Few things in a parent's life cause more panic and frustration than a sleepy toddler who won't go to bed.
You can't help but feel anxious about the precious sleep they are missing, and the potential consequences that will appear later on in the day or tomorrow when your ordinarily sweet and capable toddler becomes an irritable grump ready to snap.
For many families, bedtime becomes a time of the day filled with dread. If this sounds like your family, you're not alone. And you also don't have live this way. My hope for every family is that bedtime becomes a time for connection, calm, and restoration. It is possible. What you need is a clear plan of action based on developmentally sound principals.
Every family will need to develop a unique routine that suits them. But these tips can help you get started on building a system and habits that work for your family. Reach out for consultation on designing an individualized plan.
1. Solidify and modify your bedtime routine. If you haven't yet established a predictable and consistent nighttime routine, your first step will be to sit down and write out a night schedule. An ideal plan includes necessary hygiene tasks, opportunities for connection, and time to calm down. When introducing a new routine, aim to be fairly rigid and stick to the plan as strictly and consistently as possible for a few weeks.
A sample routine might look like:
5 pm: Dinner
5:30 pm: Bath, bathroom/diaper change, brush teeth (hygiene)
6:15 pm: Quiet play time (time to calm down)
6:35 pm: Reading and snuggles, back rubbing, songs, etc. (connection)
7 pm: Lights out, bedtime
Your evening hygiene routine should be a similar as possible each night. Young children do not need to bathe every night. But you can still face hands and face as a "placeholder" habit.
Play-time at night should look dramatically different than other times of play during the day. Think about using dimmer lights, reducing the number of toys, and offering less stimulating toys and activities for this time. Repetitive, singular/straightforward use and quiet games and activities are ideal. Consider reserving these toys and activities exclusively for quiet time before bed.
2. Get buy in. Encourage your child to help build some portion of the routine. When children are included, they are more likely to buy into and comply with the plan.
3. Use confident and matter-of-fact language and tone of voice. When enforcing different elements of your plan, try to maintain and confident and matter-of-fact tone in your voice. That means staying calm and non-reactive as long as it takes. This could mean returning your toddler to bed dozens of times, all while maintaining your cool. Each time you return your child to bed, stay neutral and do not add anything to the routine (i.e., rubbing back, singing songs, more books). The only exception is if your child awakens from a nightmare, at which point you can and should help them calm down and feel safe. Once they feel calm, you can repeat a shortened version of your connection routine to help them get back to sleep.
4. Adjust your expectations. Your child is learning about the world like a scientist: they experiment and test theories. When you introduce a new plan, they will test to see if you will follow through with the new habits. Expect your child to protest changes and to test the soundness of your new plan. Also, you can expect that settling into new routines will necessarily require sacrificing some sleep, at least initially. With these changes, you are investing in your sleep future.
5. Expect repetition. It bears repeating. Expect that your child will test and protest. When you can accept these behaviors, you won't feel so overwhelmed by them, and you are more likely to be able to respond in a calm and neutral way.
6. Set yourself up to succeed. Plan to make changes to your habits and routines when you can anticipate more bandwidth. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page and ready to make this change together. Get support from other people, even if only to cheer you on and help you stay encouraged as you implement changes. Ask a friend or grandparent to send you a check in text or give you a call. Anything you can do to help set yourself up to succeed will help your child too.
7. Measure and re-evaluate. Plan to take notes and track data for two weeks as you start a new routine or habit. You can measure for many different things including the number of times out of bed, the time it takes to get to sleep, length of time from the beginning of routine to the end, duration of tantrums, etc. The best and only way to really know if something is working is to measure. Once you've collected that data, review it to see what seems to work and what might not be working enough. Only make changes that are based on real data.
What has worked for you? Share your ideas and experiences with other parents by posting in the comments or sharing on social media!