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Streamline Your Toddler's Bedtime Routine

by Kathryn Walsh of "Mamapedia"
Photo by: iStock

By the time 7 p.m. rolls around, crawling onto a mattress with a cozy blanket and conking out for 12 hours probably sounds like heaven to you. And yet, your toddler does everything he can to resist just that. An exhausted toddler who would rather play with his toys than sleep is a force to be reckoned with, so cutting pre-bed routines short is in everyone’s best interest. We talked to a few experts about how to keep your child’s bedtime ritual from becoming a nightmare.

Eliminate Non-Essential Activities
“A toddler’s bedtime routine should be short and sweet, says Dr. Cathryn Tobin. The mother of four is a pediatrician and the founder of the New Baby Sleep School. “If bath time gets the toddler revved up, it should be moved to another time of day.”
Your toddler will take any opportunity to send the bedtime routine off the rails, so limit those opportunities by cutting out any extraneous steps. Set out his pajamas ahead of time instead of letting him pick a pair. Find his lovey and put it in his bed after dinner so he doesn’t have to go looking for it just before lights’ out. Coordinate everything ahead of time so all he has to do is go through the motions.

Standardize Everything
It has the potential to be such a sweet and intimate time with your child, but treating bedtime with the precision of a military maneuver is a good idea. Write down all the steps in your child’s pre-sleep routine and estimate the amount of time each one typically takes. Work backward to determine the time that the routine should start in order for your toddler to be completely settled before his target sleep time.

It’s essential to make the bedtime ritual 100 percent consistent night-to-night, says Shanna Donhauser, a child and family therapist in Seattle. “It may seem cumbersome to adults, but small children LOVE predictability, especially during transitions. Come up with a song, make a visual list, find some way to order and then walk through the steps together. It will help signal to your little one that it’s time for bed.”

Give your toddler a five-minute warning before the routine starts so it never takes him by surprise.

… Including Your Response to Testing
It’s hard to respond calmly and evenly when you’re exhausted and your toddler is throwing his pillow in the air or running circles around the room. You can’t prevent these little behavioral annoyances because testing boundaries is developmentally normal for toddlers, Shanna points out.

“They will absolutely protest going to bed,” she says. “But your kind and firm resolute action to return them to bed, help them through their routines, and help them sleep will ultimately help them feel safe and secure in the knowledge that you are bigger, stronger, and wiser then they are and that you know best…they need that sleep.

It’s just as important to be consistent in how you react when your toddler acts out after lights out. When he inevitably calls for you to come back, use a method that Dr. Tobin calls “hello-goodbye.” “[It’s] basically a strategy where if your toddler is protesting, every 5 minutes you stick your head in the door and say, ‘It’s bedtime. You’re okay. I love you.’

“Parents don’t go in the room and they always respond by saying the exact same thing,” Dr. Tobin says. “The toddler knows what to expect and this encourages him/her to calm down and go to sleep.” Resisting that sweet little voice is hard, but the less you engage the sooner he’ll fall asleep — and the sooner you can reunite with your own beloved pillow.

Kathryn Walsh is a freelance writer specializing in parenting and travel topics. Her work has appeared on,, and

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