Learn how to establish a bedtime routine for toddlers so your toddler gets the rest they need and you get the child-free time and rest that you need.
Bedtime… a beautiful parent-child moment when you tuck your kids into bed, murmur a soft, “goodnight” and then close the door to enjoy some much needed quality time with your spouse, your own ‘you time’ and most importantly, your own much-needed sleep!
But unfortunately, this is very often far from reality! Does your toddler dawdle at bedtime or simply refuse to go to bed? Maybe they get into bed but then get upset and cry. It could be that they get to sleep but wake up lots in the middle of the night and get out of bed again. Or do they refuse to sleep in their own bed altogether?
If any of these sound familiar, then you might want to try some new strategies and learn how to establish a bedtime routine for toddlers that works.
The goal is for your toddler to have a healthy sleep routine that they become more and more independent in following. It isn’t easy but it’s important!
Children need a solid night’s sleep so they have energy for the day. Not getting enough sleep will have a knock-on effect on so much- their mood, their interactions and even their learning.
And battling with your toddler to get them to sleep is hugely draining for you, too! It’s not a fight that you want to have every day. If learning how to establish a bedtime routine for toddlers will lessen these then surely it’s worth it!
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WHY DO THESE PROBLEMS HAPPEN AT BEDTIME?
Becoming independent in any skill is a gradual process. When your toddler was a baby, they got much more attention at bedtime- normally being held and rocked until they fall asleep.
As they get older, we adjust our expectations, but sometimes it’s hard to follow through. A common scenario might be this: you put your child to bed, follow the routine you’ve set (maybe it’s a book or a song), kiss them goodnight but then they scream every time you try to leave the room. But when you go back to help them settle, they learned that the screaming worked to bring you back!
It’s such a difficult balance.
These tips will give you the confidence to establish a bedtime routine for toddlers that’s tailored for your family- and to follow through with it!
SET UP THEIR ENVIRONMENT
How your toddler’s bedroom is set up is vitally important. Making the room cosy with some of their favourite toys can help them to feel comforted when they are learning to fall asleep independently.
As much as possible, reduce bright lights before bed as this can confuse their internal clock. An hour before bed, turn off the overhead light and use just a lamp. There are lots of choices for child-friendly and fun lamps- how about a unicorn lamp, a spiderman lamp or a dinosaur lamp?
Use a reading light if you are reading a book to them. Also consider a nightlight if they are afraid of the dark.
Keep the room as tidy as possible. A bedroom that’s strewn with toys can make your toddler think of activities and can make the brain more active. Having an organised room with toys packed away will help your toddler to be calmer and to sleep more easily. A simple toy storage organizer could help to make this easy.
Also try to reduce background noise as much as possible.
PLAN OUT THE ROUTINE
Sit down with your spouse and plan exactly how you want bedtime to play out. What time do you want your toddler to go to bed? Have a look at the recommended hours for every age to help you decide this. Also decide what the things are that they need to do leading up to bedtime, and in what order they could be done. This will become your ‘bedtime routine.’
Routines like this work best when you are your spouse are ‘boringly consistent.’ This means that the exact same thing happens every night, and your child can expect the same consequences or reactions to some of the problems that might occur.
Plan out your strategy using the tips below, also planning how you will handle problems that might crop up. When you have a plan you are both happy with- stick to it! Back each other up. It’s critical that both parents are using the same strategies for your bedtime routine to actually work.
USE A VISUAL CHECKLIST
I LOVE visual checklists! They’re engaging and kids really enjoy ticking things off.
List your 5-6 key steps. It might be:
- Have supper
- Go to the toilet
- Brush your teeth
- Put on pjs
- Choose a book
- Say goodnight
- Stay in your bed until morning
Head here for free printable visual schedules. Twinkl also offers some free pictures. Make it personal to your family. Choose just the five or six pictures that you’ve planned out. 5 or 6 steps in a visual routine is enough for a toddler.
Print off your visuals and decide how to present them. I recommend laminating them so they last longer.
- You could have them in one strip that you tick with a whiteboard pen.
- A different idea is to have them with flaps so each one can be covered as it’s completed.
- Or you could have the cards cut up individually and blu-tacked in a line. As each one is completed, your toddler could pull it off and post it into a ‘finished’ box.
Get creative with to make this as motivating as possible for your toddler.
It’s important to involve your child in this process. Make your visuals together, talk them through the steps, and actively use it. Don’t expect them to be able to use it independently- you will need to be by their side, at least initially, prompting them to follow the checklist and do each step.
The visual checklist will work best when you use it consistently- when it becomes a normal part of the routine.
If you do this, your child will become more independent in following the steps much more quickly.
