even in exceptional circumstances, it is a good idea to keep to the sleep routine if possible. Perhaps your child has been ill, or you have been staying away from home, you may be toilet training or a nighttime disruption has meant your child has needed reassurance. Whatever the reason for your child requiring extra attention at night, keep in mind that learning to sleep through the night on her own is essential for her healthy development and well-being. Even if your child is suffering from night terrors or nightmares she is probably better off learning to settle in her own bed. However, this is much more about personal choice and you must do what works for you and your family.

How much sleep is enough?

The chart shows the average amount of sleep that is recommended for children from one to four years of age. All children are different, so this is not a strict regimen, but dropping significantly below these levels at night, could cause problems—as could too much napping during the day.

Table
AgeNightDay NapsTotal SleepIdeal Bedtime
12–18 months111/2 hours2 naps (21/4 hours total)133/4 hours6–7pm
18–24 months111/2 hours2 naps (2 hours total)131/2 hours6–7pm
24–36 months11 hours1 nap (2 hours)13 hours6–7pm
36–48 months11 hours1 nap (1 hour)12 hours6–7.30pm
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