Does your toddler struggle to get to sleep at night and you feel like pulling your hair out every night? You might need to create a bedtime routine for your toddler which will make bedtime SO much easier.
All the information I’m about to share with you here is in line with Gentle Parenting. Gentle Parenting is a respect based parenting strategy I teach so you can effectively discipline your kids without having to be harsh and feel like an angry mom. It’s a life changing discipline strategy that can be used in every part of parenting. To get a head start on Gentle Parenting be sure to sign up for my free course to get you started.
The 3 “must haves” of a good toddler bedtime routine
I believe these are the 3 essential aspects of creating a good toddler routine, and as I go over the different tips for creating your toddler routine in this post you’ll see how true this is but I want to cover it right away so you have this in mind.
Being consistent with your routine will give your toddler predictability and security. There will be no question of what happens next because it will be consistent every night. The firmness of the consistency will help them to sleep when it’s time because they’ll know when it’s time to sleep then it’s definitely time to sleep.
Now this might sound opposite to what I just said, but it’s not.
It’s important to be flexible with your toddler’s bedtime routine because you might realize there are things that need to be changed either permanently, or for that night alone.
For example, if normally your partner says goodnight to your toddler before you put them to bed but tonight your partner is getting home a little late it’s good to be flexible to allow that goodnight time to happen later.
Or if your toddler asks for their water bottle right before lights out but it’s all the way in the kitchen, you could still be flexible by getting it for them. This is part of respecting our children, the first pillar in my 6 pillars of Gentle Parenting.
We just don’t want to be so flexible to the point where the toddler is controlling the routine. Now of course, we are still in control, but we can be flexible out of respect and love for our toddler when the situation calls for it. We don’t want to get so caught up in the routine that we become rigid.
The third and final must have for a good toddler bedtime routine is patience.
If we are impatient with our toddler to get to sleep then that will reflect in the energy we are projecting to them and we’ll be more likely to get into power struggles. Instead we want to stay patient, even if they are taking a really long time to do their tasks.
This is why starting the bedtime routine fairly early can actually be a good idea. We might WISH it only takes our toddler 1 minute to brush their teeth, but if the whole process takes closer to 10 minutes then that’s what we should budget for. Be patient with them, even if it takes a long time, knowing that your patience will make it easier for them to fall asleep.
Why is a toddler bedtime routine so important?
Toddlers need a bedtime routine to help them wind down at night to make it easier to fall asleep. A routine also creates a sense of predictability which creates associations which helps them to fall asleep.
For example, if reading books is the last thing you do in the routine before they sleep then as that becomes a predictable part of their life they will start to know it’s time to sleep once the books are finished.
What time should my toddler go to bed?
A lot of parents ask this question, but the truth is it’s not about what time they go to sleep, but how much sleep they’re getting.
If you toddler needs 12 hours of sleep they could sleep from 6 PM to 6 AM…or they could sleep from 10 PM to 10 AM. It’s really about how much sleep they are getting.
According to WebMD, children between 1-3 years old need 12-14 hours of sleep per day (so this would include nap time). However, a lot of toddlers only get 10 hours of sleep, and as the parent you’re probably more in tune with how much sleep they need.
Sometimes your child’s behaviour might be impacted by the lack of sleep they’re getting and you might have to deal with more tantrums (I have all the Gentle Parenting solutions for tantrums here). You might think that they’ll naturally sleep the right amount of time at night, even if they go to bed at 10 AM but they might be getting a lack of sleep because something is waking them up too early in the morning.
Of course a schedule might be disrupting their sleep, for example if you have to take older siblings to school and the toddler has to come along.
But in the morning your toddler might be waking up too early because of noise and movement in the house or even the sunlight in their bedroom. They might actually still need more sleep but they’re waking up too early. Or if you bed share with your toddler they might be waking up too early because you’re tossing and turning, or getting out of bed.
If this is the base, then you might need to make their bedtime earlier so they’re getting enough sleep all night long.
The importance of keeping bedtime relaxed and comforting
It is very important to keep bedtime as relaxed and comforting as possible. This helps your toddler to wind down and for their mind to relax. If bedtime is stressful for them then that stress is going to make it harder for them to fall asleep, and we definitely don’t want that.
Getting into power struggles at bedtime are so common. For example, we tell them to brush their teeth and they don’t. These power struggles can make us both stressed, and will keep your toddler awake for longer. Oh no!
So if you’re dealing with a lot of power struggles at bedtime one tip I want to share with you is this:
Follow through with what you’ve asked instead of repeating yourself.
Instead of telling them 100 times to go brush their teeth, if they haven’t done it the first them then go to them and calmly direct them to do it. You’re their coach! It’s not about control or forcing them to do it (this is a recipe for a power struggle) but it’s about coaching them to follow through with the routine and instructions.
It’s also important to stay as patient as possible. Does your 3 year old take a REALLY long time to brush their teeth? Maybe right as they’re about to put the toothbrush in their mouth they start talking about puppies? This could be frustrating for us as the parent if we have a mental countdown to when they’ll be asleep, but just because the stopped for a moment to talk about puppies doesn’t mean they’re not still working on brushing their teeth.
