Not getting sleep is the worst! If your toddler is skipping out on sleep, they are probably more irritable and cranky. And if your toddler isn’t sleeping well, you probably aren’t either! So let’s fix this, once and for all. Science (and moms and dads everywhere) knows that having a consistent toddler bedtime routine can help your little one get better sleep.
But what does that look like? What things should you include in your toddler bedtime routine? Are there any things you shouldn’t do? Read on, and you will find out everything you need to know!
What Happens When Your Toddler Doesn’t Sleep Well?
Did you know crankiness is just one side effect of poor sleep? Turns out there are tons of negative outcomes associated with poor sleep. Here are just a few:
- Children who don’t sleep well have a hard time handling their emotions. This might mean tantrums or lots of tears.
- During sleep, we solidify memories and new skills learned. Without good sleep, it’s hard to remember things.
- Tired children are more likely to have accidents, especially while doing really physical play like running, climbing, and jumping.
- Poor sleep is associated with childhood obesity because children are more hungry when they are tired. Plus, when you sleep poorly, your rate of metabolism decreases.
- Sleep is linked with overall early brain development, and not enough sleep may negatively impact cognition.
If you want more information on the downsides of not getting enough sleep, check out this article.
Why Is Toddler Bedtime Routine So Important?
One study by Mindel et. al found a whole host of reasons why having a sleep routine in place is beneficial for toddlers. The study found the following to be true:
- Children experienced better overall sleep.
- Toddlers had earlier bedtimes when a routine was in place.
- Kids were able to fall asleep faster.
- The children in the study got more total sleep.
- Parents felt their children were sleeping better.
- Parents reported a decrease in negative behaviors during the day.
What to Avoid to Make Bedtime Successful:
There are a few things you want to be certain to avoid when you are putting your toddler to bed. By cutting these out of the routine, you are much more likely to have things go well for bedtime.
Don’t do screen time before bed. This study shows that more screen time in toddlers leads to decreased sleep. Watching bright screens before bed can make the brain think that it’s still light out. The body needs darkness in order to get ready for sleep.
Don’t get your child to bed too late. When children are over-tired they actually have a harder time falling asleep. At our house (because I use the Ferber Method for sleep training) my babies and toddlers go to sleep at 7 pm. I started this when each of my girls was about six months old, and my almost three-year-old still goes to sleep at 7. It’s great for so many reasons!
Don’t let your child get really silly and wound up before bedtime. This will just delay their sleep because they will need longer to calm down.
The Set Up
Sound Machine: We love this sound machine. It has different volumes, different sounds, and a little light that you can turn on to various calming colors. The sound machine helps drown out any other noises that might interrupt sleep.
Lovey or Stuffed Animal: I think these little stuffies are great for babies because they are half animal and half little blanket. These lovies are adorable and there are lots of options for animals. I also like this kind of stuffed animal, because it’s washable, and with kids, that’s a big deal! (Not that I put my child’s stuffed animal in the wash like ever, but it’s a nice option!)
Comfy Pajamas: I love these footie pajamas because they are so soft, and they’re easy to take on and off in case you need a nighttime diaper change. I also like these 2-piece pajamas for when your toddler gets a little older and doesn’t want the footie variety.
Toothbrush and Paste: This toothbrush is made by Dr. Brown, a trusted brand that has great reviews. I also just love that you can get it as a flamingo or an alligator. Making teeth brushing more fun is definitely a win! Our pediatric dentist also recommended this type of toothpaste, because it’s okay for kids to swallow Spry toothpaste because it doesn’t have fluoride.
Bath Toys: These little bubbles are super fun, and my kids love to play with little rubber animals in the bath, too. We also got this little bath toy bag that hangs on the wall. It makes cleaning up way easier.
Favorite Bedtime Stories: There are so many great bedtime stories in the world, it’s hard to narrow it down. But I’ll try! We love Sandra Boynton’s book “The Going to Bed Book”. It’s short, sweet, and silly. I also love “Ten Little Night Stars” by Deb Gruelle. The book walks through a regular bedtime routine by counting stars instead of sheep. I also love the book “If Animals Kissed Like We Kiss Goodnight” by Ann Whitford Paul. The book is so cute, including lots of animals and how they kiss goodnight. Great pictures and cute, silly words.
The Necessary Steps to Include in Your Bedtime Routine:
Toddlers are creatures of habit. They thrive most when they know what’s coming next. Having some idea of their schedule helps them throughout the day, and especially when it comes to sleep. That’s why having a toddler bedtime routine is so vital.
Where: Wherever you are 5-10 minutes before you want to start the bedtime routine.
Toddlers do not have a great sense of time, so giving them a warning before it’s time to start the bedtime routine will be a great help. You don’t have to give them more than 5 or 10 minutes. I often casually throw it out there by saying, “Just so you know, bedtime is in about 5 minutes.”
Honestly, sometimes this gets a big reaction, but I just remind my little one to keep playing and that soon we will go to bed, but “not yet”. They will hopefully get used to the reminder and it won’t be a big deal.
Where: Wherever your child plays the most during the day. I would keep it to a single room, so as not to overwhelm them.
Clean-up time before bed just sets the stage for being all done with playtime. It helps as a natural transition (and I love getting help tidying up the house!) and starts the calm down process.
How much responsibility your child has in clean-up will depend on age and possibly even the temperament of your child. I started this when my toddler was two. Start by giving your child a small task so it is manageable and doesn’t cause you and your toddler to get frustrated.
On really sleepy nights, we just skip it because I know it will only cause problems. Don’t let clean-up time make things harder. (Although, some resistance is to be expected, especially when it’s new!)