GIVE A 10 MINUTE WARNING
10 minutes before you want your ‘bedtime routine’ to start, give your child a ’10 minute warning.’ Tell them again when they’re at 5 minutes.
Rather than just saying ‘bedtime’ and expecting your child to follow, a warning can drastically reduce tantrums or whining. Your toddler will have the chance to finish what they’re doing and will be prepared for the bedtime routine.
This is a strategy we can easily forget as adults but it’s so important. If I was doing anything and someone told me to stop immediately, I would definitely feel annoyed and want to protest!
SAY GOODNIGHT… AND STICK TO IT
When you have finished the visual checklist, remind your child of the last item- to stay in their bed until morning- then say goodnight and leave. Be calm but firm, and ignore any whining or requests to stay.
HOW TO ESTABLISH A BEDTIME ROUTINE FOR TODDLERS- DEALING WITH PROBLEMS
When you are starting something new like this, expect there to be problems! Your child will test out the limits. In the past, if crying brought you back into the room then your child will try this again. If they don’t get the response they want, be prepared for them to ramp it up!
It’s important that your child feels reassured while also learning the boundaries of the bedtime routine.
When you’ve just introduced this routine, you could also plan some check-ups. Tell your child that if they stay quietly in bed, you will check on them soon. Keep the time short- you want them to be successful! After about 2 minutes, go in and praise them for staying quietly in bed. Don’t stay more than 30 seconds. Tell them to keep it up and you will check on them again soon. This time you could wait 5 minutes. Gradually extend the time between your check-ups. Hopefully after 4 or 5 check-ups, your child will have fallen asleep.
If your child starts crying right away, wait for about 5 minutes and then go in. Reassure them a little (not too much) and remind them that it’s time for sleep. Leave your child after 1 minute even if they are still crying. Gradually extend the amount of time between your check-ups.
Planned ignoring is another strategy that you could try. It’s important to communicate what you expect from your toddler beforehand.
Tell them you want them to stay in their bed all night, and you won’t answer if they call out. Remember to tell them that there will be a surprise for them in the morning if they stay in their room all night. This is a currency that’s important in the early stages until this behaviour becomes a new habit.
Now the hard part- sticking to what you’ve said! Remember that behaviours are likely to escalate before they improve. If you are trying this strategy, you need to be prepared to stick it out! Giving in and going to your child may make it worse- they will learn that crying and escalating their behaviour will cause you to give in and come to them. Think of it like a slot machine- they will jump straight to this level next time to get what they want.
Remind yourself that no harm will come to your child, and that by sticking it out for the first few difficult days, you are likely to see a huge improvement in your toddler’s sleeping.
If you are able to be consistent with this strategy for a period of 7 days, it is likely that at this point at this point your toddler will have learnt to fall asleep without crying or protesting.
WHAT TO DO WHEN THEY GET OUT OF BED
The goal is to have a set routine that helps your child to become increasingly independent.
Remember that this works best when it’s ‘boringly consistent.’ Tell your child as you’re putting them to bed what you expect, what will happen if they get up, and what the reward will be.
“You need to stay in bed until morning. If you get up, I’ll bring you back to bed. If you stay in bed until morning, there will be a surprise for you tomorrow.”
Then follow through. If your toddler gets up, calmly walk them back into bed with minimal interaction. Comforting them too much can reinforce their behaviour. Be calm and matter-of-fact and remind them that it’s time to sleep.
GIVE LOTS OF SPECIFIC PRAISE
This is such an important step if you want the bedtime routine to stick! It’s important to praise your child in the morning when they’ve followed the steps in the visual checklist.
Be specific with your praise. You might say, ‘I really liked how you stayed quietly in your room until morning!’
You could give them a small reward. A reward could be that they get to choose an activity that day, or they get a special breakfast cereal. It’s better to find something small and motivating that doesn’t cost a lot.
You could also try implementing a sticker chart- check out my tips here for how to use sticker charts successfully. In this case, they would get a sticker on the chart when they have followed the visual checklist. When they get 5 in a row, they could choose from a ‘rewards menu’. Again, make these things motivating but inexpensive. I always like to offer special activities instead of toys.
And that’s it!
These are my top tips for how to establish a bedtime routine for toddlers that works. This is an area that has a major knock-on effect to both your toddlers and your own wellbeing so it’s worth getting it sorted!
The time alone with your spouse after your toddler goes to bed is often vital for your relationship, and you need time to yourself as well. This might be the time to look after yourself and do things you enjoy, or maybe it’s a time you rely on to work or get other things done.
Remember that each toddler and each family are different- not every strategy will work for everyone. Hopefully these tips will give you some ideas of where to start, and the confidence to follow through when you need to.
Ultimately, though, you need to use trial and error and figure out a bedtime routine that works for your family. Good luck! Comment and let me know how it goes!
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