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How to Stop Having Bedtime Battles With Your Toddler

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
Mother talking with her child before bedtime, smiling

“Normal development in a toddler includes learning independence and saying ‘no,’” says Sally Ibrahim, MD, director of Pediatric Sleep Medicine at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. “As part of this development, it is not uncommon for toddlers to resist bedtime or want to draw out the process. They may also get out of bed frequently.”

Dr. Ibrahim offers the following tips to assist you in instilling good bedtime habits in your young child during this important stage of their development:

Prepare Your Child for Bedtime

Develop a toddler bedtime routine: get that final drink, put away toys, etc. Let your child know the house will be winding down in preparation for bedtime. It is important to remind your child of bedtime ahead of time so that when you start the bedtime routine, they will be less likely to resist. Common objections to bedtime include “I’m hungry,” “I’m thirsty,” and “I want another movie.” Try to address all these wants before moving to the bedroom. Also, be sure to tell your child that the last drink or snack of the day is indeed the “last drink,” etc., of the day.

“Once you move to the bedroom and start the bedtime routine,” Dr. Ibrahim says, “do not negotiate with your child if they have additional requests. Over time, setting limits will help your child understand bedtime.”

Wind Down the House

Ensure that the environment is conducive for sleep. If the entire family is still up, lights are on, the TV is on and noise levels are high, a toddler may miss cues that it is wind-down time. Worse yet, a child may fear missing out on all the fun things others in the house are doing. Be sure to turn off the main lights, make the home dimmer, lower voices and reduce the noise level throughout the entire home to set the stage for going to sleep. In the bedroom, provide appropriate bedtime cues to create a cozy atmosphere: blanket/tucking in, closing curtains, dimming lights, etc.

Keep Bedtime Short, Predictable and Consistent

When you impose a predictable, repeated bedtime routine, your child knows what is expected of them. A typical routine may include putting on PJs, brushing teeth and reading a book with you followed by kisses, goodnights and lights out. Make sure your tone is firm but warm so as to keep your child accountable when moving through the bedtime routine.

“If your routine is too long (one hour or more),” cautions Dr. Ibrahim, “consider shortening it, perhaps by doing some of the activities in the routine earlier in the evening or day. If the act of going to sleep gets prolonged because your child is not tired enough, consider moving bedtime to a later time to shorten the routine.”

Try to Avoid Electronics in the Hour Before Bedtime

If you cannot avoid use of a tablet or other electronic device at bedtime, lower the volume and dim the backlight of the device. Ensure the content on the device is calm and soothing. Avoid gaming, fast-action YouTube videos and action movies. Consider listening to audiobooks or using apps that feature calming bedtime music or songs.

Keep Your Cool

Keep as calm and collected as possible during bedtime struggles. Monitor your own anxiety levels. If you grow frustrated, raise your voice, or fight with your spouse during the bedtime routine, your child may view bedtime as a negative event and want to avoid it altogether. Do something calming for both you and your child at bedtime. For example, listen to soft music together, read a book together or sing a nighttime song. If you can turn bedtime into a time where you and your child both feel calm, it can become something you look forward to doing with them each night.

The Anxious Child

“In some cases,” Dr. Ibrahim says, “a child experiences separation anxiety or other anxieties at bedtime. Children who have separation anxiety from their parents during the day may experience similar problems at night that cause them to get out of bed.”

Talk with your child's pediatrician if you feel anxieties are interfering with your child’s ability to go to bed or stay in bed.

Avoid Food and Drinks With Caffeine

Some parents do not know that most chocolate contains caffeine. As such, avoid giving your child chocolates or chocolate milk in the evening or bedtime. At dinner, make sure your toddler does not sneak in any sips of soda. If there is concern about soda drinking occurring beyond parental control, consider making soda inaccessible to the child.

Ensure You Child’s Legs Are Calm

If your child has complaints about their legs, growing pains or restless leg syndrome (RLS) may to blame. These conditions can interfere with getting to sleep at night and can cause bedtime struggles that resemble insomnia. If you’re concerned that your child may have growing pains or RLS, be sure to consult a pediatrician.

After Lights Out: Time Clocks

Toddlers do not know when it’s time to get out of bed. When they go through normal REM cycles and waking, they may think it’s time to get out of bed and go to their parents’ bed. In some cases, using a timer or a clock to let children know when it’s time to get out of bed can be helpful. Dr. Ibrahim also recommends rewarding your child when he or she stays in bed successfully when using these tools.

Your Pediatrician Is There to Help

When parents encounter persistent problems with their toddler’s bedtime, they should discuss them with a pediatrician. In addition, sleep behavioral psychologists and doctors are available to help: for more information, call 216-844-REST.

Related Links

The sleep medicine team at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s treats a wide range of childhood sleep disorders, from the common to the complex. With expert diagnosis and treatment, we offer proven, evidence-based methods to help children achieve quality sleep. Learn more about sleep services at UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.