What to do when your overactive toddler is wearing you out

What can you do if your little one won’t sit still for a second and you’re at your wits’ end? Help is at hand

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  • Whether it’s waking you all up at 5am ready for another day, playing up at mealtimes or not winding down for bed, having an overactive toddler who just won’t sit still is hard work. All children are different, but it’s not unusual for a little one to be ‘up and at ’em’ all day long, says parenting expert Dr Miriam Stoppard, OBE. “Toddlers have oodles of energy, so it’s not really fair to call them overactive, I prefer curious, or alert. Being on the go is what they do best,” she says. But if you really think your little one could do with slowing down a little at certain times of the day, here’s how…

  • When she’s waking too early

    Green with envy when your pal says her tot slept in until 7am, while your toddler seems to want to beat the dawn chorus with her wake-up time? It’s time to shift your expectations a little, says Miriam Stoppard. “The person it’s ‘early’ for is the parent – to your tot there’s nothing abnormal about it.” So if it’s not beyond the realms of normality for your tot to be awake, it might be that you have to revisit what you see as acceptable.

    However, if it still feels like the middle of the night (e.g. 4 or 5am) when she wants to start the day, there’s plenty you can do to encourage her to stay in her bed or room, says Miriam.

    How to slow her down

    • “As soon as you think she’s ready, explain to her why you’d like her to try and stay in bed and invest in a special alarm clock that shows when it’s an acceptable time to come and see you,” says Miriam.
    • “Involving her in the timing of things brings her into the solution you’re aiming for. Let her know she can get out of bed, but needs to stay in her room until the clock changes.”
    • Make sure she realises if she’s up and in her room, she’s allowed to play with her toys or read her books.
    • You could set up a system whereby when the clock says she can come in and see you, she tells you what she’s been doing (or you ask her). Being interested will encourage her in the behaviour you’re after.
  • When she’s manic mid-morning

    Do your pals’ little ones lay down for a nap at 11am while your toddler’s nowhere near nodding off? If she’s still running around after a morning of play, you’ll be at your wits’ end.

    How to slow her down

    • First of all, look at your routine – if you’re going from playtime or the garden to expecting her to just lie down and nap, that could be why she’s not keen. “Introduce some calm, quiet activities, like story-reading cuddled up on the sofa or doing a jigsaw together,” says health visitor Maggie Fisher.
    • “Or try ‘watching the teddy’ – lie your toddler down with her favourite soft toy on her tummy. Then ask her to breathe slowly so her tummy rises and falls, moving the toy at the same time. This deep breathing should slow her down. Play some soothing classical music as well.”
    • Look at how you’re spending playtime too, as maybe you haven’t been active enough with her. “Being out in the fresh air stimulates the production of melatonin, a natural sedative, and could help your toddler sleep better,” says Maggie Fisher. She won’t go from play to rest quickly, no active play at all means she’ll still be energetic.
  • When she won’t settle for lunch

    Food on her face, the floor – everywhere except in her tummy! If that’s a regular mealtime with your tot, your worry turns to whether she’s eating enough.

    But it’s not just a case of her being too manic to eat or too energetic to want to sit down. Winding down from morning play to meals isn’t an instant move. “There’s no reason why we should expect a small child to observe adult mealtime etiquette, really,” says Miriam Stoppard. “It’s a big ask of such a small person.” So how do you get some sense of order?

    How to slow her down

    • “The best way to help your tot calm down at mealtimes is for you all to eat together as a family,” says Miriam. “If you’re at the table with your child, she won’t feel the need to misbehave to get your attention.”
    • “If she still won’t sit and eat with you all, it’s time to introduce a warning system,” says Miriam. “You can tell her you’ll count to five and if she’s not sitting still then she’ll have to leave the table and go to the naughty step,” she says. “Give her one more chance after the first count, but then implement the move.” You have to be firm too, or she’ll just think it’s another game.
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  • When she won’t wind down

    If she’s been awake all day and still won’t settle, she’s heading into overtired territory. The more exhausted a child’s brain, the less likely she’ll be able to recognise when to chill out. The end result is usually tears.

