The Secret to Bedtime: Getting Your Toddler to Sleep and Stay in Bed

Psst! You want to know a secret?

Getting your toddler to sleep and stay in bed is not as hard as it may seem.

It may take some time and some tears, but creating a bedtime routine and encouraging independent sleeping is not a difficult process.

By the time a child is 2 years old, they should be having at least one nap and sleeping 10 to 11 hours during the night. But the longer it takes to get your little one settled and actually asleep, the shorter those hours become.

Okay, so I told you A secret, but what is THE secret?


Establishing an Appropriate Bedtime

An appropriate bedtime for your child depends on their age and what time they are required to wake up in the morning. So, if a toddler needs 11 hours of sleep, this shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.

For example, if you need to have your child awake at 7:00 am, then a proper time to be asleep would be 8:00 pm. Don’t forget that bedtime is a series of steps in order to prepare your child for bed and sleep. Depending on what needs to be done in this period of time, bedtime could be as early as 7:00 pm.

When we talk about routine, you’ll be able to better figure out what time this routine should start. Until then, keep in mind that whatever time you choose needs to be consistent. This is key.

The Bedtime Routine

Setting up a routine will help prepare your toddler physically and mentally for sleep. Before you add certain activities to this routine, consider the following:

  • Screen time should be finished before the routine begins. It is recommended that screens are shut off at least an hour before bedtime. This is because the light emitted from televisions, computers, smartphones and tablets actually triggers the brain to “wake up”.
  • If you are going to offer a snack as part of the bedtime routine, offer it at the beginning and avoid snacks with sugar.
  • Unless your toddler is completely potty-trained, you will want to include this in the routine. However, children are clever creatures and may use this as an excuse to get out of bed. Have them potty before their bath and immediately before getting into bed.

When it comes to the bedtime routine, it really depends on what works for your child. Typical activities include bath time, pajamas, brushing teeth and a book. However, if your child does not like baths, forcing him or her to have one before bed may create an aversion to bed time. Simply have them bathe earlier in the day.

Once you’ve decided on what the bedtime is going to look like, create a visual schedule for your child. Simply list the activities along with a simple illustration. Use this to guide your little one from one step to another.

To make it more fun, adhere the schedule to a cookie sheet and use a magnet to move through the activities. Or, laminate the schedule and use dry erase markers to cross off or check each step.

Be sure that you remain consistent in the routine that works for your little one.

Staying in Bed

A beautiful bedtime routine means nothing if your precious angels insists on hopping out of bed as soon as you tuck them in. You can’t really blame them – whatever plans you have for yourself after bedtime is far more exciting than sleeping.

Here’s where things may get difficult and you’re really going to have to stick to your guns. I’m not going to describe a “Cry-It-Out” method in which you leave your child to cry themselves to sleep. This method involves ignoring and redirection.

  1. Make sure you fulfill their needs before bedtime: drinks, potty time, cuddles, etc.
  2. Set the expectation with your child. Say something like, “You need to stay in bed and go to sleep.”
  3. Explain that you will sit in the room for a few minutes but will not talk to them.
  4. Praise them for being in bed before you sit down.
  5. If they approach or speak to you, ignore them and do not engage with attempts for your attention.
  6. If they leave the bed, pick them up and put them back in bed calmly and with no words.
  7. Your child will test you – and their behaviours may escalate to crying or tantrums – but as soon as you give in then they will try that particular behaviour again.
  8. Once your little one seems to be asleep, move slowly and quietly from the room a few feet at a time until you can exit and silently close the door.
  9. Set up a reward system for staying in bed all night. Begin by rewarding every night and eventually extend it to every 2 nights, every 4 nights, etc.
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