If you’re here, it’s likely you are feeling burnt out by bedtime tantrums or resistance from your toddler who won’t go to bed no matter what you do. Maybe he throws a tantrum right as you’re trying to get him into his room. Or maybe you’re exhausted by the game playing and attention seeking behavior that ramps up at the time she should be starting her bedtime routine. It’s possible that your toddler was going to bed without a fuss just a couple weeks ago, but began refusing to go to bed all of a sudden. Whatever it is, you’re ready for a change, like yesterday!
For those of you who’ve already tried everything and are ready to make some changes in your toddler’s sleep situation, skip right to our comprehensive Toddler and Preschool Age Sleep Guide. This thorough, 23 page actionable sleep guide is for parents of toddlers and preschool age kiddos (2.5-5 years) who want to put an end to bedtime delays and resistance, exhausting night wakes, pesky early mornings, and will equip you with the skills and knowledge to ensure your little one is getting the overall amount of sleep their body needs.
My Toddler Won’t Go to Bed: What’s Going On?
The primary reason toddlers resist bedtime is because of separation from their caregivers. Think about it for a moment – they’re left in a dark room alone, and on top of that, their brains and bodies are tired! Put all of that together and it’s a killer combo. So, what can you do?
Sleep Needs by Age
First let’s review biological sleep needs by age. According to the CDC, toddlers need the following amount of sleep in a 24 hour period:
- 1 to 2 years, 11-14 hours
- 3 to 5 years, 10 – 13 hours of sleep
In our experience working with thousands of families, most kids fall within the high end of the provided ranges.
Reasons your toddler refuses to go to bed
Now that we have a better understanding of toddler sleep needs, let’s move on to the specifics of why your toddler might be resisting bedtime more than usual.
1. Overtired or undertired: timing for bedtime is off
The first thing to look into when examining your child’s bedtime situation is whether or not their bedtime falls at an appropriate time.
If your toddler is still napping, they should be awake a minimum of 5-6 hours before going to bed for the night. Any earlier than that and your little one’s body won’t be ready for sleep.
If your toddler is no longer napping, an early bedtime is the way to go. We recommend providing an 11-12 hour night sleep opportunity at this age, so if your little one typically wakes around 7am, a bedtime between 7-8pm is optimal.
Don’t be afraid to put your toddler to bed early. At the Sleeper Teachers, we often tell families with early rising toddlers to put their toddlers to bed as early as 6pm. When a toddler has been awake for too long, their body produces an excess amount of cortisol and adrenaline. This often causes your toddler to suddenly go from “normal” to hyperactive Tasmanian Devil bouncing off the walls. Because of this influx of hormones, an overtired toddler experiences a surge of energy causing your otherwise peaceful home to turn into a madhouse!
2. Your toddler needs more structure at bedtime
Toddlers thrive in structured environments. Although from the outside it looks like they to rule the household, toddlers need clear limits and boundaries to feel secure. Loosely applied rules or parents giving into their toddler’s demands undermines their feeling of security, and they act out with anxious or out of control behavior. In other words, toddlers look to their parents as leaders, and good leaders instill feelings of security through clear decision making and sturdiness.
We hear often from the parents of our toddler and preschool clients that daytime behaviors, meal times and daily routines all improve when boundaries are established. This is always a great side effect of teaching sleep independence, but it doesn’t come as a surprise!
Creating and sticking to a predictable bedtime routine is a simple way to infuse the bedtime process with more structure.
3. A consistent bedtime routine is important
First, set a bedtime routine and stick to it. Use a bedtime routine chart to refer to as you move through the routine if that helps your child learn what to expect next. Infuse the bedtime routine with as much fun as you can to gain cooperation from your little one. Pretend you’re all in a rocket ship and fly to the bathroom. Pretend your teeth are rocks that need shining. Having some fun will help your child feel less resistant to moving from one step in the bedtime routine to the next.
