Sleep & Routine

Sweet dreams: Tips for tricky toddler bedtimes

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My three-year-old son keeps getting out of bed and it can take an hour or so before he settles every night. I am on my own and the process of getting him to bed has worn me out. Some nights end in shouting and tears. I feel like I have tried it all. Please help! Tired Mum.

A bit about toddlers and bedtime

Everyone does better when they get the sleep they need. But, for some reason, kids are notorious for fighting it. Most children will go through a patch (or seven) where they resist sleep and it can be exhausting for everyone. Toddlers are pretty creative too. The minute it’s time for bed, they enjoy coming up with all sorts of extremely important tasks that have to be attended to immediately. Whether it’s a drink of water, a fire engine that must be found or a story that must be told, they can find a thousand reasons to put sleep off. For some children, they just want to be with us for as long as possible.

There is also plenty going on for little people between the ages of two and four. They may now be in a preschool setting during the day where they are learning to play with others, developing their imagination and taking big steps towards autonomy. This can lead to some very big feelings – particularly feelings of separation from their primary caregiver – which can all add up and spill over at bedtime.

As parents, it’s our job to decide when it’s bedtime.
This is not a task we should outsource to a toddler.

Here’s what I suggest

As parents, it’s our job to decide when it’s bedtime. This is not a task we should outsource to a toddler. We often wait for tired signs or ask our children if they’re ready for bed, but this may mean that we end up waiting too long – and getting an overtired child to settle and sleep is a much trickier proposition.

The first thing to try is setting up a consistent bedtime routine. Children love the security of a predictable order of things. Type up a little plan and use it as your reference guide. You could even make a rocket chart for your child with a countdown to bedtime, like the one below.

5 = Dinner time 4 = Bath or shower time 3 = Teeth time 2 = Story time 1 = Cuddles, prayers and goodnight

Your manner will help too. Try to stay KFC –

Kind. Try to keep the anger and emotion out of your voice – huffing and puffing will definitely work against you.

Firm. Bedtime is not a time for negotiation but be aware that you will be invited into one. Your kind and firm manner says, “Goodnight my love, have a lovely sleep.” Try not to swerve off this one.

Calm. This is not easy, but calmness is very settling for a child. Toddlers are looking to you for reassurance that they’re not too hard to handle. Your calm tells your child that you’re okay and so are they.

You’ll also need to try and stay away from these three things:

Threats. This might sound familiar – “If you don’t stay in your bed, I am going to take away your snuggly.” “I mean it this time – you’ve had your last warning! Okay, you are not going to Nana’s tomorrow.” Threats add tension, anxiety and uncertainty into the mix. Some children will comply, but it will be a short-term solution.

Too much praise. It’s tempting to reward something that’s done well but children also sniff out the control that often comes embedded in praise. Limit your praise to a simple, “You had a good night’s sleep last night. Your body loves all that sleep.” This helps keep sleep in the everyday expectation that it will happen. It’s not special or praiseworthy – it’s part of a healthy life.

Lots of talk about sleep. Parents may not realise that lots of reference to sleep (the lack of it or the antics described in detail) makes bedtime very interesting and all the talk about it confirms how challenging parents are finding it.

Getting into a good sleep rhythm takes time, patience and gentleness. Your child may be used to a little dance around bedtime so brace yourself for repeat performances for a while. If they get up, gently and patiently walk them back to bed – no talk, threats or bribes. Let your child hear your kind words – “Goodnight my love, see you in the morning.” It might help you to note the number of times you have to take them back. The first night might be 38 times, the second 33 and the third 15. Slow and steady is the way to go.

Extract from Kind, Firm, Calm – Simple strategies to transform your parenting, by Jenny Hale. Available now from our online bookshop, and book retailers nationwide.

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale is our Senior Family Coach and we’ve been lucky enough to have her on our team for over 20 years. She’d love to raise free-range chickens, write children’s books and perhaps even take up horse-riding again.


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