What to Do When Your Toddler Is Hysterical at Bedtime

Is your toddler hysterical at bedtime? Avoid screaming at night for hours with these tips and get your child sleeping soundly in no time.

Toddler Hysterical at BedtimeIt all started out of nowhere.

My toddler started screaming at bedtime even at the mere mention of it. Meanwhile, 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 this is defiant behavior or an annoying habit, deep down, they’re adjusting to being away from us while they sleep.

With that in mind, I experimented with different ways to finally stop his behavior. Many of these are questions you need to ask yourself, while others are simple and practical changes you can make for a big impact.

Hopefully, you can give each of these tactics a try and finally get the sleep you and the whole family need. As one parent said about the article:

“I LOVE your advice… saying that you don’t have to explain anything or talk to them, just be there. My little 13 month old had a meltdown at bedtime out of nowhere and just wouldn’t calm down. At first, I was angry because she also hadn’t slept all day. But then I found this article and tried out what you said and it worked so well for both of us.” -Kristin

Toddler Wakes Up Too Early Crying

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. As the Montessori Academy shares:

“A child must first learn fundamental skills before they can acquire speed, increased confidence, and mastery. It is through repetition that possibility becomes ability.”

Think of your own reminders, 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 her during the day about what happens at bedtime. Set your expectations about what she’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 her once again of the next steps and expectations. The more you do this, the more she realizes that every night is the same—no exceptions.

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Transition into bedtime

Your child will transition into bedtime—whether it’s an easy one or not can be up to you. Is she roughhousing in a loud, bright room? Do you change plans every evening, making it harder to signal that it’s time to sleep?

Make your transitions sleep-friendly. A wild chase around the house won’t help her adjust to sleep—changing that to quiet play might be better. Adapt the environment as well: play calm music instead of loud and fast, or close the blinds to make her room darker.

Then, offer a heads up between each transition. Imagine you’re in the middle of reading a terrific book. Now imagine your partner saying, “Okay, time to come to bed now. Right now. If you don’t come, I’m taking that book away.”

Instead, tell her she’ll be changing into pajamas in five minutes. If you’re in the middle of playing, remind her that after this round, it’s time to take a bath. Or that she has five more blocks to stack before it’s time to clean the toys up. Don’t just break into her activity—give her a chance to wind down and wrap up.

Another tip about transitions? Don’t threaten—it hardly works. Say it in a fun, loving, non-threatening way: “It’s bath time!” (said with a big smile).

Create (and stick to!) a consistent bedtime routine

Routines prepare your toddler for what’s coming up so not everything is brand new. They also lessen the fears or anxieties she might have.

You see, kids don’t like the uncertainty of not knowing what’s ahead. But when they know what to expect, they don’t have to worry about yet another new change or wonder what’s next.

Create a bedtime routine you can do every night. Begin with setting consistent times—for instance, bath time starts at 6:45pm and lights are 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 might change your routine or veer from it as needed. But for now, the more hysterical your toddler, the more consistent your routine should be.

Have regular sleep and wake up times

Seven o’clock. That’s the magic hour of the day when all three kids wake up, whether it’s a Tuesday or a Saturday. Even if they wake up at 6:20, they still need to stay in bed until we open the door.

Come bedtime, eight o’clock is the time when they need to be in bed and the lights are turned off. We make exceptions of course, but they’re exactly that—rare times to accommodate special occasions. Otherwise, we have regular sleep and wake up times every day.

Kids thrive on consistency. Long before they can tell time, they adjust to doing the same things at the same times of the day. A consistent bedtime leaves little room for arguments (they won’t fight an issue when it isn’t one). It’s pretty hard to argue your way into a later bedtime when you’re always in bed by 8pm.

Teach your toddler to comfort a stuffed animal

Sometimes the best way to feel comforted is to do the same for another. And here’s where your toddler’s favorite stuffed animal comes into play.

Before leaving, explain that when he feels scared, he should “tell” his stuffed toy. You might say, “If you wake up scared, tell Sharky, ‘I’m scared,’ give him some cuddles, and lie down.” Have him practice with his stuffed animal while you’re still in the room so he knows that this is exactly what he can do.

In confiding in his bedtime companion, he can feel less alone during the night. The next morning, acknowledge him for being brave and telling his stuffed animal how he feels.

Check out these examples of a 2.5 year old sleep schedule.

2.5 Year Old Sleep Schedule

Change your toddler’s sleep environment

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One simple way to avoid bedtime battles and their consequences is to change your toddler’s room.

For instance, install a nightlight or leave the door slightly open if she’s scared of the dark. Transition into a toddler bed—with her favorite characters on the 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 can be more eager to sleep in it through the night.

Experiment with naps

How well—and how much—your toddler sleeps during the day can affect bedtime. Maybe she’s been awake too long that she’s now 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 she’s not awake enough after nap time, which causes her to be wired and not sleepy 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 she’s overtired). Simple experiments over a few days can let you know whether these adjustments are working.

