Finding bedtime difficult with your toddler not sleeping? Here are tips on getting a child to sleep instead of play.
My son knew it was time for bed. We went through our bedtime routine of taking a bath, changing into pajamas and reading four books. Except once he was tucked in bed, he wouldn’t sleep.
He wasn’t crying—in fact, he was playing, talking, and even getting out of bed. I’d already reminded him a few times that it was time to sleep, but he wouldn’t listen. Each time I walked in, I’d find him playing instead of tucked in bed.
And so I’d get upset. I took his playing as defiance against the rules, especially after telling him over and over to go to sleep. I worried whether he would be overtired the next day or, if it were a nap, cranky the rest of the afternoon. And I had been hoping to grab some “me time” during their sleep, not dealing with his antics.
Toddler not sleeping? How to get a child to sleep instead of play
But then I began to make changes, starting with putting myself in my son’s shoes. I asked myself why he might be playing and how I could do things differently to help him fall asleep. And most importantly, I stopped reacting and started responding to his behavior in a calmer way.
Turns out, all those changes helped. He stopped his long streak of playing in bed and began to fall asleep right when he was supposed to.
Below are the tips I used to help my kids sleep instead of play:
Make sure your toddler is awake long enough in the day
Is your child getting enough play time during the day? She may not be tired enough to fall asleep by bedtime if she hasn’t been awake long enough.
The same applies to naps. Kids usually begin to drop naps because they can stand to be awake longer than usual. One of the tell-tale signs kids can drop a nap is because they don’t fall asleep during one of them.
See if you can adjust your child’s schedule to accommodate a better balance between sleep and awake time. For instance:
- Move her last (or only) nap earlier. Could you move some of her awake time from before her last nap to after? If she’s awake for six hours from 7am until 1pm and takes a two-hour nap, she’s only awake for four hours from 3pm to 7pm. Consider moving nap time to 12-2pm so she’s awake for an equal five hours before and after her mid-day nap.
- Wake her up from her last nap once it reaches a certain time. I always know when my kids will take a long time to sleep—it’s on the days when they take an extended nap. For the most part, I let them sleep in, but if their naps are unusually long, I’ll cut it off after a certain time. This makes sure they’re not wide awake too long at night.
- Wake her up earlier in the morning. Late morning wake ups can also keep her wide awake at nap time. See if your child can wake up early enough to get her sleepy in time for naps.
- Push bedtime later so she’s not sleeping too early. We can be so tied to routine that we sometimes don’t ask ourselves if our kids even need to sleep during the times they do. A 6:30pm bedtime may have worked for your child in the past, but now that she’s older, perhaps she can stand to sleep at 7pm or 7:30pm.
FREE printable: How to transition to fewer naps
Want to determine whether your child is ready to drop a nap? Download my FREE printable, Transitioning to Fewer Naps! Use it to record when your child is likely ready to take one less nap (hint: 5 days in a row is a good indicator!). Download it below:
Keep your environment subdued before bedtime
Chase around the house. Bath time with plenty of laughs and splashing around. Even putting on pajamas and reading were lively events in our household.
Except all that rowdiness wasn’t helping my kids fall asleep come bedtime. In fact, they were still cracking jokes and acting silly as I was trying to read bedtime stories.
After realizing how much the the environment before bedtime affected their sleep, I decided to keep things subdued. Take a look at a few ways you can do the same:
- Avoid rigorous play at bath time. Playing during the bath is fine, but not if doing so keeps your child awake and over-excited.
- Keep the lights dim when putting on pajamas. Begin to create a calm mood starting with getting dressed for sleep.
- Massage your child with lotion. This helps her get in the mood to sleep, especially as it can relax her body.
- Read books in a calm, whisper-like voice. Normally when I read to my kids, I use my regular voice, but right before sleep, I rely on a softer voice to signal sleep.
By keeping things quiet and peaceful, we can set the tone for sleep, not play.
