Dealing with toddler tantrums at bedtime isn’t easy, especially when everyone loses sleep. Discover 7 strategies to end bedtime tantrums once and for all.
Bedtime tantrums seem to come out of nowhere, don’t they?
Your child used to go to sleep so easily, but now dives into full-blown meltdowns at bedtime. He starts freaking out, kicking and screaming, despite nothing having changed in your routine at all. In fact, you have no idea what’s causing toddler tantrums at bedtime, much less how to handle them.
So, within the last few weeks, your “great sleeper” is suddenly not so great at sleeping anymore.
Maybe he throws a huge fit when you leave the room after putting him to bed, or resists the bedtime routine, crying so hard he coughs and gags through it all. Other times, he keeps putting bedtime off, insisting on more books to read, one more hug (or two) before you leave, and perhaps another cup of milk.
Just mention “bedtime,” and he’s already saying “no,” dropping to the ground and refusing to get up—just in case you missed his point.
What to do when your toddler tantrums at bedtime
One thing’s for sure: you’re beyond tired and frustrated. It’s not easy to remain calm when toddler tantrums at bedtime happen, especially when they do so out of nowhere.
After three boys, I’ve had my fair share of toddler tantrums at bedtime, the kind that leaves you drained and ready to crash in your own bed… where you actually dread bedtime, knowing what’s likely to happen. All while feeling like you have no idea what you’re doing.
You’re definitely not alone.
But you’re also not without hope. After dealing with my own kids and sharing my tips with other parents, I’ve found seven strategies that worked far better than anything else I tried. These tips took away the anger and frustration, and made it more likely for my kids to stop resisting bedtime.
Take a look at the strategies below and apply most, if not all, of them to help stop toddler tantrums at bedtime in their tracks:
1. Talk about “the plan”
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No child likes to be surprised into ending her day, much less when she’s having fun. Beyond having a bedtime (and pre-bedtime) routine, talk about what you can both expect when that inevitable time does come around.
You might describe the events of the day and say, “After dinner, we’ll play for a bit, then watch television. Right after your show, I’ll brush your teeth, get you out of your clothes and into the bathtub. Then you can play for about five minutes in the tub.
“After bath time, I’ll put on your alien pajamas, and we’ll read four books on my bed. Then I’ll walk you to your bed, sing our two bedtime songs, and turn off the light. I’ll leave the night light on so you can still see. I’ll be right in the next room, and then in the morning, we’ll give each other big hugs!”
Do this for several days, and follow through with the plan so she can begin to hear and experience it happen. And don’t just talk about it right before you start your routine. In fact, talk about the plan during the day when neither of you are stressed or about to throw a fit.
Another helpful tip? Give your child a head’s up, especially when she’s having fun or focused on an activity.
Whenever we have to transition into another activity, I start reminding my kids at about the 10-15 minute mark. I continue counting down to five, then if necessary, even down to the minute.
Besides counting down, you can also have a final “trigger” that signals the bedtime routine. If you typically watch a show right before bedtime and remain consistent with it, the end credits could serve as the final trigger.
2. Ease separation with snuggles
Separation anxiety is a common reason kids throw bedtime tantrums. While sleeping may seem like a no-brainer to you and me, to kids, those hours apart from their parents can feel long. Not having us nearby doesn’t help them feel any better about sleep, either.
One of the best ways to prevent toddler tantrums at bedtime is to ease your child’s separation anxiety. You can do this through lots of snuggles and quality time right before. Make him feel comfortable, safe, and secure by focusing on him completely.
You might spend a few minutes cuddling in bed, reading a book, or even making each other laugh and being silly. Whatever feels most natural to you, remind her that he’s loved, no matter what.
3. Offer a comfort item or special toy
In your absence, sleeping in bed can feel empty and lonely for your child. If she’s been throwing bedtime tantrums more often than usual, offer a comfort item or special toy she doesn’t often take to bed with her. Add in the long hours you’re away, and no wonder she resists going to sleep.
If that’s the case, a special toy or comfort item can be exactly what you need to convince her to go to bed. Maybe it’s a new stuffed animal she gets to sleep with, or a favorite household item you don’t usually let her sleep with.
Sometimes the newness of sleeping with a special item can disrupt the toddler tantrums at bedtime she’s grown used to. Short of having you sleep next her to in bed, a special item can do the trick.
I’ve given all my kids the Angel Dear lovies… which they all love!
4. Acknowledge your child’s emotions
Toddler tantrums at bedtime baffle many of us because they seem to come out of nowhere. Our routines have remained the same, no major life changes have happened, and life has been humming along just fine.
But how your child feels isn’t always so neatly traced to a particular turning point. The smallest things can trigger heavy emotions in all of us, not just kids. While all may seem fine and ordinary on the outside, your child may be going through a lot on the inside.
For instance, he might be experiencing developmental milestones you don’t always see. Or perhaps he’s learning how to communicate with other kids in preschool that may be affecting how clingy he is to you. Maybe he feels like all he hears is “no” all day and reacts in a fit come bedtime.
