Bedtime for Toddlers: Ten Steps to Sleep Without Tears

Laura Markham's picture

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toddler in pajamasToddlers don't seem to have an off switch. Often, when they're tired, they just spin faster, like an overwound toy, until they crash.

The bad news is that some kids seem to be born good sleepers, and some don't. The good news is that falling asleep is a matter of habit, and all kids can learn it. It may take some time to develop that habit, but your busy toddler can learn to put himself to sleep, and to stay asleep, eventually. Here's how:

  1. Start the wind-down process early in the evening. Toddlers who've been racing around can't simply switch gears and decompress at bedtime. Recent scientific research shows that TV and computer screens suppress melatonin release, which makes it harder for kids to fall asleep, so make it a house rule to eliminate screen time after dinner. And if dad comes home during the bedtime routine, make sure he reads a quiet story with the kids, rather than tossing them into the air as a welcome.

  2. Follow the same evening routine every night, if possible. Dinner, bath, stories, then kissing and tucking in all the stuffed animals who share the toddler's bed, then prayers or blessings, then lights out while you sing to your little one, is a common and effective routine. Beware of too elaborate a routine, because they have a way of expanding to take more time. Your goal is a sense of calm, safe, predictability.

    Toddlers who are showing oppositional behavior may resist moving along with the bedtime routine. The best way to sidestep this is to have the clock, rather than you, be the bad guy. "Look, it's 7:15! If we can get out of the tub now and brush your teeth, we'll have time for an extra story before lights out at 7:30!" That way, you're on his side, and he doesn't need to rebel against you. He also begins to learn about responsibility and making smart choices.

  3. Help your toddler set his "biological clock". Toddlers need a set time to go to bed every night. Most toddlers do better with an early bedtime (around 7pm), because it seems to fit their biological rhythm. When they stay up later, their adrenalin kicks in, and they actually have a harder time falling asleep. Dim lights in the hour before bedtime, as well as slow, calm routines, help kids' bodies know that it's time to sleep. And watch for those dinner-time yawns that signal he's tired. If he kicks into "overdrive" mode, getting him into bed will be much harder.

  4. Set up a cozy bed. Your goal is to ensure that discomfort doesn't exacerbate the normal cycles of slight waking into real waking. Quiet matters -- make sure she can't hear the TV. Consider a "white noise" machine; many parents swear by them. Darkness matters -- make sure the curtains keep the streetlights out. Room-darkening shades are invaluable, especially in the summer months when your toddler will be going to sleep while it's still light out. Warmth matters -- if she kicks her covers off, make sure she sleeps in warm pjs with feet. And of course, once she's out of diapers, be sure she uses the bathroom last thing.

  5. Many toddlers need a bedtime snack to hold them through the night, especially during growth spurts. Warm milk, a piece of toast with peanut butter (not hydrogenated oil, though), something calming and predictable, not too interesting, and without sugar, usually works best. If they can eat it at a snack table in their room while you read a bedtime story, before brushing teeth, you can move efficiently through the bedtime routine.

  6. Don't give up naps too early. Although every child has individual sleep needs, most kids aren't ready to give up naps till age 3. For many kids, going napless can make them cranky and adrenalized, which makes relaxing at bedtime harder.

  7. Make sure they get enough fresh air and exercise during the day. Your grandmother was right: kids really do sleep more soundly when they get more outdoor play. Just not in the hour before bedtime, which re-energizes them!

  8. Most toddlers fall asleep easily if you lie down with them, and many parents do this. Other parents resist the temptation, because they too often fall asleep themselves, and lose their evenings. This is an individual call, and there is no shame in waiting till your child is a little older before expecting her to put herself to sleep -- it does get easier for kids as they get older. Many working moms, particularly, treasure this time with their kids, and love being able to go to sleep early, then get up rested at the crack of dawn. One downside of this habit is that if the child is not in your bed, you'll need to move, which wakes you up. The other downside is that when he awakens slightly in the middle of the night, during normal sleep cycles, he may well protest your absence and show up at your bedside.

  9. All humans wake slightly at night during normal sleep cycles. Statistically, toddlers who sleep by themselves often wake fully looking for mom, since sleeping alone isn't a natural biological state for them. If you don't want your toddler appearing by your bed at night, you'll need to teach new sleep habits so he can put himself back to sleep during the night.

    If you've been nursing or rocking your child to sleep, he's likely to wake during the night looking for you, and will need to be nursed or rocked again to fall back asleep. Your goal now is to help him fall asleep in his own crib or bed, comfortably. That means putting him in bed when he's awake, so he gets used to falling asleep there himself. Breaking habits can be challenging -- he can't understand why you won't nurse or rock him now. You can expect him to need your close physical proximity to settle down. In the beginning, it can also help to reward him with star charts and prizes.

  10. Start slow. Begin (after your bedtime routine) by holding your child until he falls asleep -- not lying down, which puts you in danger of falling asleep. Use the time to meditate, if you can, or think of something delightful that you can look forward to. The next phase is to touch, but not hold, your child. Then, begin to sit next to your child while he falls asleep, without touching him. Finally, sit further and further away (with a good book and a flashlight if he can handle the light), until you're outside the bedroom door. Another variation on this process is to move quietly around the room, straightening up or folding laundry, while your toddler falls asleep. This provides a sense of security, without him depending on your physical proximity. Eventually, you'll find that your toddler is asleep almost as soon as his head settles on the pillow -- and you'll be amazed to find you actually have an evening!

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com