How to get your toddler to bed
Why toddlers resist bedtime
You put your toddler to bed at 8:30 at night. You hug him, kiss him, and wish him sweet dreams. It's been a long day.
The dinner dishes await you, your partner has to pay the bills, the dog needs to be walked, the cat needs to be fed, and you haven't had a moment to sit down and put your feet up. But instead of catching up on your chores and spending some precious time with your partner, you're in and out of your child's room, begging him to go to sleep. He finally does – three hours later.
Sound familiar? You may be surprised by just how many of your fellow parents face this scenario night after night.
Sometimes you can tell your toddler's fighting sleep – he rubs his eyes, yawns repeatedly, and falls apart at the slightest frustration. Other times he may seem wide awake, even hyper, but this can be another sign of exhaustion.
What's happening here is the toddler version of "so much to do, so little time." There's so much going on around him – Daddy's in the living room pouring over the mail, the pets are scuttling about, and you're moving from room to room – that he wants to be part of the action too.
And just like other toddlers, your child is beginning to understand that he is his own person, so he wants to assert his independence. Refusing to go to bed at night is one way he exerts control.
What to do
Teach your child to fall asleep alone. If your child will only go to bed when you're around, she's forming bad habits that will be hard to break later. The best lesson you can teach her is how to soothe herself to sleep.
Follow a nightly bedtime ritual (bath, books, then bed, for example) so she knows what to expect at night. Tell her that if she stays in bed you'll come back in five minutes to check on her. Let her know that she's safe and that you'll be nearby.
Don't let him dawdle. Toddlers are great negotiators when it comes to bedtime. And because they so enjoy the time they spend with you, they'll do what they can to prolong it. Your child may take his time doing his nightly routine, ask repeatedly for a glass of water, or think of some urgent task he must do.
If you suspect he's stalling, don't let him. Tell him it's time for bed and that he can finish working on his art project the next day or find his stuffed bunny in the morning.
Try to anticipate all of your child's usual (and reasonable) requests and make them part of the bedtime routine. Put a glass of water on his night table, remind him to use the potty one more time, and give him lots of extra hugs to last him the whole night.
Allow your child one extra request – but make it clear that one is the limit. He'll feel like he's getting his way, but you'll know you're really getting yours.
Offer him acceptable choices at bedtime. Toddlers like to see how far they can push their independence. To help your child feel empowered, let her make bedtime choices whenever possible. Ask her which story she wants to hear or what pajamas she wants to wear.
The trick is to offer only two alternatives and to make sure you're happy with either choice. For example, don't ask, "Do you want to go to bed now?" She could very well say no, which isn't acceptable. Instead, try, "Do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes?" She still gets to make the choice, but you win no matter which option she picks.
Be calm but firm. Stand your ground even if your child whines or pleads, and try not to engage in a power struggle. Speak calmly and quietly but insist that when time's up, time's up. If you give in to his request for "five minutes more, please" once, you'll hear it again and again.
If he throws a fit, find out if there's a reason he's afraid to go to bed. Night-lights and monster checks can reassure him that he's safe.
If he's simply throwing a tantrum, calmly remind him that it's time to sleep and that if he stays quiet, you'll come back to check on him in a few minutes. Then be sure to follow up with what you promised. If he continues to cry, wait a little longer each time before you go back to check on him.
Move her to a big-kid bed. By age 3, your child has probably outgrown her crib and is ready to give it up. Moving from her crib to a bed signals to her that she's becoming a big kid.
You can tell her that part of getting older is learning how to go to sleep on her own when it's bedtime. Once she's using her new bed, be sure to praise her when she stays put at bedtime and overnight.
After the confinement of her crib, your child may get out of her big-kid bed over and over just because she can. If she gets up, simply take her back to bed, firmly tell her that it's time to go to sleep, and leave. If she still won't stay in bed, you can try one of several strategies recommended by top sleep experts.