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 to relax. 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 at times.

But not doing so reinforces the very habits you want to get rid of. The more you give in to her unreasonable demands, the more she might ask for another cup of water right before bed. Letting her sleep in your room 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 room. After five minutes, check in again to let her know you’re still here and that she’s doing a great job 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 for staying in bed even when she wasn’t used to it.

Discover the biggest reasons you need to hold your ground.

Consider changes in your toddler’s life

Sometimes a parent will describe the challenges she has with her toddler 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. Any big changes can affect sleep. A new school, recovering from being sick, or coming back from vacation are all changes to consider when your toddler suddenly won’t sleep well.

Rather than just tackling his sleep issues, you can focus on the root causes themselves. You might spend more one-on-one time with him without the baby or read books about going to school.

By resolving the deeper issues, you can avoid bedtime tantrums in the first place.

Talk about sleep as a good thing

If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself with hands on hips, forehead furrowed, and bellowing out to your kids, “It’s time for bed!”

Understandable. They’ve been fighting sleep for half an hour now, refusing to do the tasks to get ready for bed.

But do this too often and your child sees bedtime as The Dreaded Thing. Everything else—staying up, playing, reading—seems more fun in comparison.

Instead, talk to her about the benefits of sleep in ways she can understand, such as growing stronger and not getting sick. And yes, acknowledge the difficulty in saying goodbye to a fun day, but also talk about how relaxing and important good sleep is.

And work together as a team. Ask her what she needs to make bedtime easier. You might learn simple tactics like adding a night light or giving her a few minutes to read before bed. She might need extra goodnight kisses and cuddles to wrap up the night. Simple changes like these can lead to better sleep.

Conclusion

Even if your child has always been a champion sleeper, dealing with his new behavior can be a challenge. Still, you’re not stuck with sleepless nights and toddler tantrums at bedtime.

Start by reminding him about your expectations and running through your nightly tasks so he remembers what to expect. Create a consistent bedtime routine and stick to it as much as possible. Teach him to confide in his stuffed animal whenever he feels scared to help him feel less alone.

Change his sleep environment to make sleeping more comforting and exciting. Experiment with naps to avoid him 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 his life and address those first. His sleep problems could be rooted in deeper issues like being jealous of the new baby or afraid of the dark.

Rest assured, friend, you now know a few more tricks to handle your toddler being hysterical at bedtime—even if it seems to come out of nowhere.

Get more tips:

p.s. Check out Sleepy, the Goodnight Buddy by Drew Daywalt. This is a hilarious children’s book every child (and parent!) can relate to:

Sleepy the Goodnight Buddy

Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab Toddler Discipline Strategies—at no cost to you:

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6 Comments

  1. Hello, thanks for the tips. My baby is 19 months and is going through a sleep regression; crying hysterically when we wakes up through out the night. Last night we decided to let him “cry it out” and checked on him a few times. He cried for almost an hour and then we heard a thump! He somehow managed to climb/fall out of his crib. Thankfully he was not hurt but now I’m very worried to leave him alone and taking the risk of him falling and hurting him. Help!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Ana! I’m glad he’s okay, but this is likely a sign to switch to a toddler bed in the near future. Take a look at this article about trying to extend his crib-sleeping days: https://sleepingshouldbeeasy.com/toddler-climbing-out-of-crib/ and this one on finally making the switch: https://sleepingshouldbeeasy.com/transitioning-to-toddler-bed-at-18-months/

      It can be a rough transition, but you might be able to combine switching to a toddler bed with sleep training him.

  2. Maddie Ducat says:

    I need help! My 3, almost 4 year old, keeps screaming every night to not go to sleep. It gets to where it’s almost 2 or 4 am and she is still screaming in my face yelling no at the top of her lungs. I can’t talk to her, calm her down, she hits and doesn’t want to be touched then screams when I’m not close to her!! I’m not sure what else to do.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Maddie! Being up that late is definitely rough! One thing I’d try is to move bedtime earlier just so she’s not overtired. Then, if she screams and gets freaked out, don’t feel like you have to say anything or explain things to her. Just be there and show compassion for what she’s going through. If she doesn’t want to be held, maybe be nearby, but let her know that you’re here for her. You’re not trying to convince her of anything, but are just present for her when she needs it. I find that this tends to calm kids down much sooner than if we try to talk to or reason with them.

  3. Kristin Brause says:

    I LOVE your advice you gave in response to Maddie’s comment, saying that you don’t have to explain anything or talk to them, just be there. My little 13 months old had a meltdown at bedtime out of nowhere and just wouldn’t calm down. At first I was angry because she also hadn’t slept all day. But then I googled, found this article and tried out what you said and it worked so well for both of us. Blissful peace 🙂 Thanks, Kris

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      So glad to hear that, Kristin! Thanks so much for letting me know, and I’m glad it worked out <3