Written by Doctor G

Toddler Bedtime Battle

My 2 ½ year old son used to be a great sleeper. Now when it is time for naptime or bedtime, he has a huge meltdown. He’s going to bed later and later, and bedtime is taking longer and longer. We’ve tried taking away toys, nothing is working. Help!

Sherry, in Cleveland, OH

A: Sleep is so precious. And when they are tired, toddlers are at their least reasonable, which is really saying something! It sounds to me like what your son wants most when you want him to be going to sleep, is to keep your undivided attention. Unfortunately, that means that you could take away every single toy in his room and, as long as it’s getting him your attention, he won’t change his behavior. Also, bedtime is a really hard time for parents to be in conflict with kids because we’re tired too, and because we want to end their day in a nice way, not a crying till they fall asleep way.

This issue is about responsiveness and respect.  You can change the pattern so that you respond to his frustration at bedtime in a less frustrated way, and he responds to you telling him he needs to be in bed in a more respectful way.
So what can you do? Chances are, you’ve already done it. Kids this age LOVE repetition. Bed time and nap time are great examples of that. They need a routine that is reliable. In our house we do pj’s, jobs in the bathroom, and then sit together for 2 books, 1 goodnight prayer and two songs. The child picks which books and which songs but the pattern never alters. The best thing about this is we can do it when we are sleeping somewhere else and a babysitter can do it with them if we get to go out on a date!

I bet you are thinking, we have a bedtime routine, it goes fine. It’s AFTER the routine that the trouble starts. So don’t get sucked in to the battle. Books, prayer, songs (or whatever your routine is) and into bed.

Remember that, no matter how big a meltdown he has, you are doing the right thing getting him 14 hours or so of sleep in each 24 hour cycle. Enough sleep promotes growth and development and helps prevent illness, as well as obesity.

The common toddler tactics:

1. Getting out of bed. For water! This is why all of our kids have water in or next to their beds. Sippy cups for little guys, sports bottle for older guys. Nothing but water (or they will get cavities that will make your head spin).

2. Getting out of bed. For mommy or daddy. At this age we keep a pack-n-play set up nearby. If our toddler has trouble with staying in his bed he is offered a choice – bed or crib? A few times he didn’t believe us and spent five minutes screaming in the crib. Then we went back in and restated our terms. He’s stayed in his bed since.

3. Screaming bloody murder for mommy or daddy. Again, a choice – if you lay quietly in your bed for 2 minutes, I will come back in and sit with you to sing one song. If you keep screaming I am not going to come in. For the first few nights you may have to go back in every 2 (or 5 or whatever) minutes for a while.

They have to believe you mean it. It has to be predictable and boring so that they might as well go to sleep. Toddlers are practical! If they can get your attention (even unhappy attention) then it works. If quiet gets your attention and screaming doesn’t, they will get quiet eventually.

Stay calm! You don’t have to get mad to be effective, and you’ll feel better about your parenting if you can stay relaxed.

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3 thoughts on “Toddler Bedtime Battle”

  1. We tried these tactics and they worked for the first two nights, but then our 2.5 year old had enough. On the third night he kept running out of the room and screaming for us to come in. The 2 minute thing is not working. Please help!

  2. Looked this up tonight because our ex-perfect sleeper (3) is going on 3 weeks of screaming tantrums. Your descriptions were exact & I have tried most of these ideas–it’s in the execution. It is the lack of consistency and just giving in that has kept this going. You made it clear that we can be in control of this & possibly not lose our minds in the process. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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