Tips for breaking the pattern of bedtime battles

Sleep – a parent’s best friend, and one of those friends it’s really hard to schedule a time to hang out with, because they’re so busy and you’re so busy, and maybe you’re both free for lunch next Sunday? But only if you start late and leave early, and you miss them, but you can’t remember how you found enough time to hang out to become friends to begin with. Right?

Most toddlers have a different kind of relationship with sleep, though, and some of them have the kind of relationship you can best describe as “arch-nemesis.” If getting your little one ready for bed feels like as much of a struggle as the last fight scene in a superhero movie – and takes just as long – you’re very much not alone. There isn’t a magic solution to this problem, but there are a few different strategies you can use so that the epic struggle might eventually get solved.

Break the cycle

If you’ve reached the point where you and Baby have been battling it out over bedtime for so long that it’s hard to remember when either one of you last had a good night’s sleep, it may be that you’ve fallen into a holding pattern, and it’ll take desperate measures to get you out of it. Desperate measures might mean allowing something that’s on your “never ever” list happen – for example, letting them fall asleep in your bed, letting them fall asleep watching a movie, rocking them to sleep like they're a newborn, or letting them stay up, snuggled up next to you, until they fall asleep. None of these are habits you want to get into, but one night won’t create a habit, and the novelty of it might give you a chance to regroup.

The reason to do this isn’t just to finally get a good night’s sleep – although it’s amazing what a difference even one night can make. It’s hard to switch from a regular pattern of resistance to bedtime right into a healthy, easy bedtime routine. So if your pattern of resistance gets broken up, even by just a day or two, you may be able to turn this into an opportunity to build a new pattern.

Taking a night to break the cycle is great to do on a weekend night or some other time when neither of you has to be up at a specific time the next day. You’ll both be much better able to take on a new plan of attack for bedtime once you’ve actually had the chance to get some rest.

Back to the drawing board

If your current bedtime routine isn’t working out, that doesn’t mean that they doesn’t need one – or even that there was anything wrong with the first one – but if a routine has become part of a pattern of bedtime resistance, it can be hard to convince Baby that following the same pattern they are used to fighting back against should go differently.

Even if the bedtime routine you try next has a lot of the same ingredients as the first one, see if you can mix up the order and presentation enough that it feels fresh – maybe you can read Baby a (pretty hardy) book while they're in the bath and sing a song with them as you’re tucking them in, instead of saving stories for once they're in bed.

If you think Baby is feeling out of control at bedtime, you could have them put their toys to bed first before it’s their turn to be tucked in, or even have them help you out with a few end-of-day, bedtime tasks, like turning out the lights in most of your home or watering any houseplants. Whatever you choose to do, with a little luck, your new bedtime routine can help you reframe the way Baby thinks about bedtime.

Narrow down your battles

When it comes to Baby resisting bedtime, it’s easy to get caught up in the loop of “They're defying me, they won’t do what I ask,” and to dig in your heels on issues that don’t really matter much but can lead to very intense battles. This can include things like wearing pajamas to bed – not, in the end, a completely necessary step. PJs are generally more comfortable to sleep in, but if you give your little one the chance to find that out for themself, there’s a good chance that they'll agree and will have fewer objections to getting into their jammies before too long. And if they doesn’t? It’s still not that big of a deal.

In the same vein, skipping brushing their teeth once or twice isn’t the end of the world, especially if the natural consequence of not brushing their teeth – which may be that they doesn’t get to have any sweets, treats, or juice because they need to protect their teeth from cavities – might make them that much more willing to brush. Another strategy for cutting tooth brushing out of the battle over bedtime is to make tooth-brushing something that happens just after the last meal of the day, instead of just before bed. It’s a small change to the routine, and may only change the timing a tad, but the reframing can help tooth brushing happen more easily.

Another part of many families’ bedtimes that could be shifted around to help things run more smoothly is bathtime. If taking a bath just seems to energize your toddler, it might be a good activity to try out as part of your morning, rather than evening, routine. This kind of narrowing down is helpful because if you and your little one are fighting over every step of bedtime, by the time you’re ready to actually put them down for sleep, they may be overtired and worked-up – and you’re exhausted and maybe not feeling up to standing firm.

Talk to their doctor

If you start to be concerned that your toddler just isn’t getting enough sleep, their pediatrician may be able to talk you through more unusual strategies or may evaluate them for any medical reason why they might be unable or unwilling to sleep. 

  • “Protecting Your Child’s Bedtime Routine.” National Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation. Retrieved September 27 2017.
  • “Toddler Bedtime Trouble: Tips for Parents.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, December 6 2011. Retrieved September 27 2017. 

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