How To Manage A Toddler Resisting Bedtime

Does a toddler resisting bedtime sound familiar? Let me set the scene: you’ve made dinner and negotiated with your 3-year-old to take 5 bites in exchange for a cookie. Hustled through your sleep routine (which burns you more calories than a Cody Rigsby spin class). You let your toddler pick out another book, sign a lullaby, and line up their stuffed animals multiple times. You say goodnight, close the door, and finally sit on the couch for the first time in 4 hours… and you hear the door open. (Insert cringe.) 

Toddlers are constantly testing boundaries- it’s a normal, natural phase of toddlerhood! As a parent, it’s incredibly challenging to navigate. Bedtime is a gold mine for toddler boundary-pushing and unfortunately, you are the only one that can keep the trains moving forward! 

Requesting another book, needing to go pee, wanting to kiss the dog, needing water- the list goes on and on. This can be a time when parents fall back to old habits or create new habits that give into their toddler’s behavior and bedtime can become a 2-hour circus production. Parents need tools to help put their child to bed and limit the bedtime battles. Today, I’m sharing tips to help YOU navigate a toddler resisting bedtime. 

How To Manage A Toddler Resisting Bedtime

Main Causes of a Toddler Resisting Bedtime

There are many potential culprits that could be behind your toddler resisting bedtime.  Once you can find the root of the issue, it’s much easier to navigate this phase and make bedtime easier! 

Sleep regressions

Toddlers have a LOT of developmental milestones that occur between the ages of 18 months-4 years old. Toddler sleep regressions can occur when language and physical developments start to increase, when they transition from a crib to a toddler bed, or if there are other big changes going on. These changes can make it much harder to get your toddler to go to sleep. Sleep regressions commonly occur in toddlers who are 12 months, 18 months, 2 years, and 3 years old. If you’re experiencing a toddler resisting bedtime, there’s a good chance that you’re witnessing a sleep regression. 

Your toddler isn’t sleepy

You can’t wave a magic wand to make your toddler tired, but you can control what happens leading up to bedtime. For some toddlers and school-aged children, winding down and getting mentally and physically prepared for bedtime can take up to 2 hours. Now don’t worry, you don’t have to go overboard and create a 2-hour bedtime routine. However, try to be thoughtful and intentional about the activities that your toddler is doing an hour or two before bedtime. I have a whole post on bedtime activities for preschoolers full of ideas to help your little one wind down! Not only will these activities help your toddler relax, but once you’ve nailed down a routine that they enjoy, they’ll start looking forward to their nightly routine!

Winding Down Tips to Avoid Your Toddler Resisting Bedtime 

Create an optimal environment for winding down

The hour before it’s time to sleep can directly impact nighttime sleep. Try to create a relaxing environment about an hour or two before bedtime. No rough-housing or aggressive play at this point, no screen time, and nothing sugary to eat or drink (these can all result in a toddler resisting bedtime). Your goal is to help prepare your child’s body for a long stretch of sleep. There are tons of toddler sleep products to help your little one become tired and achieve deep sleep! 

Practice bedtime yoga

Some children find this to be overly stimulating, while others enjoy this physical activity prior to bedtime. Sleepy Little Yoga is one of my favorite books to help calm the body and the mind through yoga. 

For children having a hard time settling their minds and thoughts, you can put on a guided meditation. This would occur the last 10-15 minutes of their routine should take place with them lying in their bed listening to a guided meditation for children. There are tons of free guided meditations on YouTube, or you can start with a free trial on Head Space.

Meditations are very relaxing for the brain, which is good for a child who may be feeling a bit of anxiety at bedtime. However, if you choose to listen to these meditations you’ll want the screen to be dark to avoid any exposure to technology!

Give your toddler an evening snack

Evening snacks can be beneficial for sleep in two ways:

  1. It can fill their belly so that they don’t keep waking up during the night. 
  2. Depending on what the child eats, it can actually help them sleep through the night! 

