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As your toddler grows and develops, their sleep needs and habits also change. A consistent and soothing bedtime routine can make all the difference in helping your little one settle down and sleep well. If your child is beginning to resist the routine that you began when s/he was a baby, it's a good idea to make changes that acknowledge your child's growth and development. In this blog, we'll explore some tips and strategies for creating (or re-creating) a calming bedtime routine that is specific to children aged 18 months to 4 years. If you are looking for help building a bedtime routine for a younger baby, then check out this blog.
Although bedtime routines may not feel as important during the toddler and preschool stages, they help cue your child for sleep and give you a little bit of protected time with your child each night. Multiple studies have shown that implementing a consistent bedtime routine can improve sleep quality and duration in young children. For example, a study published in the journal Sleep found that a consistent bedtime routine reduced the time it takes a child to fall asleep, the number of night wakings, and increased overall sleep duration in children between the ages of 1 and 2 years old. Another study found that a consistent bedtime routine was associated with better sleep quality and fewer sleep problems in children between the ages of 2 and 5 years old. If your child's bedtime routine has fallen apart over time, it's worth taking a bit of time to create a new routine to get back on track.
Before we dive into the specifics of creating a bedtime routine, it's essential to consider any underlying sleep issues that may be contributing to bedtime battles. If you are reading this blog because your child is getting out of bed multiple times or crying for an extended period of time at bedtime, then you could be dealing with a shift in your child's circadian rhythm. Check out our blog on bedtime battles for some troubleshooting tips and to ensure that your expectations for sleep are reasonable.
What are the key elements of a toddler or preschooler bedtime routine?
As with baby bedtime routines, toddler and preschooler routines include a combination of need-to-do (e.g., putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, closing curtains) and nice-to-do activities (e.g., reading, snuggling). Unlike baby bedtime routines, your toddler will benefit from more engagement and participation in the bedtime routine process and activities that reflect your child's knowledge and maturity level. Consistency is always important for bedtime routines, but if it feels like your child has outgrown your baby routine, then it's ok to change things to suit your child's development.
How long should the bedtime routine last?
Your bedtime routine doesn't need to be long or complicated. Choose steps that can be completed in about 15-40 minutes. It can be helpful to use a toddler clock to count down to the time your child is supposed to get in bed. If your child naps (hopefully until at least age 3!), the nap routine can be an abbreviated version of the bedtime routine.
Where should your child sleep?
What activities should happen during the bedtime routine?
Your bedtime routine should be a series of steps that happen in the same order every night. Bedtime activities can be engaging, but shouldn't involve a lot of physical activity or wild play. It's really important to ensure all of your child's needs are met as part of the bedtime routine. If you forget to do something important, then your child will likely get out of bed or call you back to complete the missed step. This can be the catalyst for bedtime battles, so make sure you complete all of the tasks on the need-to-do list. Importantly, toddlers consider every step in their routine as essential, so select a few activities on the nice-to-do list that you are happy to do every night. Preschoolers and toddlers often benefit from multi-sensory bedtime routines that involve a combination of senses such as hearing and touch. You shouldn't vary the activities that you do night-to-night.
Need-to-do activities (do all of these):
Wash up (bath or wipe down)
Ensure your child has a clean diaper or make a potty trip (more on toilet training and sleep here)
Sleep sack or blanket (make sure what you use is safe and age-appropriate)
Access to favorite lovey, stuffed animal, or pacifier (more on pacifiers here)
Close the shades (see our blog on why here)
Turn on a fan or sound machine to create a quiet environment, especially for naps (review this blog to understand why)
Ensure your child is satiated
If your child is a picky eater and you worry about him/her being hungry overnight, add a snack to your routine
Quench your child's thirst
Give your child a spill-proof water bottle or sippy cup to have access to water during the night (note, this doesn't need to be a full cup)
Nice-to-do activities (pick a few of these):
Walking around the room to say goodnight to objects in the room
Saying goodnight to pictures of relatives
Talking about what happened during the day or what's going to happen the next day
Reading a book
Counting fingers and toes while listening to music
Listening to a story
It can be fun to make up a story each night that involves your child doing something interesting
It's ok to play a short book-on-tape
Tracing a message on your child's back
Kisses and snuggles
Reading a book
For more engagement, read a book with a flashlight :)
Make shadow puppets or watch a projector for a few minutes
Verbal consoling, such as singing a lullaby, shushing, or repeating the same good-night phrase
Recent research suggests that spending time physically caressing your child and complimenting your child helps promote secure attachment and better sleep. Consider taking a few minutes each night to engage in focused bonding activities.
