Bedtime Battles Part 2: Toddlers and Older

Bedtime Battles Part 2: Toddlers and Older Kids


Even if you had established a consistent routine in infancy (If not, go back to Part 1) and your toddler has been going to bed like a tired kitten, the day comes likely when the system breaks down. It can start with an illness, a disruption in schedule, house guests, Halloween, a scary experience – you name it.  Sometimes it comes out of the blue: one day your child realizes that after she is in bed life goes on in the living room – maybe even a party! She begins to resist going to sleep, usually by having at least 27 requests at bedtime, demanding that you stay with her, and popping out of bed and out of her room.

If your child has had a smooth “Going to bed routine” as a baby, what you have on your hands is a limit-setting issue. If there had not been a routine in place, every day that passes will likely make the battles harder.   Either way, jump in with both feet to create/re-establish a simple, brief and totally consistent routine.  For example:

1.After cleaning up (dinner dishes, toys) snuggle and read 2-3 short story books in the living room as a winding down time.  

2.Then move swiftly through tooth brushing and putting on pajamas to 1-2 story books in bed, a lullaby, goodnight kiss and lights off (leave a nightlight on if your child is scared).


From here on, the most important thing is your child needs to know with absolute firmness that he has to stay in his bed.  Don’t tell him to go to sleep, since you can’t enforce that.  Stay on: “You have to stay in your bed.”  You can help it along by letting her listen to a CD of simple stories or lullabies (the same one every night!).   The lullabies should have songs with specific titles or opening lines (you’ll see why in a minute).  Often you need to start this training sitting next to your child’s bed and enforcing the routine by turning the CD off the instant she tries to get out of bed.  Don’t get excited!  Monotone consistency will get the best results.


About those 27 requests:

1. Ask your child what he needs before getting into bed and fulfill these within reason.

2. Limit the requests to 2 within a small range of options (e.g. a sip of water, 1 trip to the toilet, a goodnight kiss from the “off-duty” parent). Stay really firm!

You’ll probably have to sit by your child’s bed until he falls asleep (hopefully 20-30 minutes).  Don’t worry – it’s a temporary measure.  Once he has internalized the rule and stays quietly in his bed, you can build up longer intervals when you are out of his room. A few minutes into the CD starts tell him: “I have to check something. I’ll be back on the Choo-Choo Train song,” which (since you have the CD memorized by now) you know comes in 30 seconds.  Add: “Lie quietly till I am back.”   If needed, call it out again from the hallway.  It may take many repetitions to get this down.  Be sure to praise your child for waiting quietly once he does.  


When your child can wait quietly for 30 seconds, increase your time out of her room to 60-90 seconds, again telling her precisely when you’ll be back.  Over the course of ten days build up in 2-3 minute increments. Your goal is to stay for the first 2 songs and return on the last one.  She’ll either fall asleep in the interim (assuming a 20-30 minutes CD) or will hold onto a thread of wakefulness to make sure you come back. Once you say “I am back. Good night” she’ll fall asleep in two seconds.


If you child is 2 or more and has a good grasp of cause and effect, help this along with a sticker chart in which you reward forward steps each morning.  The stickers should culminate in a special outing or party to celebrate the new accomplishment: pleasant bedtime for everyone.


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Rachel Biale - Parenting Counseling