‘One more book’, ‘one more kiss’, ‘I need a drink’, ‘I need the potty’ ‘stay pleeeease’…does any of this sound familiar? Stalling or resisting bedtime is an incredibly common challenge toddler parents face.
It isn’t your toddler trying to manipulate you, to push your buttons, or ‘hold you hostage’ in the bedroom. This is your toddler struggling with the impending separation from you. Your child is seeking closeness and connection with you, and from their perspective, they’re about to be left alone which makes them anxious.
In addition to the fear of separation from you, toddlerhood is a time of language growth and with that the expansion of imagination, which can be hard to shut off at bedtime. They might start being scared of the dark or of monsters in their room.
It’s 100% okay if your toddler wants you to stay with them until they fall asleep, and it works for you and your family to do so. They will fall asleep independently when they’re developmentally ready.
However, if you need to be with other children, or you need the evenings to have some space for yourself or to spend with your partner (which parent doesn’t!), it’s also 100% okay to hold boundaries around what you expect at bedtime, which in turn makes your child feel safe to sleep independently.
If you have a toddler resisting bedtime, try our 10 gentle, respectful, and responsive steps that do not require any form of sleep training to help toddler bedtimes to go smoother.
Allow time after dinner, preferably one-on-one, to enjoy each other and fill each other’s love cup. Giving them your undivided attention helps them to feel close, noticed, and valued. This might be something like singing songs, reading books, blowing bubbles, cuddling and chatting, play a game with them, hide and seek, playdough, or draw together.
If you haven’t already developed a consistent bedtime routine, now is the time to start. It doesn’t have to be too rigid and lengthy, as long as you do roughly the same series of events each night. This will look different for every family, so find something that works for you. Calmly and warmly remind them about the routine before and during it. For example, ‘Remember, we’re going to read two books, have two big hugs, say goodnight to your teddy, and have a drink before we say goodnight’.
Bedtime doesn’t have to be serious, quiet, and boring. Toddlers prefer fun, laughter, and being playful. Some ideas include:
Here are some suggestions to ensure positive sleepy cues and good sleep hygiene:
If your toddler hasn’t yet formed an attachment to a comforter, otherwise known as a transitional object, you might consider one now as it can be a great tool to help with the separation from you. It could be a blanket, cuddly toy, or muslin square. It’s worthwhile choosing something that can be easily replaced. It should not have parts that could pose a choking risk, such as plastic eyes or nose. Choosing something that is machine-washable is also a good idea – they can get very grotty being carried around, drooled over during sleep time, and cuddled closely in times of illness.
If your toddler usually requests snacks, water, or whatever it may be at bedtime to stall, do all of these things before bed as part of your routine. You might leave a bottle of water within reach of their bed as well. There will be feelings from them about your boundaries but there’s no need to fear these feelings or protests. If you’re confident in your bedtime boundaries, over time they will protest less and feel more secure to sleep in their beds independently. You could say ‘I see that you would like me to stay longer, and I love this time with you too, but it’s time to say goodnight. I’m so excited to see you in the morning and give you a big cuddle’.
To further help with the separation from you and any fears of loneliness, you might like to leave a meditation recording or audiobook aimed at toddlers playing that they can listen to when you leave the room.
Pop out of the bedroom just for a minute or two. Tell them you’re going to the toilet, and you’ll be right back to check on them (make sure that you follow through with it), and then gradually increase the time before returning, but ONLY if they’re not crying or upset in any way. Calmly, and with a smile, go back in as soon as they need you. We don’t want to be increasing their fears or setting up any negative associations with bedtime.
And that brings us to the final step. If bedtimes have been stressful, drawn out, and frustrating recently, it’s time to hit the reset button. Changing mindsets from one of a battle to a time of closeness and connection to your little one is the key. Yes, we’re exhausted and can’t wait for some alone time, but the more we rush and pressure toddlers to go to sleep, the longer the whole process will be. Take a deep breath, it won’t last forever, and remember that the only way to create natural independence is through many, many moments of nurtured dependence.