When it comes to getting little kids to sleep, the biggest problem isn’t getting them into bed – it’s getting them to accept that it’s bedtime and settle for sleep.
And that’s not the same thing at all.
In fact, for many parents -and maybe you too – it’s a nightly battle.
But it doesn’t have to be – you can make the chaos go away and have kids who go to sleep when you want them to. It just might take changing your habits and routines during the day to make that happen.
That’s right – during the day.
We’re not just talking about a better bedtime routine – though you definitely need one of those – these are habits that take place throughout the day that work with your circadian rhythms to build compliance.
#1 Help your child set their body clock
Stick to regular sleeping and waking times for your toddler so that they get used to waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day and their body starts to expect sleep at those times.
A regular daily routine’s also great for helping a stubborn little human accept what’s happening whether it’s what they want or not.
#2 Make nap time early
Your child’s not a baby anymore so they’re probably down to just the one nap each day – but they’ll still need to keep that nap for a while yet so make it fit in with their night time sleep needs.
It’ll probably be best to make naptime earlier in the day and limit the length of it (nope, I don’t like waking a sleeping child either) with one eye on bedtime and how much easier it’s going to be if they only slept for under two hours and woke up before 3pm.
#3 Daylight and exercise in the day
Remember the last time you went for a picnic or a day at the beach? How did you feel afterwards – exhausted, right? That’s because getting outdoors and being active really is great for tiring kids out – and adults too.
And kids really do need outdoor levels of light during the day to keep their circadian rhythms healthy as this article explains.
So if your child’s having a hard time getting to sleep, more sunlight in the early morning and less artificial light in the evening could make a difference.
That’s because when we’re exposed to sunlight, we produce much less of the sleep hormone melatonin, keeping us awake and alert during the day.
Then in the evening when the sun’s gone, the melatonin flows more freely, making us sleepy. (Unless artificial light interferes with that process.)
#4 Limit screen time before bed
What kind of artificial light, you might be wondering? The lights we switch on in our homes and of course also blue light from screens such as phones, tablets and the TV.
All these give off artificial light that keeps us awake and functioning when our bodies should be feeling ready for rest.
So if you’re giving your kid their tablet to play with in bed before falling asleep, it might actually be keeping them awake longer because that blue light suppresses their melatonin production and keeps them engaged and stimulated at a time when that’s just not what they need. (Source)
#5 Have dinner not too long before bed
If you’ve ever tried to fall asleep on an empty stomach you know how distracting belly pangs can be – so it makes sense that a hungry kid is about as ready to settle for the night as you are after a double Espresso.
But all you need to do to avoid that’s make sure they’ve had some food within an hour to an hour and a half of going to bed.
Going straight from a big meal to bed isn’t great either because they need to give their food chance to settle, so an hour is a good length of time.
If that’s just not possible because of your routine and work commitments, simply make sure they have a small snack about half an hour before bedtime.
# 6 Avoid sugary snacks
But keep it healthy and ditch the sugar.
Why does it matter what snack you choose?
Well, cookies before bed aren’t ideal because a kid on a sugar high won’t be ready to settle down for the night and that’s the goal of this post.
Go for a piece of fruit or vegetables and some protein – even the tried and tested cup of warm milk will work fine.
#7 Avoid caffeine
There’s no need to explain this one – and I know you’re not handing your 3 year old a latte at bedtime (or any other time) – but there’s hidden caffeine in so many foods that we feed our kids.
Beyond the obvious coffee and tea, it’s quite eye-opening to learn just how many everyday foods carry caffeine.
Chocolate is a big one but cocoa, ice cream and even some breakfast cereals also pack a caffeine punch. (Source)
#8 Relax before bed
We already covered being active and energetic outside during the day to make sure your kid’s tired out and ready for bed – but all that activity needs to stop a while before pajama time.
Instead, make the after dinner / pre-bed period a quiet time with no rough housing or toy fighting between siblings. (Easier said than done..)
Being active keeps you awake and alert and it’s time to wind down now so make evenings about quiet stories and games and generally relaxing and snuggling up together.
#9 Follow a routine
A night time ritual helps with restful sleep for a few reasons. Firstly, because kids thrive on routines and find them comforting and supportive.
Secondly, because the elements you choose for your routine’ll all be carefully chosen to encourage winding down and getting sleepy.
Stories, massage and taking a warm bath are all easy ways to signal to your child that bedtime’s a-coming and help them get into the mood for sleep.
#10 Give them some choice in what happens
Your kid’s not getting any choice about going to bed and that can be an issue in itself – but you can make it easier on them by letting them have a little control back during the bedtime process.
Will they race you upstairs or ride up on your back? Do they want a bed full of lovies or just the one?
Which stories would they like you to read tonight – and in which order will you read the books they chose?
