Is your toddler hysterical at bedtime? Avoid screaming at night for hours with these tips and get your child sleeping soundly in no time.
It comes out of nowhere, don’t you think? Your toddler is now all of a sudden screaming and crying—for hours—when you’re putting him to bed at night. He wants to get out of the crib and play, but all this madness is causing him to sleep as late as 10pm.
Never mind that he still wakes up at the ungodly hour of 6am.
He’s scared and upset to go to sleep, but going into his room and reassuring him only makes things worse. He has a full-on meltdown, clinging to you and crying. Even with you right there with him, he’ll continue crying. He’s obviously tired, but only gets worse no matter what you do.
And yes, putting him in your bed “works,” but you know you can’t do that every night. No doubt, you’re at a loss on how to calm him down or solve these sleep problems.
When your toddler is hysterical at bedtime
My toddler started refusing bedtime, outright freaking out at the mere mention of it. I was tired of the nightly antics, especially when I just wanted to end the day already.
But then I reminded myself that kids see separation as any time they’re apart from us, including bedtime. While we might assume defiant behavior or annoying habits, deep down, they’re adjusting to being away from us while they sleep.
With that in mind, I experimented with different ways to finally end his antics at bedtime. Many of these are questions you need to ask yourself, while others are simple and practical changes you can do for a big impact.
Hopefully you’ll give each of these tactics a try and finally get the sleep you and the whole family need:
1. Remind your toddler of your expectations
Do you ever feel like you have to tell your toddler the same thing over and over? Turns out, repetition is totally normal and even necessary.
Think of your own reminders, or the times you’ve sidestepped a routine or forgotten to do a task. Now think of toddlers, with just a few years’ experience, and you can see that repetitive reminders are often necessary.
So, what does that look like for bedtime? First, remind him during the daytime about what happens at bedtime. Set your expectations about what he’ll be doing throughout the routine as well as what happens at the end of it.
“After brushing your teeth, I’ll give you a bath and help you change into pajamas,” you might start. “We’ll then read four bedtime books on my bed. When we’re done, we’ll walk to your room and say goodnight to the stuffies. I’ll tuck you in bed and turn off the light, and you’ll lie down when I close the door.”
Then as you go through the routine, remind him once again the next steps and expectations. The more you do this, the more he realizes that every night is the same, no exceptions.
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2. Create (and stick to!) a consistent bedtime routine
Routines prepare your toddler for what’s coming up so not everything is brand new, and lessen the fears or anxiety she might have.
You see, kids thrive on predictability. They don’t like the uncertainty of not knowing what’s ahead. When they know what to expect, they don’t have to worry about yet another new change.
If you haven’t already, create a bedtime routine you can do nearly every night. Begin with setting consistent times—for instance, bath time at 6:45pm and lights out by 7:30pm. Then, do the same tasks in the same order, so that every action has a predictable “next step” to follow.
Down the line, you’ll likely change your routine or veer from it as needed. But for now, the more hysterical your toddler, the more consistent your routine should be.
3. Teach your toddler to comfort a stuffed animal
Sometimes the best way to feel comforted is to confide in another. And here’s where your toddler’s favorite stuffed animal or blanket come into play.
Before leaving, explain to her that when she feels scared, she should “tell” her stuffed toy. You might say, “If you wake up scared, tell Sharky, ‘I’m scared,’ give him some cuddles, and lie down.” Have her practice with her stuffed animal while you’re still in the room, so she knows that this is exactly what she can do.
In confiding in her bedtime companion, she’ll feel less alone through the night. The next morning, acknowledge her for being brave and telling her stuffed animal how she feels.
4. Change your toddler’s sleep environment
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One simple way to avoid bedtime battles is to change your toddler’s room.
For instance, install a nightlight (like this one) or leave the door slightly open if she’s scared of the dark. Introduce a toddler bed—with her favorite characters on her bed sheets—to get her excited to sleep. Give her a new stuffed animal that she can sleep with.
By keeping her room positive and safe, she’ll be more eager to sleep in it through the night.
5. Experiment with your toddler’s naps
How well—and how much—your toddler sleeps during the day can affect bedtime. Maybe he’s been awake too long and didn’t get enough sleep that he’s beyond overtired come bedtime. The solution? Move the afternoon nap later in the day or bedtime sooner rather than later.
On the flip side, perhaps he’s not awake enough after the nap, which causes him to be wired and not sleepy enough for bedtime. If so, move the nap earlier in the day, cut it short, or push bedtime back.
Start with your best guesses (for instance, moving bedtime earlier because you suspect he’s overtired). Simple experiments over a few days can let you know whether these adjustments are working.
6. Hold your ground (and check in as needed)
Nighttime—whether during the bedtime routine or in the middle of the night—is likely your lowest point of willpower.
Come bedtime, you’re exhausted from the day and ready for some relaxation. And waking up in the middle of the night jolts you out of bed, disoriented and incoherent.
No wonder it’s so hard to hold your ground with your toddler hysterical at bedtime.
But not doing so only reinforces the very habits you want to get rid of. The more you give in to her unreasonable demands, the more she’ll ask for another cup of water right before bed. Letting her sleep in your bed over and over “confirms” her suspicions that hers isn’t safe.
Instead, despite her cries and demands, stay calm and confident as you remind her that she’s fine in her bed and in her room. After five minutes, check in again to let her know you’re still here and that she’s doing a great job of staying in her room, even when it’s hard at first.
Continue checking in, extending the time between check-ins, until she’s finally fallen asleep. The next day, congratulate her on a job well done, for staying in bed even when she wasn’t used to it.
7. Consider changes in your toddler’s life
Sometimes a mom will describe to me the challenges she has with her toddler hysterical at bedtime, only to end with, “…plus, I’m caring for a newborn!”
And there’s your answer.
It’s not just having a new baby in the family, either. Many changes, both big and small, can affect sleep. A new school, recovering from being sick, coming back from vacation are all changes to consider when your toddler suddenly won’t sleep well.
Why is this helpful? Rather than just tackling her sleep issues, you can focus on the root causes themselves. You might spend more one-on-one time with her without the baby, or read books about going to school.
By resolving the deeper issues, you can avoid bedtime tantrums in the first place.
Even if your child had always been a champion sleeper, dealing with a toddler hysterical at bedtime can be a challenge. Still, you’re not stuck with sleepless nights and bedtime tantrums galore.
Start by reminding her about your expectations, running through your nightly tasks so she remembers what to expect. Then, create a consistent bedtime routine and stick to it as much as possible. Teach her to confide in her stuffed animal whenever she feels scared, helping her feel less alone.
Change her sleep environment—from night lights to a new bed—to make sleeping more comforting and exciting. Experiment with naps to avoid her feeling overtired, or not sleepy enough, come bedtime. Hold your ground to stop unwanted habits and set the standard moving forward.
And finally, consider any changes in her life and address those first. Her sleep issues could be rooted in deeper issues like new baby jealousy or fears of a new school.
Rest assured, friend, you now know a few more tricks to handle your toddler hysterical at bedtime—even if it seems to come out of nowhere.
Get more tips:
- What to Do when Your Toddler Wakes Up Crying Every Morning
- How to Create a Successful Toddler Sleep Schedule
- Effective Techniques to Help Your Child’s Separation Anxiety at Night
- Top 6 Tips to Get Through the Toddler Sleep Regression
- Transitioning to a Toddler Bed at 18 Months
And check out Sleepy, the Goodnight Buddy by Drew Daywalt. This is a hilarious children’s book every child (and parent!) can relate to:
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