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How to Stop the Preschooler Bedtime Battles

Updated: Feb 24

Marathon bedtime battles with our own toddler and preschool children have the ability to exhaust us and frustrate us in so many ways. Read about how to reclaim a peaceful bedtime routine and end your family’s day on a positive note.

toddler not sleeping

I’m going to paint a picture- let me know if it feels familiar. It’s been a long day. Whether your little one is at home or at preschool, whether you worked or were at home… the days are long. It’s finally time for bedtime and you gear up for what you know will feel like a never ending bedtime marathon.

Getting to their bedroom is tough. Getting pajamas on is a struggle. Then the stalling starts- one last book, one last song, more water, one more snack… you wonder how they’re not more tired when you feel so exhausted!

The bedtime routine and falling asleep may take 20 minutes. One hour. Two hours! I’ve heard it all. How then, can we create a more peaceful bedtime routine and end the day on a positive note? It's not too late for your preschooler to change their habits. What do you need to know to change the bedtime picture with your preschooler? Read on!

Bedtime timing and the second wind

It’s no secret that I focus on sleep timing as an important piece to setting a healthy sleep foundation. Read more about it here. This continues to be true in setting a bedtime for toddlers and preschoolers. A bedtime that is too late for what your little one needs can lead to difficulty falling asleep.

Hyper behavior, “bouncing off the walls,” getting a rush of energy, or taking a long time to fall asleep are all indications that your little one has gotten their second wind. A second wind is a push of hormones- cortisol and adrenaline, for example, that comes out as you’re getting overtired. Bedtime should have been at 7:00pm and now it’s 8:00pm? The body is trying to stay up when it’s tired and voila- extra hormones and suddenly you see that rush of energy.

A second wind will make fighting bedtime and sleep more common. Night wakes and early wakes also tend to happen more when your little one is overtired at bedtime.

What can you do? Catch bedtime earlier! Use your child’s mood and behavior as a guide of when bedtime should be. Look for early cues- slowing down, losing interest in activities, or staring off. Generally speaking, I aim for bedtime between 6:00pm and 7:00pm. This is a big range! Have they stopped napping? Are they falling apart by dinner? Does bedtime feel like a high energy marathon? Shift bedtime earlier and you should see all of that improve!

Limit testing is expected

Sometimes that hyper behavior is paired with boundary pushing, limit testing, and simple stalling. You know what that looks like- one more story, more water, another trip to the bathroom. Sometimes it's something totally random!

First let’s remember that it’s common and expected. Toddlers and preschoolers push boundaries. It’s developmentally appropriate and actually a good thing! I didn’t say it was easy or fun to deal with– but it’s an important process for so many reasons as they develop into their own person.

They are counting on YOU to be their guide in this process. They need someone “bigger, stronger, kinder, wiser” to show them where boundaries and limits are, and that there is someone out there looking out for them and keeping them safe (this is from one of my favorite parenting programs, Circle of Security).

Here is my favorite example. If I suddenly gave you the keys to an eighteen-wheeler tractor trailer and told you to drive on the highway, you may have all kinds of feelings. Maybe the thrill would sound exciting but then fear may take over. “I don’t know how to drive that! That doesn’t seem safe. Why is she giving me the keys? She’s not keeping me safe by giving me so much power and responsibility!”

You would be expecting me to set some limits around your capacities and NOT give you those keys, right? Limits are good for kids! It’s their job to push them and it’s our job to show them how far they can push. It’s our job to use consistency and loving boundaries to help them feel safe.

An extended bedtime routine often happens when those limits have faded away. Bring them back! Set up the expectations for bedtime and work the stalling excuses into the routine itself.

Bringing limits to bedtime

Give them control and choice whenever possible. “Here are two pajamas, You could choose one, or I can choose for you. Which pajamas do you want to wear tonight?” Giving options will invite less push back about things that are less flexible.

Announce that this will be the “last trip to the bathroom.” The “last bedtime snack until tomorrow’s breakfast.” If you know they always ask for a bedtime snack, preemptively offer something small as part of the routine. Stay firm and calmly remind them the "last snack" already happened and they can eat again at breakfast.

Make a bedtime checklist together. Set up a poster board, let them help draw pictures, add stickers, or generally make it their own. Your bedtime routine may include a last bedtime snack, brushing teeth, putting on pjs, reading two books, getting an extra snuggle, saying goodnight, and turning off the lights. Write/draw it all out! Letting them see the steps and feeling the consistency every night will allow them to feel control over the situation. They will be able to predict the next step which will in turn help them feel safe.