Acknowledge the anger, sadness, anxiety, or other emotions he may feel. Don’t brush it aside as petty, repetitive (“Another tantrum?!”), or frustrating. Show him you understand the depth of his feelings—that he is heard.
And watch what happens. With this simple act of empathy, he’ll melt his defenses, be more willing to comply, and know that you’re on his side.
The Power of Empathy
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5. Set clear indicators
Every parent has had that negotiation. You know, the one where your child says, “One more book?” or takes forever to walk to the bathtub.
And no wonder—if you don’t have clear indicators around bedtime, it’s easy for kids to find a way to draw it out longer or postpone it as long as possible.
That’s why it’s important to set clear indicators she understands. This means keeping your word when you say bath time starts promptly at 6:45pm, or that she only has one minute to pick her pajamas. You can even point to the hands of a clock to indicate when that time occurs.
Even better if she has a visual cue to rely on, leaving no doubt on when she needs to sleep. For instance, if you’ve both decided to read four books a night, remove four books from the shelf and lay them in front of you. Retrieving books from a nearby shelf simply gives her more reason to extend it to five or six.
6. Don’t enable habits you don’t want
Sometimes we do what we have to do to get through the night. There’s the mom who secedes to nursing her baby to sleep, or the exhausted dad who falls asleep in his toddler’s bed just to get him to stay in his room.
But taken too far, this can send mixed signals to kids. They grow accustomed to habits and routines that they begin to accept as normal, so that once we take it away from them, they throw an even worse fit.
Be intentional with the choices you make. You might even set up a plan for yourself on how to deal with your child’s bedtime tantrums tonight. Set aside distractions and get into the mindset that you’ll no longer enable unsustainable habits or lifestyle choices that aren’t working for you.
For instance, if you don’t want to spend one or two hours lying in your toddler’s bed with him, then decide not to do so. Tired of negotiating with him in the middle of the night? Nip it in the bud, even if it means he cries longer than you wanted.
We can point the finger at our kids all day long, but at the end of it, we’re the one responsible for enabling these changes to happen. Yes, she threw a fit, but a fit didn’t force you to make the choices you did. The quicker you can accept responsibility for the role you played, the quicker you can find solutions out of it.
In fact, make a list of the habits you want to change, from staying in her room until she falls asleep to letting her sleep in your bed. Then, write its polar opposite, so that you can focus on what you do want. Having an image of your ideal sleep scenario will keep you focused and resolute when you start to waver.
7. Put your foot down and be consistent
Putting your foot down often means making sure your child stays in bed, regardless of her bedtime tantrums. Just as you had kept her contained in her crib as an infant, you’ll now keep her contained in her room. You can use a baby gate on the door frame or doorknob covers on the inside of the door.
Make sure you explain to her that you’re doing things differently now, and that what you had tried in the past hasn’t been working. You’re teaching her to enjoy sleeping in her bed, and that she’s safe and loved.
She’ll likely cry, especially since she’s not used to this new change, but don’t simply shut the door and leave it at that. Instead, check in periodically, saying calmly and confidently that you know she can do this. You can also use a baby monitor to “talk” to her when she gets out of bed.
You might find her the next morning asleep and curled up on the floor, but at least she did it—she was able to sleep without relying on her old habits. Over the next few nights, she’ll learn to sleep more confidently on her own.
But it takes putting your foot down and being consistent to send the message that this is how it’s going to be. When it gets hard, ask yourself if a few nights of holding your ground is worth erasing the constant toddler tantrums at bedtime.
And check out Go Sleep In Your Own Bed by Candace Fleming to help your child understand the importance of sleeping in your own bed:
Dealing with bedtime tantrums is exhausting for even the most patient of moms. But with these seven strategies, you can change how bedtime feels around your house.
Start by describing the plan with your child, almost as if she’s conspiring alongside you on how to make this work. Include plenty of quality time, especially leading up to bedtime, to ease any anxiety she may have being away from you.
A comfort item or special new toy can also make going to sleep easier, especially if she’s anxious about being away from you. Acknowledge her emotions, no matter how petty or silly they may seem to you, so that she feels heard and understood.
Make bedtime transitions simpler with clear indicators, from laying out a stack of books to pointing to the clock. Stop enabling habits you know are unsustainable and are no longer working for the family. And finally, put your foot down and be consistent with bedtime, providing her the boundaries she so needs.
Every parent who has dealt with bedtime tantrums feels like this will never end, but I promise it will. By following these tips and providing loving but firm boundaries, your little one will be a “great sleeper” once again.
Get more tips:
- How to End Bedtime Battles and Get Your Child to Finally Sleep
- Toddler Fighting Sleep? 5 Tips You Haven’t Tried
- Effective Ways to Handle Your 3 Year Old Not Sleeping
- What to Do when Your Toddler Wakes Up Crying
- 5 Unusual Ways to Deal with a Defiant 3 Year Old
Tell me in the comments: what are your biggest struggles with toddler tantrums at bedtime?
The Power of Empathy
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