Prepare for Battle! Toddler and Preschooler Bedtimes


defiant toddler

Is your toddler making a million requests at bedtime to keep you coming back? Have you fallen asleep in your toddler’s room more than once this week? Here are some strategies for making bedtime a little smoother:

  • Make sure you are asking your toddler to sleep when she’s ready to sleep. Recent research finds that a toddler’s circadian rhythm drifts later with time. If you try for bedtime at 7:00, but your toddler never falls asleep until 9:00 it’s possible that you are asking your child to sleep at a time when her body is telling her to be awake. To complicate things further, the strongest drive to be awake happens before bedtime, so your toddler may be fully charged and ready to battle you. Try moving bedtime to your child’s fall asleep time to compensate for this biological drift. Also, be sure to keep the lights dim in the evening, because light resets the biological clock.
  • Anticipate your child’s needs during the bedtime routine. If your child requests water or the potty after your bedtime routine, then make sure you have these needs built into your bedtime routine. It’s impossible to be consistent in enforcing bedtime if you haven’t provided your child with everything she needs to be comfortable.
  • Avoid abrupt transitions. It may be tempting, but don’t run out of the room as soon as you turn off the light. Toddlers don’t do well with abrupt transitions, so layer your response – turn out the light and then sing a song together in the dark (as a defined part of your routine) before you make your exit.
  • When the routine is over, it’s over.  Make sure your child understands the routine, by creating a chart or book describing what you do in your routine. Have your child check things off as you complete them and have a clearly defined end.
  • Don’t give in. Toddlers do best with clear rules. You want to allow your child to understand that once the bedtime routine is over the expectation is to lay down and sleep. When you respond to some requests, but not others you are giving your child a reason to keep asking. Giving in occasionally might not seem like a big deal, but intermittent rewards are actually the most powerful way to reinforce behavior.
  • Start with a realistic goal. If you know that you will not feel comfortable leaving the room and staying out, then plan to make small adjustments that fit your parenting style and your child’s needs. For example, you can use all of the tips that we suggest while making a small change within your child’s room. If you currently lay with your child until she falls asleep, then start your plan using these rules, but sitting on her bed rather than laying next to her. Move to a chair once she’s ok with you being on the bed and leave the room after she’s ok having you in the chair. There can still be rules about what happens before and after the routine even if you are staying in the room with your child.
  • Don’t say ‘no.’ When your child makes requests, you don’t want to say ‘no,’ because that is a trigger for battle. You also don’t want to engage in conversation (e.g. “you just had dinner, so I know you aren’t hungry”). Instead, pick a simple phrase that lets your child know what you expect. For example, to every request simply say, “good night, I love you, I’ll see you in the morning.” Stay calm and boring, so that your child loses interest in asking.
  • It will get worse before it gets better. If your child is used to having you respond in a certain way and you start to do things differently, she’ll probably try everything to get you to do what you used to do. It’s very important to be ready for 3-4 rough nights before your child accepts the new way of doing things. This will be true even for very small changes.
  • Don’t move your child to a toddler bed until age THREE. Really. Seriously. Don’t do it. Two year olds do not have impulse control and there is no incentive that you can provide that is better than seeing you! This means that you will probably have a bunch of regressions where your child gets out of bed to find you whenever there is a minor life disruption (late bedtime, travel, meeting new cousins etc.). In order to avoid these regressions and having to do unpleasant intervention, hold off on the toddler bed until your child can understand why she needs to stay there.

Do you need a little more review? We have a free webinar on bedtime battles. Check it out here.

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© 2014 Baby Sleep Science: Sleep Resource Center

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18 Comments

  1. Lauren says:

    Just updating in case anyone else is in this situation. It took about a month, but we are back in business again. We made sure our son was always tired, kept with the routine, didn’t give in, and yes, it got worse for about a week in the middle, but we stuck with it. I was able to once again progressively leave his room and now our 21 month old is back to falling asleep on his own, staying in bed and even getting back in bed if he opens his door to a dark hallway.

  2. Lauren says:

    These tips are great. I have a 20 month old whose been in a toddler bed since he was 16.5 months old. He is strong and was launching himself out usually head first, using only his arms, so we couldn’t keep him in there safely. The transition took…2 or 3 days and was way too good to be true. 3+ months later, he is clinging to us at bedtime. I can’t do the “walk back to crib” method with less and less interaction because he won’t stay put. He wants his dad or I to lay on the floor, and tells us so. If he wakes up, he wants one of us to come lay in there. I’ve tried setting him in bed and leaving, but he stands up and melts down. 2 days ago he was up at 3:30am for the day. Last night my husband was in there for an hour and forty minutes and 4 hours later he was crying for us. I was exhausted and fell asleep on his floor for 5 hours. 15 minutes after I got up, he was ready to start the day.
    Until 2 weeks ago, if he ever got up all I had to do was ask him to go lay down and explain it was “night night time” even on a Saturday morning. He’d been sleeping 8:30 pm – 6:30 am for over a year when this started. Toddler bed transition and all.
    This seems like somewhat classic separation anxiety to me. I know if he were in his crib he’d be launching himself out and standing at the gate, it would just take a few minutes longer.
    Any tips, books, articles for this slightly unique situation?