Letting them feel like they’re getting to choose or ‘winning’ a little bit helps you to win the biggest battle – getting them to go to bed happily.
#11 Make it fun if you can
The bedtime routine’s all about getting your toddler to go to bed – and we shouldn’t lose sight of that – but they’ll be more willing to go along with it all if some parts are even a little bit fun.
Maybe once everything’s done, you challenge your child to a ‘race’ to bed, or you read the stories in silly voices – whatever as long as they like it and don’t get over-excited.
#12 Make their bed cosy
Make sure bed is cozy and will stay that way – because little kids are wrigglers as you’ll know if one has ever climbed into bed beside you.
You might stay under the covers all night but they probably won’t.
If your toddler ends up starfished on their bed with the blankets on the floor every night, wrap them up in warm jammies with a shirt underneath and socks so they won’t wake up cold.
Fleece works really well.
#13 Stay calm when they test you
Even if your toddler’s a bedtime rockstar who just kisses you goodnight and jumps into bed – even they’re going to resist sometimes.
And then it’s up to you to stay calm – at a time when you’re tired and maybe they’ve driven you crazy all day and you just want a break.
It’s hard to take a deep breath and talk quietly when your toddler’s out of bed for the 14th time tonight and you’ve been up since 5am with them – but you’ll feel like a boss parent if you do.
(And if you give in and get angry, they’ll get upset and that’ll just make everything take even longer.)
#14 Don’t rush your toddler’s bedtime (even if you’re late)
Toddlers can sense when you’re anxious so try not to rush bedtime.
It happens – you get stuck in traffic and by the time you’re home and dinner’s done it’s a half hour past your toddler’s ideal bedtime.
But stressing and trying to make up time won’t help. If you’re a little late starting, try not to let it bother you.
Just keep going as you usually would and don’t become stressed about it. The more relaxed and normal you are, the better your kid will respond to you.
And if it’s happening a lot, think about how you could re-arrange your evenings a little to make an earlier bedtime stress-free.
#15 Help them conquer their fears
Is your little one scared of the dark? Try a night light – you can always turn it off later. Worried about monsters under the bed?
Make it a part of your evening ritual to switch on a torch and check there’s nothing there (or in the closet) before you leave them.
#16 Have a toy in bed
But isn’t that just another sleep prop that you’ll have to get rid of later? Not really – because toys in bed are both a comfort and a distraction from being alone in the dark.
And if you encourage your child to play with the toy and become attached to it, it’ll become more valuable as a night time comforter. (Just keep a spare one shut away just in case the worst happens and it gets lost.)
#17 Lie with your toddler until they’re asleep
If your toddler can’t fall asleep alone, they’ll need you to help them.
Now that they’re bigger, rocking or nursing them to sleep might not work as well as it once did – but lying next to your toddler at bedtime’s a great way to help them settle.
Sure, you could sleep train but if that’s not for you then lying next to your child’s a great option for settling them.
And when you’re ready to move on, I’ve got a simple plan to help you figure out how to teach them to fall asleep alone without it being a horrible experience. There’s a link to it at the bottom of this post.
#18 Check in with your toddler after lights out
Or if you don’t want to lie with them, check back in on your toddler after lights out to make sure they’re okay and happy in bed.
Knowing you haven’t gone for good’s a great way to keep your kid from getting upset when you leave.
#19 Allow (or avoid) your child coming into bed with you
It’s late and you’re warm under the covers. Something’s there – you open your eyes and roll over and realise it’s your toddler again.
Breathing their cute but stinky breath on your face and taking up half the bed despite their size.
What do you do? Try to ninja them back into their own bed or just edge their seemingly endless arms and legs a little further away and go back to sleep?
It’s your call whether your child’s allowed to join you in your bed – and if you’re okay with it, family bed is lovely.
Children sleep well and feel safe and secure – but it can be a pain for squashed parents with no covers getting kicked in the back all night.
There’s no right or wrong here – but if you decide you don’t want your child joining in bed, you need to stick to that resolve – because it’s very hard to change once they’re in a habit (ask me how I know.)
#20 Reward your toddler for going to bed calmly
Once your child’s old enough to understand what you want and try to please you, it makes sense to reward them for trying and making progress.
If they were getting out of bed multiple times but yesterday it was only once or not at all, you can recognise that and make them feel good about themselves.
#21 Try a reward chart
If they’re 3 or 4 they may be big enough to try a simple reward chart. Stickers or marks for nights when they met a target could add up to trips out or other treats to reward their progress.
Putting a toddler to bed is challenging
It’s okay if you’re having a tough time getting your toddler to settle and sleep. Thousands of parents are right there with you every night – and you can experiment to figure out what’s causing the problem you’re experiencing.
But you’ve now got a few starting points to jump off from – maybe some that you’d never considered.
And once your child’s a preschooler, you can teach them to fall asleep alone without any tears – if that’s what you want to do.