    “When a child won’t settle at the end of the day, she’s not used up enough energy during the day,” says Miriam Stoppard. “Her energy is still bubbling away! It’s not about your night-time ritual not calming her down, she’s simply not tired enough.”

    How to slow her down

    • The first point of call is still a good bedtime ritual, says Miriam. “Bath, pyjamas on, a story, then straight into bed. You can use a soft reading light or even music,” she says. “But then you leave! I find calling out and clumping downstairs can help – toddlers like to be able to hear you’re still around while they settle.”
    • It can be really disturbing for a child when another parent comes home and wants to see her. Of course, whoever isn’t the main carer will want a goodnight kiss when they get in from work. But it’s up to the parent to adjust his or her schedule. Having certain nights where one parent is home by a certain time is the best way to solve it. Don’t keep your tot up or wake her up to fit your schedule, it’s not fair.
  • Is it ADHD?

    If your child really won’t slow down for a second, it can feel like there’s a problem. Could it even be ADHD? “When a child’s behaviour is out of control and she doesn’t have the ability to turn-take or share, has trouble making friends, or flits from one activity to another, then we need to see if there might be a problem,” says Andrea Bilbow, chief executive of ADDISS, the National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service (www.addiss.co.uk).

    “However, ADHD is far more complex than just energetic behaviour,” explains Andrea.“It’s about poor organisational skills, poor short-term memory and an inability to regulate emotion and behaviour.” Essentially, if a child is communicative and has the ability to concentrate, whether or not she chooses to, she’s unlikely to have ADHD.

  • Mums’ say…

    “I followed her lead”

    “Lana was always on the go and would get bored indoors, so a trip to the park was a must every day. I used to insist she went in her buggy, but she was so determined to walk, I gave in. It was a brilliant decision. She walks everywhere now – to the park, round the shops – and burns up all her excess energy by toddling along. She’s calmer and more contented now.”

    Karen Scott, 30, from Kent, mum to Lana, 22 months

    “Books calm her down”

    “My 3 year old is on the go from morning until night. People are amazed by her inability to sit still but the one thing that always stops her in her tracks is a good book. If I offer to read to her, she’ll always climb up on my lap and stay there, book after book, really calming down.”

    Allison Rebenack, from Hillsborough, mum to Mackenzie, 3

    “My iPhone is a saviour”

    “The Peekaboo Farm App on my iPhone calms down my son, Jacques. He enjoys sitting on my lap while interacting with the game and listening to the farm sounds. There’s also a night-time scene where all the animals are sleeping, and everyone says ‘Shhh’ so it encourages him to be quiet too.”

    Alex Champagne, 35, from Wokingham, mum to Jacques, 16 months

  • How much sleep does your tot need each day?

    If your tot’s waking early or won’t settle, it’s time to start counting the hours she’s asleep. Follow these guidelines from sleep expert Dr William Wikoff.

    • 9 Months: 14 hrs, 2 daytime naps
    • 12 Months: 13.75 hrs, 1 daytime nap
    • 18 Months: 13.5 hrs, 1 daytime nap
    • 2 Years: 13 hrs, 1 daytime nap
    • 3 Years: 12 hrs, 1 daytime nap
    • 4 Years: 11.5 hrs, no naps
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  • Some do’s and don’ts

    • DO make a routine that works for both of you. There’s no point rearranging when you serve lunch so she can fit in a nap if you’re then battling her hunger pangs all afternoon.
    • DO rub your child’s temples softly in a circular motion, barely touching the skin while reading a story. It’s a pressure point that promotes relaxation.
    • DON’T translate her lack of concentration as whingeing and bad behaviour, you risk provoking out-of-control tantrums or hyperactivity.
    • DON’T keep her awake hoping she’ll then sleep through to a later wake-up time. Over-tired children will actually wake more often and find it more difficult to go back to sleep.

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