  3. Gabriela says:

    Hi. I am looking for some advice please. My little girl is 13 months and she is learning to walk for about 3 weeks now.
    For the last three nights we are having a lot of trouble at bedtime because she falls asleep and between five to ten minutes later she rolls over and stands up immediately crying loud, then starts walking and falls down hitting herself against the crib….so more crying.
    I go and pick her, calm her and put her down, she falls asleep but 5 minutes latter this whole thing happens again.
    I ended up putting her down five times before she finally sleeps.

    I’m very careful with her schedule and don’t let her get overtired. Actually she takes two naps for 2.5 hours total and her average wake time is 3 to 4 hours.

    She is not teething or anything else.

    Thanks. Your advice will be very appreciated

    Gaby

  4. klupton says:

    We are really struggling with our very strong willed almost 2 year old who is used to having someone sit next to her until she falls asleep, and now wants to be held by Daddy until asleep. She screams bloody murder if she doesn’t get her way to the point our neighbors have started complaining about our poor parenting habits. Any suggestions for how to transition to a less hands-on bedtime with an aggressive tantrum-thrower?

  5. sleepdoctorevans says:

    Hi Karen,

    If you’ve just started the change, then I would recommend moving back to a crib and following our suggestions in our blog about crib climbing: https://childsleepscience.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/how-do-you-keep-your-climbing-toddler-in-a-crib/
    I’m not recommending that for any reason other than to save you from bumps in the road (usually transitioning to a toddler bed leads to a good start and then multiple regressions). If that’s not possible, then I would use the same techniques described in that blog to keep your little climber in bed. The only difference will be that you’ll likely have bouts of her getting out every few weeks to every month until she’s a little older. I hope that helps!

  6. Karen says:

    This is great, as I was up all night with my almost 2.5 year old as we are transitioning into a toddler bed. I understand your reasoning for the last point- BUT otherwise she’s figured out how to climb out of her crib, turn on her own light and open her door. So we figure transitioning it into the toddler bed (still crib) is safer. Any advice?? Thank you to a Mom who has an energetic 2 yo at 3am!!

  7. sleepdoctorevans says:

    Hi! We just posted a blog on this. Check it out on our Resource Blog. Sometimes you have to make the move at an early age, but if you can prevent it that’s always best!

  8. MrsDubbleU says:

    What should I do about the toddler bed transition if my 21-month-old just discovered how to jump out of his crib and come into our room? Are there tips and tricks to keep him in his crib to avoid him hurting himself or are there any instances where transitioning to a toddler bed before 3.5 yo is ok?

  9. This doctor is my daughter in love. Do what she says…..it works. Kids are a joy to be with. they nap and do bedtime without any fussing. We follow her rules, they follow our rules and are always pleasant at bedtime.

  10. sleepdoctorevans says:

    I would take him back to his room right away when he comes to your room and repeat a good night phrase. If he comes out again, then take him back again and keep repeating that until he stays in bed. It will not be easy.

    Alternatively, you could sleep in his room (in a separate space) temporarily to get him out of the habit of coming to your room if that seems to be a better fit for you.

    Good luck!

  11. We ate struggling to keep the Kid in bed when it is bed time but he has a very bad habit of coming in 2 – 4 times a night to our bed. Do you offer any suggestions? We tried a reward system but it didn’t work.

  1. […] The Science: Right around the 18 month mark toddlers go through an explosion in development. The transition to one nap has usually happened by this time (see our nap blogs here) and making it through the day on just one nap can be a tough transition. In addition, recent research has shown that the biological bedtime conferred by the circadian rhythm drifts by as much as an hour later during toddlerhood. (In other words, that same tried and true baby bedtime you’ve had for months stops working!) This circadian rhythm shift is problematic, because the strongest drive to be awake happens right before the biological bedtime. The practical consequence of this is that you can end up with a toddler, who is obviously tired from having just one nap, but who cannot sleep at bedtime (more on that here). […]

  2. […] in toddlers and preschoolers can also stem from bedtime troubles (see more info on how to fix those here), transitioning to a toddler bed too early (more info on that here) and an early wake time (more on […]

  3. […] The Science: Right around the 18 month mark toddlers go through an explosion in development. The transition to one nap has usually happened by this time (see our nap blogs here) and making it through the day on just one nap can be a tough transition. In addition, recent research has shown that the biological bedtime conferred by the circadian rhythm drifts by as much as an hour later during toddlerhood. (In other words, that same tried and true baby bedtime you’ve had for months stops working!) This circadian rhythm shift is problematic, because the strongest drive to be awake happens right before the biological bedtime. The practical consequence of this is that you can end up with a toddler, who is obviously tired from having just one nap, but who cannot sleep at bedtime (more on that here). […]

  4. […] babies grow and mature, their developmental needs can change too.  Be sure to look at our blog on bedtime battles to trouble shoot some common toddler problems and be sure part of your issues aren’t because […]

  5. […] period of regularity. Fears and bedtime battles at bedtime may […]

  6. […] has a drive to sleep that is happening later than the time you are trying to put her down (see our bedtime battles blog for more information on how to correct that problem), then you will end up with all kinds of […]

  7. […] the case, then she’ll be energized at bedtime and fill her time with experimentation (see our bedtime battles blog), which may include climbing. Keep a log of the time your child falls asleep (not the time you […]

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