A typical bedtime may look something like: head upstairs for a bath or shower, brush teeth, use the potty, put on pjs, story time, sing a song, and lights out. Some families like to add prayers, positive affirmations, or gratitude into their routine. Do what feels right for you!
In general, a bedtime routine should not exceed 30 minutes. Any longer, and it will be difficult to keep your child focused on each task.
For little ones prone to pulling out all the excuses, anticipate as many as you can by preparing in advance. If your child is often hungry before bed, offer a snack before beginning the bedtime routine, and hold firm that this is the last time food is offered for the day. If thirst tends to be an excuse, prepare a small spill-proof sippy cup and place it on their bedside table or in their crib for them to sip as needed.
4. Gently respond to your toddler’s bedtime tantrums or pushback
Be calm, patient, but FIRM during the bedtime routine process. As your child’s parent, YOU know what is best for them. And your child looks to you for assurance. If one day they decide to protest part of the routine out of the blue, acknowledge their feelings and gently help them continue with the routine. This may look like: “Max, I understand you’re upset about having to put your Legos down to start the bedtime routine. You’re angry with mom, and that’s okay. Here, let’s put the Lego on the shelf and let me help you upstairs to get ready for bed”.
If your child throws a tantrum during the bedtime process, allow them some time to fully express their feelings in a calm environment. Once they have calmed down, help them to continue moving through the routine. This may look like gently taking their hand, or physically picking them up to move them along. Sticking to the bedtime process no matter what the pushback looks like will ultimately lead to your child feeling more secure.
5. Teach your toddler to be an independent sleeper
Oftentimes families come to us at the Sleeper Teachers struggling with their toddler’s falling asleep process. Some lay for hours with their kids in order for them to fall asleep, others have little ones that come out of their room 10 times after lights out using every excuse in the book. Whatever it is, the falling asleep process is not enjoyable for anyone.
Every human learns to fall asleep on their own at some point in their lives. Some learn earlier than others! If your child relies on something external or a “prop” to aid them to sleep, such as laying with a parent, a pacifier, rocking, extensive interaction with a parent, they will find it difficult to get to sleep and fall back to sleep without the same prop in the middle of the night. The skill of being able to fall asleep and stay asleep without any external “props” is referred to as the skill of sleep independence.
Teaching your child to sleep independently means allowing them to learn how to fall asleep on their own. Once they are able to do it, they will also have the capacity to sleep through the night without needing assistance getting back to sleep. Naps also improve once independent sleep skills are established.
Is it too late to teach my toddler to sleep independently?
Teaching the skill of sleep independence can happen at any age. We work with children from newborn to 13 years, and our 99% success rate demonstrates that sleep can be taught, even when most people think it’s too late. Take this review from Joysha, Mom of 2 in Seattle:
“I have two toddlers that are past the ideal age for sleep training. I thought we were hopeless… We used to lay down with both kids hours at a time until they fell asleep, but not anymore thanks to Amanda. She was there for us and guided us through the changes that happened in the time we had together. One of our main goals was for the kids to learn how to put themselves to sleep and now they do!”
Learning to be an independent sleeper tends to look different for each child. Learn more about approaching independent sleep through our blog post here.
Resources to resolve toddler sleep struggles
As mentioned previously, it’s never too late to teach independent sleep skills and get sleep on track. If you’re tired of endless negotiation to get your toddler to bed, there are resources to help you move from frustrated and tired, to relieved and rested.
If you’re most interested in a DIY approach, check out our comprehensive Toddler and Preschool Age Sleep Guide. The guide provides 23 pages of actionable strategies that will help you work toward putting an end to bedtime battles, middle of the night wakes, pesky early mornings, and general sleep issues.
If you are short on time and want quick results with support customized to your individual family situation, schedule a free sleep evaluation call with one of our consultants. During the call we will dive into your sleep struggles, chat about the ways we can help, and discuss what results you can expect in 2-3 weeks of working together.