Add Structure to your routine
If extra demands (water, potty, kisses, hugs) are causing stress and prolonging bedtime, try using a picture chart with double-sided Velcro. As your child accomplishes each task on the chart, they can take it down and physically see their accomplishments. If that feels too difficult, simply draw pictures of the steps in your routine on index cards and have your child put each one in an envelope once it's complete. Bedtime checklists take the pressure off parents as the ones who are making the rules and can help move you through your routine.
Consistency is Key
One of the most important elements of a successful bedtime routine is consistency. Do what you say you'll do, such as reading two books, as it's developmentally appropriate for your child to try to push limits and see how far they can go. Despite this natural tendency, your predictability is anxiety-reducing for your child. By sticking to a consistent routine, you'll also help your child's body and mind get into the habit of winding down and preparing for sleep.
Make your child a partner in the process!
As children grow, they crave participation in activities rather than having no control over what happens. A typical baby bedtime routine is entirely parent-led. It can be very frustrating for your child to be told what to do with no say in what happens. In order to satisfy your child's craving for participation, have your child help you develop the routine. For example, as you develop your new routine, ask your child what s/he would like to include in the routine. Then, have your child help with the creation of your picture chart or checklist. During your routine, give your child jobs to do and simple choices that keep your child engaged, without being overwhelming. For example, let your child grab his/her toothbrush by prompting, "Can you hand me your toothbrush?" Similarly, you can "hide" your child's pajamas in plain sight in the room and ask your child to find them or have your child check off each activity on your bedtime chart or checklist. Giving your child simple choices, like selecting from a basket of 4-5 familiar books instead of access to an entire library, can also reduce overwhelm and make the process smoother.
We hope this blog helps you establish a bedtime routine for your child. If you're new to us, welcome! We're moms with backgrounds in sleep medicine, public health, nursing, and behavior analysis (Ph.D. and master's level). Our passion is translating the scientific literature into actionable strategies that you can use to achieve better sleep.
As always, we are here to help. Let us know if you don't see a blog on an issue that you are facing by contacting us on social media or through email@example.com (note that while our goal is to help, we can't keep up with personal questions via e-mail. It takes away from our time with our own little ones). If you are struggling, then feel free to book a one-on-one consultation with us or check out our sleep class. We developed the class based on our work with parents and offer many different approaches to sleep problems. We have lots of positive feedback on the class and you can join our private Facebook group for extra support while taking the class.
Mindell, J.A. and Williamson, A.A., 2018. Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond. Sleep medicine reviews, 40, pp.93-108.
Mindell, J.A., Li, A.M., Sadeh, A., Kwon, R. and Goh, D.Y., 2015. Bedtime routines for young children: a dose-dependent association with sleep outcomes. Sleep, 38(5), pp.717-722.
Mindell, J.A., Leichman, E.S., Lee, C., Williamson, A.A. and Walters, R.M., 2017. Implementation of a nightly bedtime routine: How quickly do things improve?. Infant Behavior and Development, 49, pp.220-227.
Mindell, J.A., Telofski, L.S., Wiegand, B. and Kurtz, E.S., 2009. A nightly bedtime routine: impact on sleep in young children and maternal mood. Sleep, 32(5), pp.599-606.