My Top Three Tips for Preventing Toddler Bedtime Tantrums
Bedtime doesn't have to be a struggle. Here’s how you can make it an enjoyable time for you and your toddler.
Bedtime can be a tricky time of day. After a long day hard at play, your kids are ready to turn in for the day. But just because they’re ready doesn't mean they know they’re ready. And that’s when bedtime can turn into a battleground of Mom v. The Minis.
Most parents know the importance of an early bedtime for their toddlers and aren’t prepared to allow them to stay up till the wee hours of the morn. But when they meet defiance and protest night after night, it can make bedtime a grit-your-teeth time of day for even the staunchest early-bedtime proponent.
So what’s a parent of a protesting toddler to do?
These are my top three tips for preventing toddler bedtime tantrums.
Have a Wind-Down Time
“Tire ‘em out before bed!” people have told me again and again.
While it is important that your child be tired enough before bedtime (by making sure that she’s up an age-appropriate length of time before bed), roughhousing to “ready” her for bed is likely to be counter-productive.
If a child is having a good time playing and getting wild before bed, she’s not likely to want to settle down for the night.
As a young girl, I remember my mother’s rule was: no going outside after dinner. Once we’d finished dinner, we were welcome to play in the house, or do homework or housework, but it was wind-down time.
With your toddler, it’s best to start this wind down time about an hour before she’s going to be in bed. Dim the lights if you can to help her body start to produce melatonin, and encourage some calm play time.
Then, about a 20-30 minutes before bed, segue into the bedtime routine.
Build a Consistent Routine
Life is tough for toddlers. They’re in the process of learning about their own independence, but their lives are still very much controlled by the adults around them. Imagine if your boss decided what you ate and wore, which grocery stores and clothing stores you shopped at, and how much money you were allowed to spend every month. That’s what life is kind of like for your toddler.
Having a measure of predictability helps them feel in control by having the security of knowing what comes next. It’s not so much that this is what you’re telling him to do, it’s simply that “this is what we do.”
Implementing a consistent bedtime routine, with the same steps in the same order every single night lets your toddler know what to expect.
Visual representations are also great during the toddler stage - when your child is old enough to understand but too young to read. (When my twins were 17 months they started being able to recognize drawings of people brushing their teeth - don’t underestimate your child’s abilities!).
Putting together a visual list of all the steps of bedtime will help your toddler track his progress and know what will come next. You can involve him in the process by giving him pictures that he can color in, helping him “own” the routine as well.
A sample bedtime routine for a toddler would look something like this:
- Bath/Wash face and hands
- Brush teeth
- Put on PJs
- Read a book
- Sing a song
- Say shema
- Talk about day
- Tuck into bed
Give Small Choices
Another way to help your toddler get her fill of control is by giving small choices. The key is this: you build the structure and let her fill in the gaps.
Instead of instructing or demanding, phrase it as a choice.
So instead of, “Time for bed!” turn it into a choice: “Would you like to take a bath now, or in two minutes?”
Instead of, “Put on your pajamas,” say, “would you like the blue pajamas or the red ones?” And then, “Do you want to put on your pants first or your shirt?” “Do you want to do it by yourself, or should I help you?”
Let her choose the book you’ll read, if she wants to sit on your lap or on the floor, if she wants you to brush her upper teeth or her lower teeth first, and if she would prefer a hug or a kiss or both.
Sometimes your toddler will protest that she wants to do something that is not one of the choices you’ve given (for example, “I don't want to go to bed at all!”). In that case, you can very calmly inform her, “I’m sorry; that’s not one of your choices,” and then calmly repeat the choices to her. Again, this is about you building the structure, but allowing her to make the small choices to fill the gap.
Bedtime doesn't have to be a struggle every night, and can (and should!) be an enjoyable time for you and your toddler.