Implementing an effective toddler bedtime routine is easier said than done. And if you’re like me, the real question isn’t how to create a routine, but how to get your child (and you) to stick to one.
Have you ever found yourself yelling, “Get back in bed!” and making threats at midnight? If your child won’t stay in bed or go to sleep at night, it can add unneeded stress to your bedtime routine, and even the next morning.
If you can relate to this, you aren’t alone. For a long time, our evening routines were a huge struggle. (And honestly, some days they still are).
Does This Nighttime Routine Sound Familiar?
This used to be a typical night for us:
It started with dinnertime, of course. I would get home from work around 5 pm and rush to prep dinner. Already, the kids were hungry after a long day at daycare.
They wanted my attention. But I knew if I didn’t start dinner right away, they’d start throwing tantrums and end up going to bed without dinner.
Thus, making dinner was often frustrating, with two little boys crying, fighting, and clinging to my legs.
My husband usually stayed up late with the kids if they wouldn’t go to sleep, because he could settle them faster than me. Thus, he would often doze off on the couch after a long day at work. Unfortunately, I would have to rouse him to watch the kids or finish dinner, which may or may not have burned during all the fuss.
Because of this, we had many, many dinners consisting of Mac-n-Cheese, ramen, or chicken nuggets.
By the time dinner was ready, the kids were in meltdown mode. We would struggle through bouts of screaming and spilled food and milk.
After dinner, we would somehow manage to get the kids to brush their teeth, read a story, and get them tucked into bed by 8 pm.
But they just wouldn’t stay in bed.
Every night was filled with wrangling the kids back into bed over and over. I could get them to sleep by laying next to them. But this would sometimes take hours, and I wanted them to learn to stay in bed and fall asleep on their own.
This was our norm until we started using some of the strategies in this post. These strategies helped our family stay on schedule and get our children to stay in bed.
But it wasn’t until we started hosting an Au Pair that our toddlers’ bedtime routine became truly streamlined.
These strategies really helped us start implementing a better routine. But once we started hosing our Au Pair, Adriana, our toddler bedtime routine became even more effective.
Why is this? Well, it’s certainly not because Adriana puts the kids to bed. She’s usually out with friends in the evenings and doesn’t get home until the kids are asleep.
It honestly has more to do with the way she integrates with our lives. Even when she isn’t physically with us, it’s apparent that she’s made everything easier for us.
Strategies For an Effective Toddler Bedtime Routine
1. Use the same routine every night to ensure effectiveness
You probably already do this, or aim to. Though it seems redundant to say so, this is the first step in creating an effective bedtime routine for your toddler.
I think of dinnertime as part of our bedtime routine, because it affects our ability to get the kids to bed on time.
I also think of “special time,” or time spent playing with the kids, as part of our routine. Spending dedicated time with our children helps prevent stalling at bedtime. And if their need for attention has been satisfied, they’re less likely to try to play with us at bedtime.
Our routine also involves other common things, such as:
- Cleaning up toys
- Putting dinner dishes in the sink
- Helping with one small chore, such as sweeping
- Playing together before bedtime
- Brushing teeth and putting on PJs
- Reminder to go potty & get a water cup
- Reading a story or singing a song
- Hugs & kisses and getting tucked in
Whatever you decide to include in your routine, be sure it’s something you can do consistently every night.
Because Adriana helps the kids clean up toys throughout the day, this is no longer part of our evening routine. This frees up more time for us to play with the kids and relax at dinnertime.
Pro Tip: If you’re like me, you may lose track of time and have late bedtimes as a result. I started setting alarms on my phone to remind me to have special time, start dinner, brush teeth, and go to bed on time.
2. Set consequences for getting out of bed and enforce them
Before and during our bedtime routine, we remind our kids of the consequences of getting out of bed once the door is closed. (Unless they need to potty, but they know they have to go straight back to bed afterward).
We try to focus on the positive. Thus, we often remind our kids why it’s good to get to bed on time.
At bedtime we say, “Now it’s time to get some good sleep so you can play and have a fun day tomorrow.” Since we’ve talked about it so many times, they know that when they don’t sleep well, they’re cranky the next day.
