Is your toddler not sleeping because he wants to play instead? Discover effective tips to get your child to finally go to sleep (without the power struggles!).
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 he’d 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 his sleep, not dealing with his antics.
What to do with your toddler not sleeping
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 transition to sleep. 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 handle my toddler not sleeping:
1. Make sure your toddler is awake long enough in the day
Is your toddler getting enough play time during the day? He may not be tired enough to fall asleep by bedtime if he hasn’t been awake long enough.
The same applies to naps. Kids usually begin to drop naps because they can stay awake longer than usual. One of the tell-tale signs your toddler can drop a nap is that he doesn’t fall asleep during one of them.
See if you can adjust his schedule to accommodate a better balance between sleep and awake time. For instance:
- Move the last (or only) nap earlier. Could you move some of his awake time from before his last nap to after? If he’s awake for six hours from 7am until 1pm and takes a two-hour nap, he’s only awake for four hours from 3pm to 7pm. Consider moving nap time to 12-2pm so he’s awake for an equal five hours before and after the mid-day nap.
- Wake him up from his last nap once it reaches a certain time. I always know when my kids would take a long time to sleep—it’s on the days when they took an extended nap. For the most part, I let them sleep in, but if their naps were unusually long, I’d cut it off after a certain time. This made sure they’re not wide awake too long at night.
- Wake him up earlier in the morning. Late morning wake ups can keep him wide awake at nap time. See if he can wake up early enough to get him sleepy in time for naps.
- Push bedtime later so he’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 toddler in the past, but now that he’s older, perhaps he can stand to sleep at 7pm or 7:30pm.
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2. Keep your environment subdued before sleep
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 the 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 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 toddler awake and over-excited.
- Keep the lights dim when putting on pajamas. Create a calm mood starting with getting dressed for sleep.
- Massage him with lotion. This helps him get in the mood to sleep and relax his body.
- Read books in a calm, whisper-like voice. 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.
3. Keep your toddler’s room dark and minimal
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Nothing’s worse than remembering you’d forgotten the fire truck in the toddler’s room. You know, the one that blares a siren sound out of nowhere. Keeping his room dark, calm and quiet makes it conducive for sleep.
He’ll 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 get out of bed and play with them.
Before you tuck your toddler 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’ bedrooms to block out sunlight that may still be lingering in the early evenings. They also kept the rooms darker during nap time when the sun would be glaring.
Finally, use a white noise machine or even a fan or heater to muffle noise. Your toddler 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 that he should be sleeping.
4. Check in every few minutes
Let’s say you tried all that. You made sure he was awake long enough, kept the room clear of tempting toys, and created a calm, peaceful routine conducive for sleep.
Except your toddler still won’t go to sleep. He 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 him 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 their diapers, too. I’ve gotten frustrated when my twins would remain awake, wondering what’s keeping them up. Only after checking their diapers did I realize one of them had pooped. Usually, you can smell poop right when you walk in, but sometimes it’s not as obvious.
5. Re-tuck your toddler calmly
Keeping your temper in check can be a struggle, especially when it comes to your toddler not sleeping. You might take it personally when he doesn’t sleep, as if he was blatantly disregarding the rules. So, you barge in, yell at him to knock it off, and maybe take a toy or two away as “punishment.”
Instead, try a different technique: If you hear him talking, walking around or goofing off, open the door and calmly re-tuck him back into bed.
Don’t say a word or allow your face to show any signs of anger or frustration. Stay neutral and calm as you lead him back to bed and place his blanket and lovey right where they belong.
Every time I did this with my kids, they stayed in bed and eventually fell asleep. Maybe they were confused by this turn of events, or realized they should’ve been sleeping. The best part? I hardly lost my temper, and I didn’t have to check in often.
We get so worked up when our toddlers don’t follow the schedule. It’s 9pm and he’s still awake! You might say. They might be awake for hours after bedtime, either talking or shuffling around their beds.
Here’s the thing though: sometimes it’s okay if they take their time falling asleep.
Yes, you’re worried about your toddler not sleeping and feeling tired the next morning. You dread the possibility that he’s entering a defiant stage and testing boundaries. In an ideal world, he’d sleep exactly when you tell them to.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes he’s too excited about the happenings of the day to fall asleep, or he needs to talk to process their thoughts. Maybe he ran around too much in the afternoon and his body feels too wired.
Tell yourself it’ll be okay—this won’t matter in five years. Don’t go into battle mode because he decided to sing instead of fall straight to sleep.
Eventually, he will go to sleep. He might do so later than you intended, or even fall asleep on the floor clutching the bear he snatched from the shelves. But at least he fell asleep, even if it sometimes takes a while to get there.
Get more tips to help your toddler not sleeping:
- Top 6 Tips to Get Through the Toddler Sleep Regression
- Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night
- How to Handle Your 2 Year Old Not Going to Sleep Until 11pm
- How to End Your Child’s Nighttime Fears
- 6 Tips on Helping Your Child Sleep in Their Own Bed
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