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Bedtime and Toddler

Thursday, December 13th, 2012 11:51 am | By Stephanie Woo
Toddler and Bedtime

Toddler and Bedtime

For the past two months, it’s been really hard to put B and M (23 months) down at bedtime. They take turns crying when I try to leave their room after lights-out. Anyone else experiencing this? I’ve had to try A LOT of different things to keep them in their bed and me in mine night after night.

Here are things I’ve tried that I don’t like: 1. stay till they fall asleep (exhausting, habit-forming and my least favorite of options), 2. cry it out (second least favorite option which I resort to when I’m absolutely exasperated, but it has worked on occasion) 3. let them stay up and play outside of their room.

Well, I also started compiling a list of things that HAS worked for us. Things have gotten better in the last two weeks. I can usually leave the room 5 minutes after lights out and they will stay in their room and fall asleep by themselves till the next morning at 7am. I’m also looking for more ideas in case these run out of steam! Please post yours in the comment area.

  1. Involve both Mom and Dad with bedtime. I cannot count the number of nights I just cannot extricate myself from a child’s hug and the only thing that would keep them from a meltdown when I try to leave is to say, “Daddy’s gonna come in to say good-night to you. Do you want to see Daddy?” That usually results in a yes. And somehow, Daddy only needs a 5-minute appearance to put them to sleep. Maybe not all Dads can do it in that time, but I’m completely convinced (and use it with my husband all the time) that Dads are better at bedtime than Moms. He believes it now, too.
  2. Give your child a “Toddler Massage.” I came up with this after observing Brooke, who has recently been asking to be held A LOT. So this what you do: after you turn off the lights, hold your child against your belly tightly. Using your whole palm, rub your child’s back, legs, arms and feet firmly, gently and slowly. Hold her as close to you as you can. It’s like an infant massage, except it’s for your toddler. I do it first to one child, then to the other. When I’m massaging one child, I’ll say to the other, “I’m holding your sister now, Please don’t interrupt us.” Both Brooke and Mackenzie love this. Mackenzie will say to me in Chinese, “Mackenzie wants tightly.”  After 5-10 minutes of this intense intimacy and skin contact, they’ll crawl back to their little pillows and say good-night to me. This has been the most successful thing I’ve tried in recent weeks, especially during the week my husband was on a business trip.  Not only do babies need a lot of skin contact, toddlers (and adults) need it, too.
  3. Never ever change the bedtime routine. We eat dinner, take bath, drink milk and do storytime. Then it’s lights out somewhere between 815-830. No exceptions. Daytime schedule may change (though I make every effort to honor the 1pm nap schedule as well), but this bedtime routine never ever changes. If my husband and I need to go out, we ask our nanny to follow this schedule. Many families will make an exception here and there (holidays, birthdays, special events, weekends), but a toddler’s need for order and routine is so intense that expecting him to accommodate to your schedule will just mess with his ability to fall asleep at bedtime on his own.
  4. Talk them through the bedtime routine an hour before bedtime. When we’re bathing, I’ll give them a rundown of what’s going to happen: “After we bathe, we’re going to have milk, then I’m going to read you a story in bed, and then we’ll turn out the lights. And then Mommy is going to go out and you will fall sleep by yourself.” And then I repeat the rundown again 15 minutes before lights out. Everyone benefits from a little mental preparation.
  5. Giving them freedom within limits around sleeping. When they say, “I don’t want to sleep,” I say, “You don’t have to sleep. You have to stay in your room during bedtime, but you don’t have to sleep.” And I mean it when I say this to them. The floor beds they sleep in give them the freedom to move around till they feel tired enough to fall asleep.

I’ve read many blog postings that tell parents to cherish this time, that after they grow older, they won’t want you the way they do now. I can imagine that being true, but for my sanity and happiness NOW, I also need time to myself. And that happens after they go to bed. If you have a toddler right now, I’m sure you can relate. When I can have a good few hours to myself at night and then a good night’s sleep, we are all much happier when we see each other the next morning!

