Bedtime and Toddlers…

Blog Kathie Sarles


Everyday routines can be hard when you have a toddler whose growing independence craves the safety of the routine, but often responds negatively to it. His outward need for control thwarts his inner need for regularity.

Daily routines like eating and sleeping should include steps and cues that comfort the child and help him feel secure because he is aware of what comes next. He needs our consistency within the context of the setting even if he is not willing to comply. We are the adults and we set up the environment and create the limits. Parents often have a hard time allowing the child to become independent, and add to the bedtime challenges. Dr. T Berry Brazelton states,” when sleep problems occur it is likely that parents and child alike are having difficulties believing that the child can make it alone.”

Bedtime is often the worst time for us to be consistent and follow the routine we set up. Parents are tired too, and just want their child/ children to go to sleep!

Let’s look at the steps that will help your child to initially go to bed, then to stay in their bed and finally to actually sleep in their bed all night.

  • Bedtime:

Every family is different, but all children need a routine to cue their body that they are about to go to sleep, and give them time to process. Children respond the most positively to things they can anticipate and understand. From the time your child is a baby you have put in place these steps that lead to bedtime. Below are some possible ones to use.

  1. Bath time (relaxing time together) short massage after bath…
  2. Milk, water or small snack time (bottle until 12-18 months).
  3. Classical or sweet music on as you put PJs on and brush teeth
  4. Read book (s) have a limit on how many
  5. Tuck into bed or crib with favorite transition object ( blanket, stuffed animal or doll)
  6. Turn on night light or turn off light, maybe turn on a CD that is environmental noise or classical music…
  7. Parent gives hugs kisses and then leaves the room! J Yes really!

This time may start right after dinner or right after a first board game, puzzle or quiet play time. TV should be eliminated at this time of day, (screen time should be very regulated and eliminated in children under 3.

  • Staying in Bed:

Parents create a routine with the words they say and the things they do. Use the same routine when you need to go into your child’s room when they are crying, or if you need to walk him/her back to bed after she/he come out to get you. Relax and stay matter-of- fact. (children will respond to your agitation).

When your child is just crying in bed or crib: try to wait 5 minutes or so before rushing in, remember that children rouse several times a night and may find a way back to sleep on their own. ( We don’t suggest you let your child “cry it out”).

But if it continues: remind them it is time for bed, maybe try again with the transition object, hugs and kisses and comforting words, and then leave once again.

Be consistent and as best you can have NO EMOTION. It will help. Be prepared for several nights of repetitive words and actions. Make sure everyone is on the same page; consistency is key.

Staying in their own bed and sleeping through night

If your child climbs into bed at night with you, treat it the same way as you would when they are crying and coming out of their room. If you have made the decision to have your child sleep in his/her own space, then follow up with the same routine.
Help your child go back with you to their bed. Repeat the routine; music on, transition object, tuck in, hugs and say what you have said before and …. Go back to your own bed. If this is too much for the first night then maybe YOU can sleep next to their bed. The most important factor is that they stay in their bed ALONE for the night.

If sleeping with you had been a nightly occurrence, time and repetition will be factors. Be prepared for a sleepless night or two. ( Just remember: It is harder when they are 5 than when they are 3J)

Some words of advice: Be a Thinking Parent and plan for this change. Sleeping alone can be a difficult adjustment for everyone.

  • If there is a bottle, and you want to wean that or end it all together, it might be easier to get rid of the bottle before working on the night time challenges.
  • Make sure that during the day your child is not getting too much sleep ( long naps).
  • If you are helping your child move from a crib to a “big boy/girl bed”, have a special trip to the store and buy fun sheets and pillow cases and maybe a special stuffed animal to prepare your child. Create a book with pictures of your child following the routine, or find one that is all about sleeping in a bed, Llama Llama Nighty- Night, by Ana Dewdney, or Bedtime by Elizabeth Verdick are good ones to try.
  • Encourage your child with words of praise and support. Tell him that you know he can do it.
  • Children want to cooperate with us, but we have to support their efforts. Soon they will be sleeping through the night in their own bed!