Keep your toddler’s room dark and minimal
Nothing’s worse than remembering you’d forgotten the fire truck in the kids’ room. You know, the one that blares a siren sound out of nowhere. Keeping your child’s room dark, calm and quiet makes it conducive for sleep.
Your child will also be less tempted to get out of bed to play. I used to keep my kids’ box of cars in their room. Then I realized they’d been getting out of bed, grabbing a few and taking them back into bed.
Before you tuck your child in for the night, remove any loud or tempting toys from the room to make them less accessible during sleep. Store them in boxes and shelves, and remove especially tempting toys from the room completely.
Keeping the room dark can also signal that it’s time to sleep. I installed darkening curtains in the kids’ bedroom to block out sunlight that may still be lingering in the early evenings. They also kept the room much darker during nap time when normally the sun would be glaring.
Finally, use a white noise machine or even a fan or heater to muffle noise. Your child won’t hear any startling sounds you may make in the living room or from neighbors outside. Like a dark room, white noise can also signal to your toddler that she should be sleeping, not playing.
Check in every few minutes
Let’s say you tried all that. You made sure she was awake long enough. You kept her room clear of tempting toys and created a calm, peaceful routine conducive for sleep.
Except she still plays instead of sleeps. Or sings, talks, gets out of bed, you name it. What do you do then?
Check in every few minutes. First, check in at five minutes. Make sure all is okay, and give her a quick reminder that it’s time to sleep. Do the same in 10 minutes, and again in 15 minutes.
Keep your check-ins minimal: poke your head in, don’t make eye contact, and keep your voice calm and low.
And check for poop. I’ve gotten frustrated when my twins would remain awake, wondering what’s keeping them up. Only after checking their diaper did I realize they had pooped.
Usually, you can smell poop right when you walk in, but sometimes it’s not as obvious. Check their diapers for poop that may be keeping them awake.
Re-tuck your toddler calmly
I’ve struggled with keeping my temper in check, especially when it comes to sleep. I’d take it personally when my kids would play instead of sleep, as if they were blatantly disregarding the rules.
I’d barge in, yell at them to knock it off, and maybe take a toy or two away as “punishment.” They’d cry, I’d feel terrible, and you can imagine how everyone’s mood felt when nap time was over.
Instead, I began to try a different technique, one that almost always works every time. If I’d hear them talking, walking around or goofing off, I’d open the door and calmly re-tuck them back into their beds.
I wouldn’t say a word, and my face wouldn’t show any signs of anger or frustration. I was neutral and calm as I led them back to bed and placed their blankets and lovey right where they belonged.
Maybe they were confused by this turn of events or realized they should’ve been sleeping instead of playing. Either way, they stay in bed and eventually fall asleep.
The best part? I hardly lose my temper, and I don’t have to check in often.
We get so worked up when our kids don’t follow the schedule. It’s 9pm and she’s still awake! You might say. I’ve heard my kids awake for hours after I’ve put them to bed, either talking or shuffling around their bed.
Here’s the thing though: sometimes it’s okay if your toddler plays instead of sleeps. Yes, I worry my kids will feel tired the next morning, or wonder if they’re entering a defiant stage and testing boundaries. In an ideal world, our kids would sleep exactly when we tell them to.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes they’re too excited about the happenings of the day to fall asleep, or they need to talk to process their thoughts. Maybe they ran around too much in the afternoon and their bodies feel wired.
I tell myself it’ll be okay—this won’t matter in five years. See if your toddler will fall asleep after a while. Don’t go into battle mode because she decided to sing instead of fall straight to sleep.
More than likely, she’ll go to sleep. She might do so later than you intended. She may even fall asleep on the floor clutching the bear she snatched from the shelves. But at least she fell asleep, even if she had to play to get there.
Get more tips on helping your toddler sleep:
- Getting Your Child to Stay in Bed All Night: 7 Crucial Tips You Need to Know
- Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night
- Why Your Child Shouldn’t Sleep Too Late
- How to End Your Child’s Nighttime Fears
- 6 Tips on Helping Your Child Sleep in Their Own Bed
Tell me in the comments: What are your tips for a toddler not sleeping?
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