How to Put Bedtime Battles to Rest 

Raise your hand if you battle with your kid every night about bedtime? *Raises hand.* Let's break down the meltdown triggers and tips for putting those battles to rest.

Did bedtime become an epic nightly struggle with your toddler? When you ask them to “brush teeth” for the 5th time, they still find a way to avoid the task. You tell your child it’s time to put on their pajamas and they dramatically flop to the floor. Even before you go into their room, they are already screaming “I don’t want to go to sleep!” 

Rest assured, you’re not alone in this battle. Bedtime defiance peaks in the early toddler years and is developmentally normal (yay?). While frustrating, consistency, empathy and several simple science-backed tools can restore peace at bedtime. 

So, What Triggers Bedtime Meltdowns?

Before solving the issue, it’s helpful to understand what’s triggering the bedtime breakdowns in the first place. There are a few common explanations:

  • Fear of Missing Out: Around age two, toddlers realize life exists outside the walls of home and that adults do not go to bed at the same time they do, and FOMO sets in.
  • Independence: Your little one is realizing that they are their own person, and that their emerging voice has an effect on the world around them. Bedtime battles are often less about sleep than a toddler’s growing sense of independence and control.
  • Separation Anxiety: Being separated from mom and dad overnight can heighten anxiety, nighttime is the longest separation period! Even content independent sleepers regress a little during this time and protest losing nightly contact.
  • Overtiredness: Missing needed naps, taking short ones or pushing bedtimes later can overtire toddlers and preschoolers easily. When tired, children have a harder time slowing down and may reach “second wind.” Carefully regulating sleep schedules prevents this.

5 Ways to Put the Struggles to Rest

While the reasons for resistance are valid and developmentally normal, there are several things we can do as parents to cut through the chaos and offer our children consistent routines, predictability, age appropriate choices and boundaries around sleep.

1. Prepare their body for sleep

This begins 1-2 hours before you are due to start your bedtime routine. In this time frame, avoid using screens and dim the lights in your home if possible. Then, you will aim for getting some type of physical activity in. Going outside is always a great idea, but if you are stuck indoors because of the weather, games like “floor is lava,” a pillow obstacle course or just tag can help your little one burn some energy. Finally, you will then have a calm activity, like a puzzle, coloring, or a lego bath to transition into your bedtime routine. 

2. Organize the routine effectively

We all know it is important to have a consistent bedtime routine. But is your routine effective? The first thing you want to look at is transitions. Does your routine involve moving your child from one place to another? Or do most activities take place in the same room where they are going to sleep? Organize the steps in your routine to make sure that you are avoiding too many space transitions that will distract your child from the task at hand: heading to sleep.
Secondly, is there a step in the routine that your child really dislikes? For example, brushing their teeth? If so, then make sure that this activity is at the beginning of the routine, so that the last steps are soothing and battle free.

3. Visually communicate expectations

Toddlers and young children learn better through visuals. Use a visual bedtime routine, a social story or bedtime cards to narrate your bedtime routine and other boundaries and expectations around bedtime.
For example, you can have a visual bedtime routine with flaps that your toddler can close off every time they finish an activity. Doing so can provide that sense of independence and control that they long for. Additionally, you can have a social story with your child as the main character and narrate what bedtime looks like in your home. Make sure to use key phrases like “I close my eyes and put my head in my pillow” and  “I am safe in my bed” to give your child an idea of what they can do when in bed and reassure them that they are safe when mom and dad are not around. 

4. Prepare for stalling

Stalling will happen, so best prepare for it! If your child has an early dinner, and they continuously ask for a bedtime snack as part of their stalling strategy, organize your evening family routine to allow for a snack before bed. 

If your child is a book lover, incorporate 2 or 3 books into their bedtime routine and make it clear that you will only read X amount of books. 

Finally, bedtime passes are great. For little ones who always want “one more hug,” have them turn in a pass for this request. Giving them 2 or 3 passes for these types of requests help them feel in control and limits the amount of requests. 

5. Set firm and kind boundaries

Despite your best efforts, resistance will happen and my best advice is to remain firm and kind. Respond with empathy but avoid being inconsistent with the limits and boundaries you have around bedtime. It is absolutely okay to offer your child choices on what toothpaste flavor they want or which pajamas to wear, but avoid giving into every request. Toddlers are very quick to catch on which rules are “breakable” and they will try to break them every single time.

When faced with protest, respond in a very neutral voice: “It is time for sleep, we have to rest. After resting it will be morning and we can play again.” Remind them of the boundary and give them something exciting to look forward to in the morning. 

While bedtime battles can be frustrating for parents, having empathy for your child’s normal development and using positive discipline tools can help restore peace at night. Establishing a predictable routine, giving your child some age-appropriate independence, using visuals, planning for stalling tactics, and maintaining kind but firm boundaries are all effective strategies. With time and consistency, the battles will pass, and bedtime will become a soothing wind-down to your child’s day. 


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