Toddler Sleep: Creating a Sleep Inducing Bedtime Routine

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  • September 08, 2010
toddler bedtime routines

toddler bedtime routinesFor toddlers and preschoolers, the bedtime routine can often be the most challenging part of the day. It means another transition and separation from you, at the same time that everyone in the household is a bit tired and sometimes frazzled from a long day, especially when you really just want to help your toddler sleep.

Create a Soothing and Predictable Bedtime Routine

Every parent knows that bedtime routines should be soothing and predictable for their child. Dr. Douglas Teti, a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies from Penn State recently published a finding about the importance of bedtime routines. He studied 35 parents with children under 2 years old. Granted, not a huge study but his findings were validating. Dr. Teti states that children sleep better when their emotional needs were met and they felt attached to their parents. In other words, the parents needed to be somewhat flexible in their routine (ie. mix it up with a puzzle one night instead of a book), responsive to their child’s needs at that particular moment and the parent’s words and actions should match their behavior. When parents are emotionally available their children feel more secure and safe and are able to going to sleep more easily.

I always swore that if I was feeling a bit frazzled at bedtime or if I was in a rush at bedtime, my girls picked it up and the bedtime routine didn’t go as smoothly. Children are so intuitive! Without realizing it our children teach us to be in the moment and nowhere else!

6 Tips for Bedtime Routine Success

With all this being said, here are some helpful tips for making your child’s bedtime routine be smooth and sleep inducing:

1. Bedtime preparations should be in her room (or perhaps the early stage can be in a younger sibling’s room), not all over the house. Include stories, songs, or games that soothe, not stimulate. Make sure the rules for how many stories, or how long you will read, are completely clear and nonnegotiable. Avoid wild, fast-moving games and scary stories.

2. Leave plenty of time, at least a half hour, for her to unwind, and to get the attention from you she needs. If you rush it, she’ll be more likely to run out of bed or stall or beg you to staying longer.

3. If two parents take turns at bedtime, you don’t have to follow an identical script but you should have a similar routine, style, and response to bedtime power plays, fears or manipulation.

4. “Blame it on the clock”. If she starts bargaining for an even longer time with you, more stories or more songs, blame the clock. Calmly tell her the clock says you have to stop reading at 8:00p.m., so you have ten minutes.Then when its 8pm say “Oh, look! The clock says 8:00. Lights-out time. We can’t read any more books tonight. We’ll have to get upstairs earlier tomorrow night so that we can read more books.”

5. It’s often a good idea to warn your children a minute or two before lights out:“We have a few more pages in this book, and then Mommy is going to turn out the light.” Sometimes they like to turn out the light themselves. It’s another way they can “own” bedtime.

6. If your child doesn’t respond to the sight of numbers, you might try a clock radio or timer. “Oh, the music went on” or “Oh, the bell rang, it’s time for bed.” If the clock ploy doesn’t work, feel free to blame me! “It’s 8:00. The Sleep Lady says we have to turn out the lights now.”

Use Visualization

Teach your child creative visualization. Some children will say, “I can’t do it; I can’t put myself to sleep.” Explain that everyone has trouble going to sleep sometimes, even Mommy and Daddy, and then teach them some simple relaxation techniques and creative visualization. Children have such wonderfully active imaginations, they are actually better at visualization than we are. They may not understand the word visualization, but they certainly get pretend and imagine. They can learn how to think relaxing thoughts at bedtime, how to close their eyes and imagine playing at the beach, building a snowman, taking a summer walk with their cousins in Vermont.

Have Children Use Their Imagination

Try to build on the images in their favorite illustrated book and have them imagine entering the book to play with the characters (as long as there are no scary themes). My own girls loved playing “in” Angelina Ballerina. The mouse house illustrations were so inviting and warm. Your children will come up with their own suggestions and will pleasantly surprise you with their creativity. You might also want to teach your child deep relaxation techniques, the kind you do at the end of a good exercise class or before going into labor! Have her relax her toes, her feet, her ankles, shins, knees, and so forth, all the way up her body. If you don’t want to do this yourself, you can play a relaxation CD.

Dream Cards

Children also like applying their imaginations to a dream agenda. “Tonight I’ll dream about playing basketball.” Or “Tonight I will dream about building a sand castle.” Or “Tonight I will dream about being a beautiful ballerina.” It helps them feel more in control of what happens to them after they fall asleep, particularly if they are worried about having nightmares. My “Dream Cards” might help children feel in control of their dreams. The cards guide children through a progressive relaxation exercise and have several images for dream ideas such as a tree house, a beach scene, a field of flowers, and a rainbow. I based them on my experiences with creating dreams with my own daughters. My Dream Cards and lullaby MP3 download “Sweetest Dreams” are not available for sale on my website. You can buy them both for $29.95 by clicking here.

Which of these toddler sleep tips did you find most helpful?

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Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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  • Natalie says:

    Hi Kim,

    My 19 month old was a fantastic sleeper in her own cot up until she broke her leg on a slide in the playground when she was 16 and a half months. Since then she won’t go in her cot to sleep but she will sleep fine either on the couch next to me or in my bed. I know that it must be a reaction to the trauma of breaking her leg but I’m not sure what else I can do to reassure her and get her back to normal.

    She used to have 2 naps during the day and sleep all night in her cot with no problems. All I had to do was to tell her that it was time for sleep and put her in her cot and she would go to sleep by herself. But now when I put her in there and try to leave her to sleep, she screams and gets herself so worked up that it takes ages to console her. Can you give me any advice on how to got my routine back?


  • khernau says:

    Great post! I am trying to create a sleep schedule for my kids. I don’t just want to put them to bed when they get tired. I agree that it is very difficult though. They seem to get bursts of energy right before bedtime. I want to try getting a relaxation CD and see if that will help at all.

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