Not all snacks are the same, as some can give your child too much energy before bed. Below are examples of nutritious snacks that will naturally help lead to good sleep:

  • Hummus and whole-grain crackers
  • Whole grain bread/toast
  • Kiwis
  • Bananas
  • Cherries or tart cherry juice
  • Plain yogurt with granola and/or fresh bananas or cherries (or other fruits)
  • Oatmeal
  • Almonds
  • Low-sugar cereal with milk
  • Pretzels
  • Plain bagel

A word of caution about giving anything with fruit, dairy products, or regular cereal: If you’re going to offer these foods, be aware that there is sugar in these foods that could give your child a sudden boost of energy. You may want to experiment with them first to see if your child has a reaction.

Practice deep breathing

Deep breathing is a powerful exercise that kids and adults of all ages can utilize to relax and get ready for sleep. You can make this a part of your nightly routine by doing the following:

  1. Tell your child to pretend that you just baked their favorite flavor of cake (you can use a pretend cake or draw one for a visual).
  2. Ask them to smell the cake (they should breathe in deeply through their nose).
  3. Count to 3.
  4. Direct them to blow out all of the candles on their cake (they should pretend to do so)!
  5. Do this with them 3x.

Regular exercise during the day

The more physically active your toddler is throughout the day, the better they’ll sleep at night. When the body has been stressed like that, it will automatically attempt to recover from this stress by producing more deep sleep than usual that night. Exercise also improves your child’s mood and helps to reduce stress, anxiety, or tension.

“Exercising” simply means being physically active. For your child that might mean riding a trike, dancing, running, skipping, jumping, playing at the park, swimming, or playing in the snow. For days that you can’t get outside try dancing, playing tag, doing some jumping jacks, or games like “Simon Says” (where they can copy your moves).

As long as your child does at least 20-30 minutes worth of physical activity during the day, they’ll be more tired at night. Try to avoid exercising too close to bed, as it will raise their body temperature, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Quiet or calming activities are better suited before bed.

Eliminate screen time before bed

Screen time is scientifically proven to delay the onset of sleep in that it exposes the retina to blue light and delays the onset of melatonin production. This can cause both children and adults to struggle with falling and staying asleep. Therefore, you’ll want to avoid any sort of electronic time at least 60 minutes before bed. Instead, I would encourage your child to have quiet play activities, such as coloring, drawing, puzzles, legos, crafts, imaginary play, dress up, etc.

Make Sure You Have A Consistent Toddler Bedtime Routine 

Having a bedtime routine with a clear, consistent series of events is critical for toddlers to help them learn that it’s time for sleep and provide you less stress leaving the room. This will help minimize the chances of your toddler resisting bedtime. About 30 minutes before bed, start with their bedtime routine. For this age, I’d recommend something similar to the following sequence:

  • Bath (on bath nights)
  • Bathroom (if potty trained) or change into diaper
  • Brush teeth 
  • Change into pajamas
  • Let your toddler pick 2 or 3 books (giving them options will help give them a sense of power throughout the routine, but limiting the options also establishes the boundaries)
  • Sing a song
  • Turn on a white noise machine
  • Shut off light
  • Lay into your toddler’s bed, say goodnight, I love you
  • Close the bedroom door and leave

Navigating fear and anxiety

Sometimes, a toddler resisting bedtime is the result of fears and anxieties. I’d recommend you check out any of the following books and read them to your child if need be. These books cover a variety of fears including being afraid of the dark, which is a common fear!

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears

Mikey and the Dragons

Orion and the Dark

When I Feel Scared

Scaredy Squirrel at Night

When To Push Back Toddler Bedtime

I typically recommend adjusting a toddler’s bedtime if it’s taking them over 30 minutes to fall asleep or if their overall sleep schedule has been thrown off. If your toddler is starting to stall bedtime, then this information is for YOU. If you have your own toddler resisting bedtime, I would focus on the quality of their daytime sleep and naptime. 

If these things are a non-issue, then I would start to push bedtime 10-15 minutes later and see if that helps. If your toddler is experiencing night wakings, I wouldn’t jump to moving their bedtime later. This is likely a sign of developmental milestones like separation anxiety, language, or physical development.

Feel like you’ve tried all of this and are still having bedtime problems? Dreaming of a child who stays in bed all night? Let me help you implement it and coach you along the way. I offer one-on-one sleep services so that YOU can finally figure get quality sleep.

Learn more about our sleep support services on our website or on our Instagram @sleep.shore.

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