toddler's bedtime

How Can I Make My Toddler’s Bedtime Easier?

Whether you have an infant, toddler, kindergartner, or preteen, practical discipline strategies and a good bedtime routine can be the difference between good sleep habits and a lot of sleepless nights. 

There are dozens of books about kids and sleep problems. Even though they all use different methods, most parenting experts advise that a good bedtime routine is a key to a good night’s sleep. 

If you’re a parent, you know the nightly challenge: to get your kids to go to bed — and stay there. It’s not easy, but it’s one of the most important things you can do for them.

When children don’t get enough sleep, they have a more challenging time controlling their emotions. 

They may be irritable or hyper, which is no fun for anyone. Kids who are always sleep-deprived are more likely to have behaviour problems, have trouble paying attention and learning, and be overweight. 

So although it’s not easy, it’s essential to do all you can to help your child get the sleep they need.

Regular schedules and bedtime rituals play a significant role in helping kids get sound sleep and function at their best. 

When you set and maintain good sleep habits, it helps your child fall asleep, stay asleep, and awake, rested and refreshed. They can help take the stress out of bedtime, too.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for bedtime, and every child is different. What’s important is to build a routine that works for your family — and to stick with it. Here are nine ways to get started.

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About Good Sleep for Children

A good night’s sleep is about getting to sleep and staying asleep. Most children wake up by themselves in the morning if they’re getting enough good-quality sleep.

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Getting to Sleep

Most children fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed. 

How long it takes children to sleep can depend on how sleepy their bodies are and their daytime and bedtime routines. 

Bedtime routines help children wind down before bedtime so that they can fall asleep more easily.

Staying Asleep

Children wake briefly during the night, but they might not be aware of being awake. 

To stay asleep, children need to fall back to sleep by themselves after these brief waking episodes.

When Is a Good Bedtime for Toddlers?

For many toddlers, expecting them to sleep from 7 pm to 7 am is too much to ask, but a 9:30 pm bedtime is probably too late. 

Instead, the sweet spot tends to be between 8 and 8:30 pm for toddlers, with lights-out by 8:30. But you’ll want to take cues from your child to figure out the best bedtime for them.

When kids fight for bedtime, it’s a clue that rest is too early or too late. 

If bedtime is too early, you may notice that your child shows no signs of fatigue at rest and fights to sleep for 30 to 60 minutes. 

On the flip side, fighting sleep can also be a sign that bedtime is too late. 

If you notice, she also has trouble waking in the morning, and she shows clear signs of tiredness at bedtime; bedtime is too late. 

To get the just-right bedtime for your tot, try moving your routine by 15 minutes every two to three nights until you land on your new rest.

Setting a Bedtime Routine

A bedtime routine includes everything you do with your baby or child just before you put them to bed, such as taking a bath, the last diaper change, putting on pyjamas, and reading a bedtime story.

The goal of a good bedtime routine is for your child to fall asleep independently, without being rocked, watching TV, or having you lay down next to them. 

This way, if they do wake up later, they should fall back asleep without needing any extra help.

If your child associates falling asleep with being rocked, for example, if they wake up in the middle of the night, they likely won’t be able to go back to sleep unless you rock them.

How Can I Make My Toddler’s Bedtime Easier?

Overexcitement, discomfort, stubbornness, poor sleep cues, and the wrong bedtime can all lead to troubles at tuck-in time. 

One of the best ways to get past these sleep speed bumps is to work on bedtime skills—all day long. 

Set your toddler up for bedtime success during the day by ensuring she gets lots of sunlight, fresh air, and outdoor play. 

Ensure that she’s eating healthy and is napping well. In addition, you’ll want to build a good relationship during the day, so your child naturally wants to cooperate at night. 

Then, you’ll want to follow a bedtime routine like the one outlined below.

The Pre-Bed Routine for Toddlers (30-60 Minutes)

As the evening is drawing near, give your child a few signals that bedtime is approaching:

  • Dim the lights in the house.
  • Do quiet play (not roughhousing).
  • Turn off the TV.
  • Put on white noise in the background.
  • If you think your child has teething pain, ask your doctor if some medicine might help.

The “get in Bed” Bedtime Routine (20-30 Minutes)

Each family picks a slightly different bedtime routine. The key is to make your routine pleasant, loving, calming, and consistent. 

Researchers found that parents who started a 3-step bedtime routine (bath, massage, and quiet cuddling or singing a baby lullaby) saw success within two weeks. 

Their children (7-36 months old) fell asleep faster…and slept longer!

And, as a bonus, the toddlers were less likely to call out to their parents or get out of their crib or bed.

Besides baths and massage, here are other bedtime ideas and routines many parents opt for.

Some advice: When it’s time to start your routine, don’t invite resistance by asking, “Are you ready for bed?” Instead, start with an enthusiastic “Okay, kids! Time for bed!” 

Make a hand sign for “bedtime” and begin a countdown before you start to sing a sleepy-time song. 

(Make up a little ditty with words like, “It’s sleepy-time!” or “Time to go to bed!”—perhaps to a familiar tune like “Happy Birthday.”)