Reader Comments (6)

  1. Amen, Stephanie. I am so glad you posted this because my girls have always had difficulty falling asleep since they were colicky newborns and its nice to know we’re not alone in the toddlerhood bedtime troubles! I’ve tried lying with them until they fall asleep (they often wake an hour later and cry, or it cuts into my “me” time by hours and makes me resentful), and also sleep training/cry-it-out out starting at 7 months old (they’re 17 months now!) which still hurts my heart to hear. We now do a combo where we lay with them with the lights out (after story in bed) and sing/hum a few lullabies and rub their backs for 5 minutes then quietly leave without fanfare. Sometimes they cry for a few minutes, sometimes they’ve already fallen asleep, sometimes one has fallen asleep but the other cries when we leave but will cuddle up with her sis and settle down. Rarely do they cry longer than 10-15 minutes (off an on)- if they do then I know someone has a dirty diaper, is teething, or is just not tired yet/is overtired and exhausted. At that point we normally go in quietly in the dark, with no words, and check them/lay down with them for a few more minutes. It helps that they sleep in the same bed – they have since they started crawling and one would always crawl into the others’ bed! We just pushed their mattresses together and let them have a big roomy pad. I wonder if Brooke & Mackenzie ever sleep together? We have a video monitor so we can peek at our little sleeping darlings!

    I agree too that the routine is key. Anytime we’ve varied it or strayed from that order it’s rocked their night (and ours) so it’s just not worth it- for their sake or ours! Friends without kids have a hard time understanding our insistence on following this routine and timing.

    I wish they would be able to just play or read books until they’re tired enough to go lay down in their beds and fall asleep, but at that time of the night they just go ballistic when we leave the room! Have you ever been able to just leave a low light/night light on and let your girls play until they sleep?

    Thursday, December 13th, 2012 8:45 pm | Gillian Baxter
  2. Hi Gillian,

    B and M also sleep on one big bed that we created out of their two individual mattresses. They usually stay on their side at bedtime, but by morning, they are all over the place!

    I have not been able to just leave a light on and let them play till they sleep, mostly because that hasn’t been our routine. What they are familiar with is lights out at 815 and then they stay in the room by themselves (after our good night rounds) till they fall asleep.

    So good to hear from you and read your updates on the girls!

    Thursday, December 20th, 2012 10:17 am | Stephanie Woo
  3. Thanks for this post! I love the methods you’re using here and we have used some of them in the past, and the bedtime routine consistently. But it’s good to be reminded when we’re feeling cranky and out of ideas to just stick with it! I will need to try leading him back to his room instead of picking him up and forcing him back on his bed. Also the part about him not being forced to ‘sleep’.

    Saturday, December 7th, 2013 4:29 pm | Grace En-Tien Chang
  4. Hi Stephanie, my little daughter is now 9 months and has been sleeping on her floor bed since she’s 5 months. When she started to crawl and pull up on things, she would stay right behind the door or pull up on it and i wouldn’t be able to open it to go in. So I had to put a standing gate so I could open the door. Then she would pull up on the gate and cry. I usually just let her cry for 5 minutes before I would go in to pick her up and soothe her for 1-2 minutes, then put her down. I was just wondering if you had the same problem with your little ones blocking the door. I don’t know if I should keep the gate or remove it since I don’t want her to feel restricted like she’s being in a bigger crib. Although she does play with her toys sometimes in the morning for 10-15 mins or so, she doesn’t really play in her room before bed time. So as soon as I turn off the light and close the door, she’s headed straight to the gate and start to fuss. Any advise on how to encourage her to play or crawl around in her room before she’s ready to go to sleep? She does play on her own around the house, just not in her bedroom.

    Monday, June 23rd, 2014 6:36 am | an ho
  5. I forgot to mention, I’ve been following a routine everyday too. Walk, eat, bath, milk, reading book, then light out.

    Monday, June 23rd, 2014 6:38 am | an ho
  6. All great tips! You are spot on about dads being better at putting kids to bed. Our first 2 kids (3rd is still nursing before bed.) would pull me back for question after question, book after book, hug after hug…but my husband was/is always able to read them a quick book, tuck them in with a hug and a kiss and that was it!

    Saturday, October 5th, 2019 1:02 pm | Sue Denym

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