Are you struggling with getting your toddler or preschooler to bed? Bedtime resistance is common in the toddler and preschooler years and what was once an easy bedtime can often stretch out to hours. Similarly night waking may resurface (or not improve as expected). There are many reasons for disturbed bedtimes and waking (see HERE for more), however the bedtime routine and what happens immediately before it is key in my opinion.
Toddlerhood and the preschool years often mean that children are more likely to be separated from their parents in the daytime. Even if one or both parents stay home from work, children often attend nursery/kindergarten. Similarly, the arrival of a new sibling often means that older children don’t get to spend the 1-2-1 time with their parents that they need during the daytime. This separation, lack of 1-2-1 and need to reconnect in the evenings can – and often does – play havoc with bedtime. It’s not just bedtime that can be negatively affected though, night waking may increase (because the child needs the parent more in the night when they wake).
So, what can you do to help?
My answer is to schedule in re-connection playtime every evening, between dinner and bedtime. I know many working parents will read that sentence and say “but I don’t have time for that, it’s too late – and I need adult time!”. The thing is, if what you’re doing now isn’t working then you need to make a change. A delayed bedtime allows time for re-connection which means an easier, quicker bedtime and often less night-waking. A trade-off you may consider worth it. Ideally this re-connection time lasts for an hour and that hour is spent fully engaged playing with the child. For the first forty-five minutes of the re-connection time, make play as loud, crazy and busy as possible. Lots of running around, lots of rough-housing, lots of being really silly. In the summer, this is great spent outside, in the garden/yard or park. Think of it as having a puppy who needs to get their energy out ready to be crated for the night. A toddler and preschooler is no different, except that to them play spells connection too. The only proviso here is that the child needs to lead the play as much as possible and that screens don’t feature at all (so no TV, tablets or smart phones). After 45 minutes, slow the play down and come inside, into your main living area. Now it’s time for 15 minutes of quiet time. Reading books, drawing, puzzles and so on – once again, no screens. This is time that needs to ideally be spent sitting and as still as possible, because it’s preparing the child for bedtime. Once the final 15 minutes of calm play is up, it signals that bedtime is shortly about to begin. Just before bedtime begins though, I recommend a quick bedtime snack. My snack of choice is wholewheat (brown) toast with almond butter, or porridge/oatmeal with sliced bananas (these snacks contain good levels of tryptophan and magnesium, needed for sleep).
Once snack time is over, it’s time for bedtime to begin. Here, my only proviso is that once bedtime starts, you don’t go back to the main living area again, you only go to the bathroom and the room your child sleeps in. Nowhere else. This is a firm boundary (see HERE for setting and upholding boundaries in a gentle but effective way).
Let’s look at a quick run-down of what a typical evening might look like. I’ve based this on a bedtime (sleep onset) of 8:15pm, which research shows is a good physiological match for toddlers and preschoolers. Obviously timings won’t be as exact as they are here, and you may need to juggle times to work for you, especially if you work, so this is just a rough idea:
- 5:30-6:00pm: Dinner/tea time
- 6:00-6:45pm: Crazy and loud active play (no screens)
- 6:45-7:00pm: Calmer, quiet play (no screens)
- 7:00-7:25pm; Bedtime snack
- 7:25pm: Prepare bedroom for sleep
- 7:30-7:40pm: Bathtime
- 7:40-7:50pm: Into PJs etc..
- 7:50pm: Story, milk, cuddles
- 8:00-8:15pm: Sleep onset