Make a simple “let’s sleep” gesture as you sing—perhaps putting your hands together like a pillow and resting your head on them.

Right before you start your bedtime routine, make your child’s room perfect by:

  • It was dimming the lights.
  • I was keeping it cool (66°F-72°F is best).
  • Warming the sheets (use a hot water bottle or little microwaveable wheat bag that’s removed when you tuck your munchkin in).
  • I am using a pleasant smell (a drop of lavender oil on the mattress or headboard is nice).
  • I was plugging in a small nightlight.
  • You are putting up a dream catcher or a picture of Mommy and Daddy to “protect” your sweetie all night.

Bedtime Routine Dos and Don’ts

There is no single right way to set up a bedtime routine. 

Some kids like to hear a bedtime story, others may want to talk about their day, and some may want to say their prayers and go to sleep. 

As long as your child falls asleep quickly and sleeps all night, then your bedtime routine is likely working well.

Bedtime Dos

When developing a bedtime routine, it’s essential to:

Be consistent. 

Your bedtime routine may change over time as your child gets older, but it should be pretty consistent from day to day, starting at the same time and going in the same order. 

For example, a toddler’s bedtime routine might start at 6:30 pm and include:

  • A bath.
  • I am putting on pyjamas.
  • I was reading a few bedtime stories.
  • I was getting in bed.
  • A final goodnight.

Include dental hygiene. 

Whether cleaning your baby’s gums or reminding your older child to brush and floss, proper dental hygiene is a good habit to include in your child’s bedtime routine each night.

Keep it reasonably short. 

A good bedtime routine will probably last about 10 to 15 minutes, or a little longer if you include a bath.

Make it age-appropriate. 

Your child’s bedtime routine will change over time. 

For example, while it is expected for a newborn or younger infant to fall asleep nursing or to drink a bottle of formula, you can try and start putting your baby down while they are drowsy but still awake once they are four or five months old.

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Offer some choices. 

Your child can’t choose when to go to bed or how long the routine is, but you can let them have some control of their bedtime routine by allowing them to choose between two pairs of pyjamas and select which books to read for example.

Remind kids to use the bathroom. 

This is especially important for younger kids who still have issues with bedwetting.

Start early. 

It is much easier to begin a good bedtime routine when your baby is young than to try and change poor sleep routines when you have a toddler or preschooler who still isn’t sleeping well.

Understand that a bit of crying can be okay. 

Some kids will cry for a few minutes as they settle down for sleep or when they wake up in the middle of the night. 

This can be okay if they quickly settle down and you are comfortable letting them cry for a few minutes. However, remember that even the Ferber Method doesn’t advocate simply letting kids call all night.

Make the room dark, but not too dark. 

Blackout shades can help get your child’s bedroom dark enough to promote sleep (especially in the summer when it is still daylight at bedtime). 

Blackout shades may also help your child sleep a little longer in the morning. But since few kids like to sleep in the dark, a dim night light is helpful. Just make sure it is not too bright.

Use a security object. 

Like a stuffed animal or blanket, a security object can be an essential part of a good bedtime routine, but only for one-year-old and older children. These types of items aren’t safe for babies to sleep with.

Bedtime Don’ts

There are many right ways to have a good bedtime routine, there are some wrong ways and things you should avoid.

Allow stimulating activities before bed. 

Especially if your child has trouble falling asleep, you should usually stop stimulating activities, such as playing video games or watching TV, 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.

Assume that your child will outgrow poor sleep habits. 

Unfortunately, if nothing is done, many children who have sleep problems as infants and toddlers continue to sleep poorly even once they start school. 

The sooner you fix your child’s poor sleep habits, including starting a good bedtime routine, the better.

Create poor sleep associations. 

Rubbing your child’s back until they fall asleep, having music playing, or keeping the TV on can mean your child will need help if they later wake up. 

And no, simply keeping the TV or music on all night doesn’t work. If your child wakes up, they will still cry out for you and need your help to go back to sleep.

Drag it out.

Set boundaries and be consistent. If you are not careful, your child will drag out your bedtime routine with repeated calls for drinks, snacks, or to use the bathroom. Try to stick to your original bedtime.

Give caffeine before bed. 

Keep in mind that in addition to soda and tea, caffeine can be a hidden ingredient in other foods, such as coffee-flavoured ice cream and chocolate.

Other Tips for Your Toddler’s Bedtime Routine

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Make Sleep a Family Priority.

Set regular go-to-bed and wake-up times for the entire family and be sure to follow them — even on weekends. 

You can tell that children are getting enough sleep when they fall asleep within 15 to 30 minutes of going to bed, wake up quickly in the morning, and don’t nod off during the day.

Deal With Sleep Troubles.

Signs of sleep struggles include trouble falling asleep, waking up at night, snoring, stalling and resisting going to bed, having difficulty breathing during sleep, and loud or heavy breathing while sleeping. 

You might notice problems in daytime behaviour, as well. If your child seems overtired, sleepy, or cranky during the day, tell their doctor.

Work as a Team.

It’s important to discuss and agree on a sleep strategy for your child with your spouse or partner beforehand and work together as a team to carry it out consistently. Otherwise, you can’t expect your child to learn or change their behaviour.