We also don’t think of consequences as punishment, so much as the natural result of an action.
My kids ask to sleep all the time. So, we started a reward system. If they go to bed peacefully all week, they get a “sleepover night” with on Friday.
They either sleep in our bed or have a sleepover in the living room. It’s something they’ve come to look forward to every week.
Whenever the kids get out of bed at night, we simply remind them that if we have to fight them to get back in bed, they will lose their sleepover night. Typically, they only need one gentle reminder (because we have enforced this rule, and they’ve lost their sleepover night in the past).
Consistently enforcing consequences is important for creating an effective toddler bedtime routine.
Sometimes the kids still try to stay out of bed. If needed, we escalate the consequence to confiscating a toy for the night, but only if they don’t get in bed after we’ve counted to three. This consequence is also a natural result of their choices, because usually when they’re out of bed, it’s because they’re playing with toys.
Whatever the consequence, it’s important to be consistent and enforce it every time. It will probably result in tears, but it will also mean they take the consequences seriously.
Sometimes, the consequences may need to be enforced the next day. For example, the kids once lost TV privileges because they snuck downstairs and tried to watch TV while we were getting ready for bed. Adriana is a huge help in enforcing consequences like this while we’re away at work.
3. Be proactive during the bedtime routine to prevent getting out of bed
Set your kids up for success by being proactive. If you know your toddler will ask for hugs, kisses, water, stories, songs, toys, their favorite blanket, etc., be sure to give them a chance to get these things before you shut the door.
We are also sure to remind our kids during dinner time that there will be no getting out of bed for food if they’re hungry at bedtime. This ensures that they are given a chance to fill up before bedtime. We’ve made it our rule to only allow the kids extra food at bedtime if they ate all of their dinner.
This way, we incentivize the kids to finish their dinner and prevent them from asking for food at bedtime. They know they’ll go to bed hungry if they don’t finish their dinner, so they usually finish, and it’s rare that they are still hungry at bedtime.
Being proactive about bedtime also involves things like having dinner on time or giving your toddler ibuprofen for teething.
Setting expectations helps your kids follow the rules, even if they’re really young.
If you set expectations in advance, kids are more likely to abide by them. Even really young toddlers can understand expectations. The key is consistency.
Lay down all the rules ahead of time. Make clear statements like, “This is your last chance for x, y, z. Once I close the door, we’re done for the night and it’s time to sleep.”
Be clear about what’s allowed at bedtime. For example, my kids love to ask for more hugs and kisses. So I will tell them, “This is the last time for hugs and kisses. After this, it’s time to sleep.” (Otherwise, they will cry for more hugs when I try to close the door).
Once the bedtime routine is over, you can gently remind them, “It’s time to sleep and stay in bed now. If you get out of bed, there will be a consequence.”
Not only does Adriana help enforce consequences, but she also reminds the kids about their rewards. Every Friday, she reminds them it’s sleepover night. When I get home, they usually rush up to me exclaiming “It’s Friday! Sleepover night!”
It also helps to have another adult keeping track of their favorite toys and blankets, so we always know where to find them before bedtime.
4. Kids settle down easier when they feel comfortable in their bed
When we first moved into our house, bedtime was much more of a struggle than it is now. I think this was due to a combination of factors. But one thing that helped was having the kids spend time unpacking their toys and making their room their own.
We’ve also put emphasis on how comfortable their beds are, how cozy their blankets are, and how nice it feels to settle down and sleep.
My youngest doesn’t like to be tucked in with anything but his favorite baby blanket. He gets hot with too many blankets. So unless it’s winter, I make sure he’s not wearing heavy PJs. He falls asleep easier if he can stay cool.
Comfort is an important factor in ensuring your kids will fall asleep. And it doesn’t hurt to remind them how comfortable their room is.
Au Pairs can help kids take ownership and feel comfortable in their room.
Adriana arrived at our house a few months after we moved in. She spent time playing with them in their bedroom and helping them be responsible for cleaning up their own messes.
I asked her to help them learn to make their beds and put away laundry. Now, my eldest is very insistent on arranging their stuffed animals on their bed just so.
