Bedtime with toddlers can be anything but routine, but having a regular nighttime schedule can make nights more pleasant and will help kids get the sleep they need to grow and develop. Tired tots can have a hard time handling life’s daily challenges—from losing their temper with siblings to figuring out their own bodily functions. Your little one doesn’t realize it, but she needs her sleep.
Some kids seem to be gurus of sleep while others struggle to unwind, but all children are influenced by their environment. The good news is, falling asleep is a habit that every kid can master.
Here are a few ways to make bedtime less challenging.
Start by choosing an age-appropriate bedtime. The key is to choose a time well before the dreaded exhaustion stage. A good rule of thumb could be between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. for toddlers. Try to be as consistent as you can and stick pretty closely to your selected bedtime—even on weekends or on vacation when other routines may be compromised. Toddlers actually really love routine because they feel safe and secure when they know what’s coming next. This consistency will help your kiddo make the transition from day to night.
Plan your routine in advance and try to make it relatively compact—30 minutes should be plenty of time. It’s helpful to communicate this routine as often as you can to reinforce the boundaries. For example, your routine could look something like: quiet down, choose pajamas, brush your teeth, read a story, get some snuggles, go to sleep.
You could make a picture schedule to help your child know what’s coming next, then point to the picture of the step you’re on. It’s great if you can print out pictures of your child doing the activities themselves. (We’ve also included a printable PDF here to give you another simple chart idea.)
Lead your child through the routine and talk to them about what’s going to happen. You could say something like: “Now we’re going to put on pajamas, then we’ll brush your teeth, and after that we’ll read a story.”
Begin the unwinding process early—before their first yawn. Toddlers can have a difficult time with transitions, and going from tickle fights and racing around the house to falling asleep might take longer than you think. Start quieting down playtime a good hour before bedtime to give your kid a chance to relax. Enjoy the roughhousing and wrestling with dad earlier in the evening.
During quiet time, it’s best to switch off the TV and put away phones, tablets, and other screens. For children especially, it’s best to avoid screen time at least an hour before bedtime. Anything that emits blue light can suppress the body’s melatonin levels and make it harder to get to sleep. Although TV can seem like a good way to wind down, it can actually be stimulating. Better choices are quiet music or audiobooks, simple board games, coloring, or even light stretching or yoga to help your child calm down. Dimming the lights as a lead up to bedtime can help cue the body to release helpful sleep hormones.
Give Them a Choice
As a parent, you probably already know that toddlers don’t like to feel bossed around. Giving them choices during the bedtime routine can help them feel like they are in charge, but remember to limit the options to two or three. For example, let them choose between the pajamas with feet or the ones without, or choose between two sleepy-themed books for you to read.
Try to avoid scary stories or books with lots of excitement, and don’t add too much animation to your reading. You want to lull them to sleep, so if books are too exciting, you could try singing a lullaby or snuggling and talking about your day instead.
Give Your Routine an End
Once you’ve completed your bedtime routine, try to be consistent about expectations. Your child may test the boundaries by asking for more books, more cuddles, or more snacks, but be firm and help them understand that our bodies need rest. Let them know that you believe in them and know they can fall asleep. Turn on their special nightlight or give them their comforting blanket, then, kiss them goodnight and leave the room. It won’t be long until they associate these special cues with falling asleep and drift into dreamland.
Written by Annie Buck, OT
Annie Buck is an Occupational Therapist with Kids Who Count. She specializes in helping children with feeding and sensory delays. She lives in a houseful of boys. She and her husband have four sons, from 8-months-old to 7-years-old. Things are always loud at home with fun that usually involves someone wrestling someone else.