Have you been struggling with bedtime with your older toddler or preschooler? Do you see a lot of tantrums around bedtime and struggle to help your child sleep through the night or stay in their bed all night?
You are not alone! This was my reality for a long time.
When my daughter was two years old, my husband travelled for work A LOT, and I was doing bedtime alone most nights during the week. By the time bedtime rolled around every night, I was tired, ready for a break, and had barely sat down all day. The dirty dishes would be piled in the sink, and the floor would be covered in my daughter’s dinner residue.
I would bring my daughter upstairs to do bedtime, and she would protest. She didn’t want to sleep. She would cry, throw a tantrum, and get angry. I would spend over an hour trying to get her to fall asleep every night, only to have her wake up and find me after only a few minutes.
This became built into our bedtime routine.
I was frustrated, angry, and exhausted. For the first time, I could really connect with and understand the feelings of my clients who came to me for help with their child’s sleep.
My husband encouraged me to write a list of tools that I would share with my clients in the same situation. What would I encourage them to do first if they struggled with getting their child to sleep through the night?
Tune in to the bedtime routine
When my clients come to me with sleep struggles, I encourage them to tune into the bedtime routine. Children do well knowing what will come next, and predictability is really helpful for our kids. Creating a calming bedtime routine can work wonders for many children. The routine can be as simple as going to the bathroom, brushing their teeth, reading a book, singing a song, and going to sleep.
The goal is for your child to start identifying that it is time for sleep and wind down through a solid bedtime routine. If you haven’t created a routine, this is a great place to start.
However, I often hear parents saying, “But Jess, I have been doing the same routine every night for MONTHS or even YEARS, and it always ends with my child having a tantrum! I don’t understand!”
I hear you! This is the point I was at with my daughter. We had been doing the same routine for months, and every night it ended with a tantrum.
Switch up the routine
After I tuned in to our routine, I realized that the tantrums were becoming a part of our routine: bathroom, brush teeth, story, tantrum.
I mentioned that children do well with predictability because they know what will happen next – if they have tantrums every night after their predictable routine, they can get stuck in this pattern. Switching up the routine can help us break this pattern.
When creating your bedtime routine, remember to think about what will work best for your child – you know them best!
Some children need more time to wind down after a busy day, so the routine might include a few stories and songs to help them relax. Other children may need some sensory input to help them sleep better, so the routine might consist of some rough & tumble play. If you and your child have had a busy day, they may need some time to sit and talk to you about their day; connection time can make all the difference!!
Here are a few ideas for switching up the routine when bedtime is tough:
Start the routine by processing feelings
When the routine consistently ends in a tantrum, it can be helpful to start by sitting together and allowing them to process their day. This way, if any big feelings need to come out or tears they need to express, they can do this and feel heard before they get into bed.
To switch up our routine, I started to spend a few minutes with my daughter as we recapped her day. I gave her time to express her feelings and talk to me about how she felt before she was overtired and unable to cope with these feelings. Setting aside the time to let her express her feelings and tell me about her day before starting the bedtime routine helped her feel calmer. This made a big difference! While we still had a few tough nights, bedtime was a breeze, and I actually started looking forward to this time of the day!
If your child is still learning how to express their big feelings, it can be helpful to read a story about emotions with them at bedtime! Books are a great way to help children understand emotions, learn that it’s okay for them to have big feelings, and learn tools for coping with those feelings! Check out my seven favourite books to help children understand emotions!
Another common trouble with the bedtime routine is starting when children are already exhausted and overtired.
This was something we had to change for our routine. My daughter would get home around 5:00 pm, I would make dinner, and then we would clean up before bedtime. It was 7:00 pm before the bedtime routine, and she was overtired and wired. She would catch a second wind of energy, and it made it so hard to put her to bed. We noticed a massive difference in bedtime when we started prepping dinners ahead of time and saving the clean-up until after she was in bed.
Tune in to your own self-care before starting the routine
If you are constantly fighting bedtime battles, it can leave us, as parents, feeling drained before the bedtime routine even starts. It can be helpful to take a minute before you start the routine to take a quick sensory break (maybe sitting in the bathroom with the lights off for a minute or two), take some deep breaths, or make a thermos of your favourite hot drink to enjoy while going through the bedtime routine. Caring for yourself in this way will be critical in helping your little one with their bedtime routine. If you have been struggling for weeks or even months with bedtime, it can be exhausting to think about trying something new.
Try to tune in with yourself and notice your stress taking over. It is okay to take a break and try again if you feel you will lose your cool. It’s okay to switch off with another caregiver if you need to as well.
See if you can keep in mind a feeling of hope as you try something new, things can change, and you can sleep well again!
Want to learn more?
If you are looking for more bedtime tools for your older toddlers, preschool, or school-aged children, check out my Solving Bedtime Battles course!
This course has easy-to-digest lessons packed with tools to help you find sleep AND feel connected with your kids! We cover everything from setting up bedtime for success, transitioning from co-sleeping to independent sleeping, dropping the nap, sibling room sharing, separation anxiety at night, nightmares, peeing in the night, and SO MUCH MORE!!