Adriana’s attention to maintaining a clean bedroom helped my kids take ownership of their space. They have since hung up drawings on their walls. My eldest even wants to vacuum their bedroom (though I have to help him).
5. Tire kids out before bedtime so they fall asleep easier
This is a double-edged sword, I’ll admit. When little kids are overly-tired, they have a harder time going to sleep. This is because their bodies compensate for fatigue by releasing additional cortisol and adrenaline to stay awake.
When my kids were in daycare, they would come home exhausted. This wasn’t always a good thing, as it often made bedtime more difficult.
But tiring your kids out does have its benefits. My kids seem to sleep more deeply when they’ve had a day full of activity.
As a working mom, it’s difficult to find the energy to tire my kids out. All I want to do is rest after work! This is where Adriana has helped us the most. She knows it’s important to keep the kids active, but also maintain a good balance.
If the kids seem extra tired in the middle of the day, Adriana will give them “quiet time,” which is our version of nap time. It doesn’t always result in a nap. Quiet time constitutes sitting on their beds and playing or reading quietly.
If they’re tired enough, sometimes they fall asleep. But even just this downtime can be enough to prevent them from getting overly-tired.
It’s a huge blessing to have a childcare provider who pays attention to our kids’ individual needs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come home to find one child napping and the other playing outside.
When they do nap, Adriana will tell me how long the kids have been asleep before leaving the house. (My kids are late nappers, usually around 4 pm). This way, I can make sure they don’t sleep too long so they can still go to bed on time.
Our kids being tired after daycare didn’t make our bedtime routine any easier… But why?
I think the difference between daycare and an Au Pair is that Adriana is more in-tune with our kids’ needs. After daycare, the kids seemed emotionally worn-out in addition to being physically tired.
This had a lot to do with the pressure their teachers put on them to sit still and not scream when they were angry, sad, or frustrated.
Adriana lets them finish their tantrums and helps them work through their emotions instead of suppressing them.
Thus, when I come home from work, my kids are worn out from the day’s activity, but they’re also happy.
They seem to feel less of a need to let out all their frustrations the moment I come home. Often, they are able to play happily while I make dinner.
They have emotional stability with Adriana, something they didn’t have at daycare.
This contributes greatly to a more efficient bedtime routine. The kids feel less of a need to stall because they’re more secure in their feelings. They have more stability with a childcare provider who’s really part of our family.
And because their physical and emotional needs have been met throughout the day, they’re able to fall asleep knowing they’re safe and loved.
Our New Norm Includes an Easier Bedtime Routine for Our Toddlers
Now, our evenings look like this:
I get home from work around 5 pm and rush to prep dinner. But because Adriana feeds the kids when they’re hungry (not on a daycare schedule), they aren’t starving and begging for food the moment I get home. Plus, she often feeds them a snack before I arrive, because she knows they might not last until dinner time.
The kids want attention. But they are content with helping me make dinner. They aren’t so hangry that they can’t have fun helping mom in the kitchen.
Sometimes, they are still cranky because it’s the end of the day. We might have a time-out.
Other times, the kids are still full of energy and they go play happily in the sandbox while I finish dinner.
My husband still dozes off on the couch after a long day at work. But now I don’t have to wake him up, and he’s better able to help me with chores after dinner.
We have healthier dinners more often, and more variety.
The kids still resist eating dinner some nights. Though now, I attribute it to having eaten before I got home. We still give reminders that it’s the last chance to eat before bed. And the kids have fewer meltdowns at dinner.
After dinner, we brush teeth, read a story, and get them tucked into bed by 8 pm.
We still have to give firm reminders of the consequences of getting out of bed. Once in a while, we might have to count to three or enforce the consequences when they try their luck.
But most nights, they stay in bed.
Use these strategies on your toddler’s bedtime routine…
Because we’re consistent in this routine, it works. A large part of it, though, is a result of the consistency and stability Adriana provides to our kids.
This factor is most apparent when she ducks into their room at bedtime. If she’s home during bedtime, she always gives them hugs and kisses before heading to the gym with friends.
They wrap their little arms around her neck and tell her they love her. And we can see that their barrage of tiny kisses means so much more to her than a mere job.