Return to this checklist when the excuses start!

Make a bedtime rules poster and focus on what they CAN do. “I can stay in my bed, I can stretch my body big, I can hug my lovey, I can close my eyes, I can stay in my bed until the light turns green.” Rather than focusing on all the things they can’t do, tell them exactly what you expect from them.

Use an ok to wake light to show them when it’s morning and time to get out of bed. My favorite is the Hatch because you can control it from your phone. Rather than using the preset schedule to turn to green at a certain time, wait until your little one is awake and switch it yourself after a few minutes. Even if it’s a bit earlier than you’d like, give them the “win” of staying in bed until the light turns green and celebrate their accomplishment! For example, if you’d like them to stay in bed until 7:00am but they wake up at 6:30am, turn the light on earlier so they can gain confidence about staying in bed. They’ll feel great they stayed in bed until the light, even if only for a few minutes at first. You can gradually delay the amount of time they wait in bed until they eventually reach 7:00am (or whatever time works for your family). Read more about using an ok to wake light here.

The environment

Double checking the environment is a step not to be missed. Often this gets a bit relaxed in the toddler/preschooler years and may be unintentionally making bedtime harder.

Darkness is still number one, though at this age, some children start to protest and want more light. Remember that white/blue lights are more stimulating and interfere more with melatonin production. If your little one insists on a light, compromise with a dim red/amber light. This may give them a feeling of security while still keeping the room relatively dark. This is when the Hatch works great as a night light too!

Keep in mind that the more light in the room, the more your little one may be inclined to get out of bed and walk around! Keep it as dark as possible and they will stay in their bed.

Another important piece of the environment is to keep the room free of too many toys and books. I leave it to you to decide what’s too many. Generally we want to make it less inviting to get out of bed and start playing after bedtime. It’s possible that once the routine is taking less time, you can put the books and toys back in the bedroom.

What if they do get out of bed?

If your little one is getting out of the big kid bed, you have different options. One of your options is the silent return. Prior to bedtime, explain what will happen.

“After we say good night, your job is to stay in bed. You can hug your lovey, stretch your body big and close your eyes. If your body forgets to stay in bed and you leave the room, I will be helping your body back to bed. I will not be talking much because our voices need to rest. I won’t be tucking you in or doing extra kisses because it will be time to sleep.”

Then you have to follow through! If your little one leaves their room, gently and firmly walk them back to their room. This is called a silent return. There shouldn’t be any extra cuddles or tucking in, or anything that is motivating to them. The idea is that getting out of bed will not get them anything. You may have to do this quiet silent return 100 times at first- but with your consistency, they will begin to understand the expectations.

YOU matter. A lot.

Your confidence, calmness and consistency goes a long way in an extended bedtime. You are the parent and you are in charge. Letting your preschooler run the show will end in frustration for you both.

We all agree it’s challenging. They keep pushing. You are exhausted. Losing your cool happens. But- do what you can to stay calm and confident. Take breaks if needed, refer back to your bedtime checklist and stay on script. Validate their feelings and wishes while staying on course.

“You really want to read another book. You love reading books with Mommy. At bedtime, we read two books and then say goodnight. We just read two books. You can pick out a book and we can leave it on this chair and read it in the morning. Now it’s time to say good night.”

Your little one will sense your confidence. They will also sense your anxiety, dread and desperation. These are all valid feelings! But your preschooler doesn’t need to see them.

Be understanding, calm and consistent. Their behavior will adjust to your presentation.

The bottom line

Bedtime battles with toddlers and preschoolers are common and challenging. A calm routine can unravel and lead to stalling, boundary pushing and tantrums. Start by making sure you are catching your little one’s bedtime at the right time. The release of the second wind hormones will make it more difficult to settle. Remember that your little one needs you to be in charge and set consistent, firm, and loving boundaries. Make a consistent bedtime checklist and stick to it. Offer choices when possible, and include them in the process. The environment should be supportive to healthy sleep habits. Lastly, remember your role in this. They are looking for you to keep things calm and predictable. Take a breath and keep going. In time, the routine should get calmer, shorter, and even enjoyable for you both!

Winging it at this age may not work. Your little one knows it too. Working with me will give you confidence, and a clear plan and script. Let’s start with a Discovery Call first!

Have I mentioned this is my favorite age to work with? Book now and I can help you enjoy the bedtime routine together!

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