If you are starting a new sleep routine for your child, make them part of the team by explaining the new plan to them if they are old enough to understand. For a young child, try using a picture chart to help your child learn the new routine, showing actions like changing clothes, brushing teeth, and reading a book.

Routine, Routine, Routine.

Kids love it, they thrive on it, and it works. For example, one study found that a consistent nighttime routine improved sleep in children with mild to moderate sleep problems. 

It helps your child learn to be sleepy, just like reading in bed often puts adults to sleep. It can also make bedtime a particular time. 

That will help your child associate the bedroom with good feelings and give them a sense of security and control. 

There is no single routine that’s right for everyone, but in general, yours should include all the things that your child needs to do before going to sleep, including brushing teeth, washing up, putting on PJs, and having a snack or drink of water. 

Your child may want to read a book with you, talk about the day, or hear a story. Whatever you choose to do, keep the routine short (30 minutes or less, not including a bath) and be firm about ending it when it’s time to sleep.

Bedtime Snacks.

Children may need more than three meals a day to keep them going, so a small snack before bedtime can help their bodies stay fueled through the night.

Healthy options include whole-grain cereal with milk, graham crackers, or a piece of fruit. Avoid ample snacks too close to the bed, especially with older kids, because a full stomach can interfere with sleep.

Dress and Room Temperature.

Everyone sleeps better in a room that is cool but not cold. 

A rule of thumb is to dress your child basically as you dress yourself, keeping in mind that very young children often kick off the covers at night and can’t cover themselves.

Sleep Environment.

Make sure the bedroom is dark and quiet, and the noise level in the house is low. 

If your child does not like a dark room, turn on a small night light, or leave the hall light on and the door to the bedroom open.

Security Object.

Bedtime means separation, and that can be easier for kids with a personal object, like a doll, teddy bear, or blanket. It can provide a sense of security and control that comforts and reassures your child before they fall asleep.

Set up a Bedtime Routine

A regular bedtime routine starting around the same time each night encourages good sleep patterns. 

A bedtime routine of bath, story and bed can help younger children feel ready for sleep. The way might include a quiet chat with you about the day than some time alone relaxing before lights out for older children.

Relax Before Bedtime

Encourage your child to relax before bedtime. For example, older children might like to wind down by reading a book, listening to gentle music or practising breathing for relaxation. 

If your child takes longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, your child might need a longer wind-down time before turning the lights out to go to sleep.

Keep Regular Sleep and Wake Times

Keep your child’s bedtimes and wake-up times within 1-2 hours of each other each day. This helps to keep your child’s body clock in a regular pattern. It’s a good idea for weekends and holidays, as well as school days.

Keep Older Children’s Naps Early and Short

Most children stop napping at 3-5 years of age. However, if your child over five years is still sleeping during the day, try to keep the nap to no longer than 20 minutes and no later than early afternoon. Longer and after naps can make it harder for children to get to sleep at night.

Make Sure Your Child Feels Safe at Night

If your child feels scared about going to bed or being in the dark, you can praise and reward your child whenever they’re brave. 

Avoiding scary TV shows, movies, and computer games can help too. Some children with bedtime fears feel better when they have a night light.

Check Noise and Light in Your Child’s Bedroom

Check whether your child’s bedroom is too light or noisy for sleep. Blue light from televisions, computer screens, phones and tablets suppresses melatonin levels and delays sleepiness. Bright light in the hour before bedtime can have the same effect on young children.

It helps to:

  • turn off devices at least one hour before bedtime
  • keep screens out of your child’s room at night
  • Dim the lights an hour before bed for children of preschool age and younger.

Choose a dim, warm-coloured globe rather than a bright, white, cool-coloured globe if your child uses a nightlight.

Avoid the Clock

If your child is checking the time often, encourage your child to move the clock or watch to a spot where they can’t see it from bed.

Eat the Right Amount at the Right Time

Make sure your child has a satisfying evening meal at a reasonable time. Feeling hungry or too full before bed can make your child more alert or uncomfortable. 

This can make it harder for your child to get to sleep. In the morning, a healthy breakfast helps to kick-start your child’s body clock at the right time.

Get Plenty of Natural Light in the Day

Encourage your child to get as much natural light as possible during the day, especially in the morning. 

Bright light suppresses melatonin. This helps your child feel awake and alert during the day and sleepy towards bedtime.

Avoid Caffeine

Caffeine is in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola. Please encourage your child to avoid these things late afternoon and evening, and don’t offer them at these times.

One Last Thing.

Kids will always ask for that one last thing — hugs, a drink of water, a trip to the bathroom, just one more book. 

Please do your best to head off these requests by making them part of the bedtime routine. And let your child know that once they are in bed, they have to stay in bed.

If they get up, don’t react — take them by the hand and walk them back to bed. If you argue or give in to requests, you’re giving them the extra attention — and delayed bedtime — they want. 

And don’t give into the “just this one-time” pitfall. If you read one more story or let them stay up longer “just this once,” the bedtime routine you’ve built could come undone.

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