Help, my toddler fights bedtime!

Many parents struggle when it comes to their child’s bedtime. Lots of parents dread this time of day or they feel anxiety leading up to bedtime.

One of the most common reasons your child will fight bedtime is that your child is overtired. This often coincides with a nap transition, where your child is ready to drop a nap. Their little body simply needs some time to adjust to a little less sleep than it’s been used to. Your child might be going through a sleep regression and is overtired from refusing to nap. Or, it could be that you can’t get your child into bed until later than usual because of family commitments, such as picking up late from daycare after a long day at work. Your child might also be going through a period of separation anxiety or FOMO (fear of missing out). Another reason your toddler or preschooler might be resistant to bedtime is because of anxiety or a fear of the dark.

In any case, you might find that at bedtime your child starts out stalling or asking for just one more ‘everything’. Or, your child might get out of bed and come out to you a million times, after you leave. Or, your child might beg you to stay and lie down with them for sleep. These things might progress to pleading or whining until finally it ends in tears (sometimes from mum as well as the child) or even a full-blown tantrum. If this sounds familiar, you are no doubt (understandably) exhausted and perhaps even at your wits end. You might start to feel guilty, frustrated or cross. You might find yourself pleading with or yelling at your child just to get them to listen. You might eventually give in and let your child go to sleep on your lap, on the couch, or sleep in your bed.


Practical Solutions:

1. Keep your child in a cot for as long as possible.

There’s absolutely no reason why your three year old should have to be moved to a bed, unless they are climbing out, in which case it would be unsafe. If your child is in a bed, consider using a baby gate on their doorway.

2. Get your child into bed early if you can.

If your child goes to daycare, they might be able to eat an early dinner there. If you get home late, you can have a ‘cheats dinner’ such as eggs, beans, toast and yoghurt. Then, offer a quick shower with you instead of a bath, or even miss this step altogether. You might offer one story instead of three, before lights out.

3. Establish a regular bedtime routine and be consistent with this.

Have your child help you make a chart, which can act as a visual reminder of what is expected. Stick it to the bedroom wall and refer to this as you go through your routine. If the chart shows you will read two books, not four, that’s what the child will come to expect. You can use a visual timer to time any part of the routine you think might be helpful, such as bath time, playtime or story time. Your child has little concept of time. A timer like this can act as a visual cue for them to know when they will need to move on to the next step in their routine.

4. Offer a night light if your child shows signs of anxiety or nightmares.

Your child can help you choose this from the shop which will give them a sense of ownership and responsibility. Make sure it’s of an amber hue, as opposed to blue or white light, as reddish colour has been shown to be least intrusive to sleep. Turn it on to its lowest setting for brightness and position it in the room so that it’s not in the direct sight of your child when they are in bed. Give your child the responsibility of turning it on as part of their bedtime routine. Children love having a job to do!

5. Pre-empt any requests.

For children who usually ask for a drink, place a water bottle with a small amount of water in it next to the bed and tell your child that when it’s gone, there will be no more. If your child uses toileting as a delay tactic, have two ‘passes’ they can use and when these are gone, there will be no more visits to the toilet until morning.

6. Give your child more of your undivided attention.

Your child doesn’t need a lot of your time but they are more likely to be happy about going to bed if they’ve spent some time with you, during the day. This can be as simple as time spent during caretaking activities such as dinner time or bathtime. Put your device away and really be present with them. For a child who’s struggling with separation from you, you might sit beside their bed for a couple of nights whilst they go to sleep or for a certain amount of time. Or, you might check in on your child every five or ten minutes. Talk to your child earlier in the day or evening and explain what they can expect from you at bedtime. Decide what you are comfortable with and follow through with what you promise. Avoid introducing any new sleep associations that you don’t want to become habit, such as patting your child, holding your child’s hand or lying beside them, as they drift off to sleep.

7. Keep your cool.

Getting cross, raising your voice or pleading with your child to stay in bed just adds fuel to the fire. Children thrive on attention, even if it’s negative attention. They want you to react. When you find yourself feeling triggered, take three deep breaths and as you breathe, repeat a mantra in your head such as the ‘CSC mantra’: “I am calm. I am strong. I am capable”.

8. Stick to your guns and enforce your boundaries around sleep after lights out.

Decide on your non-negotiables and logical consequences for your child not following your bedtime rules. Keep your rules simple and frame them in the positive. You want your rules to say exactly what you want your child to do, not what you don’t want. A child doesn’t hear the word don’t! The rule “lie down, close your eyes and be as quiet as a mouse” is easy for a young child to ‘do’ and these things often naturally lead to sleep. A reward chart can also help to reinforce the rules, as can role-play using a soft toy or a family member.

9. Be patient.

If your child gets out of bed, silently march them back. You might have to do this many times on the first night but the next night should be less, and so on. Being patient doesn’t mean ‘giving in’ to your child’s every whim. It means being in it for the long haul if you need to. It means ‘outlasting’ your child. Change takes time.

10. Be consistent with your routine and with how you deal with any unwanted behaviours around bedtime.

Children learn from repetition and consistency. Your child needs you to have fair and reasonable boundaries so that they can feel safe and relaxed for sleep. Your job is not to be your child’s friend but to be their parent and leader. Remember that what your child wants is not necessarily what your child needs.

Need help with your toddler or preschooler’s sleep?