Toddler bedtime battles don’t have to become the new routine or ‘normal’ in your house. What if you could combat your toddler’s resistance to settling with some simple sleep tips that will put you on the path to end the bedtime battles and see you successfully create a positive bedtime experience for both you and your toddler long-term.
When bedtime begins to feel like an out-of-control circus and everyone is wound up instead of winding down, it’s a great opportunity for you to reset sleep expectations and boundaries with your toddler.
I know it can be tempting at the end of the day to take the path of least resistance, but this only provides a short-term band aid approach and often makes these patterns much harder to change long-term as they become unsustainable.
If you’ve never had a routine with sleep expectations, or if you have a sleep routine of sorts and recognise it’s time for a reset, we first need to take a look at why the bedtime battles are occurring.
Is your toddler experiencing:
- A transition of day sleep – 2-1 nap or 1-0 naps
- A sleep regression – there are three in toddlerhood, 12,18 and 24 months
- Nightmares or night terrors – these are normally experienced from 3 years +
- A move from their cot to a toddler bed
- Starting childcare
- The introduction of a new sibling to the family
Your toddler might be going through one or more of the above scenarios which can have a direct impact on their ability to regulate their emotions at bedtime.
Here’s my best tips on how to combat toddler bedtime battles
Keep The Nap
Be wary not to drop your toddler’s nap too soon.
As a guide, toddlers transition from 2 naps to 1 nap around 15-18 months and drop their final nap anywhere between 2.5-3.5 years of age.
This is often a slow and steady reduction over a period of time and can firstly be assisted by capping the nap at a set time rather than just dropping it cold turkey. Be mindful to also replace this with quiet time so your little one still has down time in the afternoon to rest their body and brains.
Expert tip: For more information on Nap Transitions – check out the blog.
Wind down routine
Putting in place a strong bedtime routine gives your toddler security and predictability as they know what’s next in their bedtime routine. (This is a game changer in eliminating the negotiation of “just one more”).
We want to have “firm but fair boundaries” and in the words of wonderful and wise Janet Lansbury, “Boundaries are one of the highest forms of love”. They give our toddler security and remove the overwhelm of giving too many choices and too much control which they are not developmentally ready for… just yet.
It’s a great idea to include your toddler in the wind down routine- just with limited choice.
Examples might include:
- Offering two pairs of PJs – they choose which pair.
- Pulling out three stories – they choose the two they want to read.
- Suggesting they jump like a bunny to the bath or skip like a kangaroo- They choose which animal they want to act out.
All these examples provide your toddler with the opportunity to have some choice without leaving it wide open for them to be in control of everything.
Expert tip: Did you know children are right brain dominant with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex? This means they’re driven by emotion and can struggle to approach things logically. Because children don’t yet have the ability to be rational, plan ahead or problem-solve, as parents we need to lower the bar to age appropriate expectations when it comes to giving them choices or responsibility.
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If your toddler is experiencing nightmares or night terrors we can keep an eye on their screen time, in particular limiting screen time in the afternoon, especially in the 2-3 hours prior to bedtime.
In addition, did you know screen time omits a blue light. This can block melatonin production and can encourage an overactive imagination which leads to sleep disruption.
I know it’s tempting to do the 5:00pm screen time whilst cooking dinner, but try to avoid it by including your little one in dinner preparation or setting up an activity nearby so they can be close to you and fill up their emotional cup in preparation for being apart for the night.
Expert tip: Nightmares and/or night terrors are most commonly experienced when children are over-tired, try bringing their bedtime routine forward 10-30 minutes to catch up on lost sleep. Read more about Nightmares and Night Terrors HERE
Don’t jump the gun on moving to a big bed
The ideal age to transition to a big bed is 2.5-3 years (the later the better) due to a toddler’s lack of impulse control. Think of the expert tip above with underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. If your toddler is given too much responsibility, too early, they will struggle to make decisions especially in relation to staying in bed. Check out my Big Bed Blog which dives deeper into the big bed transition including the do’s and don’ts for a smooth transition when the time is right.
Sleep Trainer clocks
If your toddler is over 3 years of age, I recommend the introduction of a sleep trainer clock. Sam the sheep is my preference as it works with the concept of traffic lights.
- Red – stop! stay in bed
- Yellow – wait, nearly time to get up/play quietly
- Green – Go! Time to get up.
This is much easier for a toddler/pre-schooler to understand and as an extra bonus the red-light doubles as a night light for toddlers who may have a fear of the dark (common in children over 2.5-3 years of age).
Don’t be fooled into thinking the clock will do all the work for you. Introduce Sam the Sheep with boundaries and expectations and it will go a long way with helping your toddler understand when they need to stay in bed and when it’s time to get up for the day.
Consistency is everything when it comes to sleep, but especially for toddlers. It’s like the old saying “give an inch they take a mile”. Know that there will be push back when you implement change. This is not only normal but healthy as our toddlers seek out their place in our world.
I encourage you to be confident with your chosen approach as research supports that when children have boundaries and expectations, it builds their self-esteem and emotional regulation.
Your confidence in setting sleep expectations provides long-term security
(rather than a chopping and changing approach) which leads to confusion and builds walls of resistance as they are uncertain about what’s expected of them at bedtime.
Additionally, having natural consequences to the behaviour that we don’t desire is a great way to highlight bedtime expectations. This could include returning your toddler to their bed if they get out, or leaving the room if they are treating it as a game. On the flip side we also want to acknowledge and reward the positive behaviour when it is achieved. This could be a sticker chart or calling a grandparent to celebrate their success. Remember toddlers don’t know monetary value and what they desire more than anything is your time, connection and praise.
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