Where: In the tub of course!
Some parents choose to make bath time a daily activity and incorporate it into their bedtime routine. You can certainly choose to do this, especially if your child generally enjoys bath time.
For those toddlers that enjoy baths, it can be a very calming, relaxing activity that leads easily into bedtime. However, if your child fights bath time (either getting in or getting out), it may not be something you want to include in your routine. It’s up to you since you know your child best!
Potty Break/Diaper Change/Pajamas
Where: In the bathroom and then into their room.
After bath (if you choose to give one) it’s time to get a night diaper on or maybe underwear. (If your toddler is already potty trained, congrats! That’s no small feat!) Let your child empty their bladder (again, only if that’s something they are doing at this point) and get them into their pajamas.
Let this be a fun time, giving your child the choice of what pajamas they want to wear. If you’ve got a young one that isn’t talking yet, you can just hold up two pairs of pajamas and ask “Which one do you want?” and then dress them in whichever one they grab.
(If you’re in need of more tips on how to help your little one with communication, check out my post here.)
When giving your child options for pajamas, make sure they fit well and are the right amount of warmth. Putting your child in fleece pajamas when it’s 95 degrees out might be terrible, just like letting them wear shorts and a t-shirt in the dead of winter. (Whenever I think about this, I realize how difficult it would be for me to sleep if I were way overheated or freezing the whole night.) Just be mindful of what you are putting them in.
Bonus: Giving your child options helps them to feel in control, and will help avoid the dreaded “toddler bedtime tantrum”.
Where: Likely in the bathroom.
It is recommended that you start brushing your child’s teeth as soon as they have even one. At first, the teeth brushing is just to get them used to the sensation. Eventually, though, teeth brushing becomes important for toddlers as they get more teeth and eat a wider variety of foods.
Teeth brushing can be a great time to let your little one have some independence. Let them try to brush on their own, and follow up with some of your own brushing, to make sure it’s truly effective.
Toddler Bedtime Story
Where: In their bedrooms, a rocking chair, or on a comfy couch.
Storytime is another opportunity for your children to settle in and get their little brains ready for sleep. In order to avoid those toddler bedtime tantrums, let them choose the books they want to read. Or if you are feeling inspired, your toddler bedtime story might be one you make up. Sometimes I let my little one choose what the topic should be for my story, or who will be in the story. She loves that (even though the storyline is often lacking!) I usually set a limit (two books or stories per night in our house), but the number is up to you.
When giving your child choices of books to read, be careful to not offer the silliest book you have. This might get them into a fit of giggles or wound up in general. (Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE hearing my children giggle, but the point of a bedtime routine is to help your child calm down. Save the silly story and laughter for the morning.)
Once your child has chosen their books for the night, it’s good to settle into their bed with them or snuggle them on a couch. Let them get comfy and cuddly so their body can start to relax and be ready for sleep.
No matter what book my toddler picks out (or which kind of story she wants to hear), I always try to read it in a calm voice. I slow down how quickly I talk and use a softer voice. Again, this just helps set the stage for calming down.
Where: In their bed or in a rocking chair or couch (especially if your child is still in a crib). I like to turn the lights out at this time, too.
In our family, this is a really important part of our nightly routine. Prayer is something I want to model and practice with my family. I tell my kids to fold their little hands and close their eyes (they aren’t always up for this, but I show them that I am doing it and sometimes they follow along). When my children are babies, I say a prayer over them, out loud. As my first has gotten older, I ask her if she wants to pray. She doesn’t always want to, which is perfectly fine. When she does though, it is the sweetest, most wonderful thing to hear.
*Personal side note, my daughter had heard me praying for my grandmother who has been sick lately. The other night when it was her turn to pray, she said “Dear God, please help Grandma Hilda to feel better”. It was the sweetest thing and a moment I treasure.
Toddler Bedtime Songs
Where: In their bed, in a rocking chair, or couch. I keep the lights off for this part.
Singing is a HUGE part of our day, every day. I noticed just weeks after taking my first one home from the hospital that singing had a wonderfully calming effect. That is why I love to sing before bedtime. Sing something that is soothing and sweet. You can try classics like “Rock a By Baby” or “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. We often do songs from church. I also end on a little song I made up for each of my girls that incorporates their names. Do whatever works for you!
(Want more info on when and why to sing to your toddler? Check out my article here.)
I read in a book on sleep training (the Ferber Method) that it can be really helpful to say the same thing to your child every night, just before you leave them. It can be something simple like “Goodnight” or a little longer like “I love you sweet one, sleep well.” Whatever fits your style. The consistency in wording from a young age will help them know that sleep is coming next.
How to Stop Toddler Bedtime Tantrums:
Honestly, following a consistent routine and letting your child choose some of what happens during bedtime will help decrease toddler bedtime tantrums.
When trying to figure out how to STOP toddler tantrums, you have to figure out WHY they are getting upset. Are they too tired? (Try an earlier bedtime) Is your toddler a little hungry? Try a healthy bedtime snack (maybe some fruit). There could be any number of reasons but getting to the root of it will help you solve the problem.
One of my favorite things to do is to distract your child as you see them getting upset. Sometimes this can stop a tantrum before it starts.
If you want more in-depth information, check out my article about how to stop toddler tantrums right here.
Hopefully, this guide helped you understand how to change toddler bedtime. It will take time, and you will have to decide exactly what works best for you. But I think above all, a good bedtime routine means consistency and calming. If you can get those two elements down, I think you will see great improvement! Good luck, and sleep well!