Ever cook dinner and while doing so check a notification on your phone? Doesn’t mean you’re not still cooking, it’s ok to pause for a moment.
Remember that next time your toddler deters from their task. You can still keep them on track so they don’t completely abandon their task, but it doesn’t require us to be impatient or frustrated. Eventually they will brush their teeth. And it’s much better for them to feel like, “Yay, I did it!” after brushing their teeth than to feel like they just lost a battle.
Related: 6 Ways to Stop Being an Angry Mom
What is a good toddler bedtime routine?
Here is a suggested bedtime routine for a toddler, but you obviously can customize it for what works best in your family.
- Brush teeth
- Lights out and cuddle
I think it’s really important to make sure our kids aren’t hungry at bedtime, so if there is a lot of time between dinner and bedtime then a snack might be necessary in that schedule too. We want children to be able to listen to their bodies when their body tells them they’re hungry. Sometimes a toddler asking for a snack at bedtime might seem like they’re trying to stall, but making sure their bellies are full is important. So adding a snack into the bedtime routine can help prevent them from making it a stalling technique.
Create a routine that will work best for your family and life. And you can always change the routine if things change, or if you realize you’re missing something that they need (like snack time).
The importance of the lights out and cuddle step
For me, turning the lights off and cuddling the toddler until they fall asleep has been the most effective, and because they’re used to the routine and know it’s 100% time to sleep (and I’m not trying to make them sleep too early) they fall asleep almost instantly.
Cuddling them to fall asleep helps them feel comforted and secure, but I realize that’s not a possibility for everyone whether it be that you have other children to attend to, or your mental health needs as much free time in the evening as possible.
If you’re not able to cuddle them to sleep just make sure they feel safe, and you can always have a special way of saying goodnight to make them feel connected before you leave. You could also play them music to fall asleep and say you’ll be leaving after the first song or something like that. Keep it predictable so when you do go they don’t jump up and ask where you’re going.
Toddler routine charts make it easier for them to go to bed
To get your toddler used to the routine you might like printing off a routine chart (just google, “toddler bedtime routine chart” because there are so many).
Or what I think is great is to take pictures of them doing each step of the routine and then display them in order of the routine somewhere at their eye level. Then after they’ve done one step you point to the picture of them doing the next step.
But if you’re like me this might not be your style, especially if the routine transforms. My toddler just got used to the order we do things in and when I list them on my finger that helps her grasp the steps we’re going to take.
How to make toddlers stay in bed
Ok, now here is the real challenge – getting toddlers to stay in bed. Because it does not feel good to put all that work into getting them to sleep and then as you’re winding down for the day they come out of their room. Here are my Gentle Parenting focused tips to keep your toddlers in bed.
I have an entire article dedicated to how to help 3 year olds stay in bed that you can read right here.
#1. Make sure they feel safe alone
If their room feels like a scary place or like they’re being forced in there then it will make them more restless as they try to sleep. This is why it’s important not to create power struggles at bedtime, or the bedroom can feel like a place of resistance.
You can also consider giving them a night light if they’re scared of the dark, although that might actually disturb their sleep.
Making sure to tuck them in and cuddle if you can will help them to feel safe.
#2. Always calmly walk them back to bed
When they get out of bed and come to you it’s important to have a consistent response, and staying calm and matter of fact can help.
If they get out of bed to say they have to go potty, then take them potty, even if they don’t actually “go” because saying, “No, you already went potty” can easily turn into an unnecessary power struggle.
Do the task very matter of factly, no need to talk about other things, just get straight to the point and get them back to bed. If they’re asking for things or reaching for things that aren’t necessary (like to play with toys) just say, “Oh it’s sleeping time now, tomorrow morning we can play with that.” This is better than just saying, “No” which again can quickly create a power struggle and stress. They’re allowed to want to play with their toys, but sleeping time isn’t the time to do so. That’s a boundary you can hold firm.
#3. Consider a later bedtime
There is of course the possibility that you’re just trying to get your toddler to sleep sooner than they need. If you always do lights out at 6 PM but they’re ALWAYS awake for an hour (often getting out of bed) then maybe it’s better to do lights out at 7. Experiment with this to see if maybe they’re just not falling asleep at 6 PM because they’re not tired yet.
#4. Use a time to sleep clock
If you think your child will respond well to this, try using a “time to sleep clock” to give them a clear boundary of when they’re supposed to be in bed and when they’re allowed to get up.
This type of clock is super helpful if they tend to get up too early in the morning.
Here are some examples you can consider.
In conclusion for creating your toddler’s bedtime routine what I really want you to remember is what I said at the beginning:
Follow these 3 bedtime principles and bedtime will be so much easier. These 3 principles of course are also totally in tune with Gentle Parenting.
If these tips have helped you, or the 3 principles are in tune with how you want to parent, then you should definitely sign up for Gentle Foundations for Parenting, my free course. It will help you to start to apply these types of methods to all areas of parenting and discipline.