Toddlers and the bedtime routine

There’s nothing like sinking into your bed after a long day of raising a toddler. Unfortunately at this age, Baby might not afford you that luxury. He may have a tendency to cry, scream, and generally resist going to bed at night. While this is normal at his age, it’s something that getting a head-start on addressing can only help with. Many parents of young babies may feel like they’re just barely holding on, when it comes to making bedtime happen, but moving into the toddler years is a great chance to establish a bedtime routine that can send you both sweet dreams for years to come.

Why a routine is important

As Baby’s brain continues to develop at a seriously speedy rate, he is beginning to experiment with the amount of control that he has on his environment. What can Baby change? What can he get away with? A flexible schedule may sound like your dream life – no schedules! no time constraints! – but it’s actually quite stressful on a toddler. And it doesn’t prepare him for the schedules that are inevitably approaching, like preschool, sports, playdates, and more.

A study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that nightly routines decreased stress in toddlers, improved their daytime behavior, and even helped improve the mood of the child’s caretakers.

Why Baby resists the routine

If you’ve ever stayed up past your own bedtime just trying to finish one more thing, then you can understand why Baby wants to, too! He wants to do anything besides lie still in a dark room – but that’s exactly why a routine is such a good idea. Baby hasn’t had the practice with self-control and self-regulation that you’ve been working on throughout your life, but he has you on his team to send him off to bed before he gets too tired.

A basic routine 

The specifics of a routine really depend on what works best for your family, but a rough schedule could look like this:
  • An early active playtime to tire out Baby
  • A calming activity, like a bath or story
  • Bedtime, with the lights turned off and Baby lying in his crib 
Knowing what activity is coming next helps Baby understand the structure of the process, and even if he protests, that doesn’t mean that the routine isn’t good for him. If it helps, you can practice this routine by using it at naptime too – the more Baby understands that these activities lead up to sleep, the easier it will be to get him to go along with it.

What a routine shouldn’t involve 

Again, this depends on what personally works for you and Baby. There are lots of different techniques that work for parents, but most parents do find that some common activities hurt a routine more than they help it. Some of these include active playtime for Baby immediately before bedtime, turning the lights in Baby’s room back on at any point in the night, and taking Baby out of the crib after you’ve initially put him down for the night. These activities may rile Baby up and make it more difficult for him to go back to sleep.

Bedtime routine after hours

Even the perfect bedtime routine won’t always immediately send Baby off into dreamland. There are bound to be hiccups along the way, and a steep learning curve too. In the beginning, Baby might resist any new schedule in his normal routine. 

To start to let the adjustment play out, it can help not to immediately run to Baby when you hear him cry for you after you’ve put him down to bed. This doesn’t mean ignoring him, but rather giving him a moment to check the situation out before deciding whether or not he is going to settle in for a really good wail.

Some parents prefer to use the Ferber method, which favors longer and longer pauses before responding to cries that aren’t prompted by harm or danger. This may or may not work for you, but what’s important to remember is that toddlers cry for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re letting out extra energy or simply soothing themselves to sleep. Being selective about which cries you respond to, and when you respond to them, can teach babies that crying won’t always bring a parent running into the room, and that maybe it’s better to settle themselves down to sleep.

Sticking with a predictable bedtime routine isn’t always easy – Baby isn’t the only one who is getting tired by the end of the day. It’s worth it for Baby in the long run, though. And once Baby adjusts to the new schedule, you’ll be spending less time in his room, and more time in your own.

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