Toddler tantrums at bedtime aren’t easy, especially when your child is screaming and hysterical. Learn 7 tips to finally end the meltdowns!
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 every night. 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 these toddler tantrums at bedtime, much less how to handle them.
Within the last few weeks, your once “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 routine, crying so hard he coughs and gags through it all. Other times, he keeps putting sleep off, insisting on more bedtime books to read, one more cuddle (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.
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 these tantrums happen, especially out of nowhere.
After three kids, I’ve had my fair share of toddler bedtime tantrums, the kind that leaves you drained and ready to crash after a long day. The kind where you actually dread the evening, 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 tactics 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 stop these tantrums in their tracks:
1. 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 changes have happened, and life has been humming along 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, he might be going through a lot on the inside.
For instance, he could be experiencing developmental milestones you don’t always see. Perhaps he’s learning how to adjust to his new school arrangement, 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.
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2. Talk about “the plan”
No child likes to be surprised into ending the day, much less when he’s having fun. Beyond having a consistent routine at bedtime, 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, we’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 a bedtime story. Then, we’ll sing our bedtime song, turn off the light, and say goodnight. 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 he can begin to hear and experience it happen. And don’t just talk about it right before you start your routine. Talk about the plan during the day when neither of you are stressed or about to throw a fit.
Another helpful tip? Give him a head’s up, especially when he’s having fun or is focused on an activity.
Whenever we have to transition into another activity, I start reminding my kids at about the 10- to 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 have screen time right before bath time, the end credits could serve as a signal to head to the bathroom.
3. 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, those hours apart from us can feel long to them. Not having us nearby doesn’t help them feel any better about sleep, either.
One of the best ways to prevent these 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 sleep. Make her feel comfortable, safe, and secure by focusing on her completely.
You might spend a few minutes cuddling in bed, reading a book (perhaps one to ease her anxieties), or even making each other laugh and being silly. Whatever feels most natural to you, remind her that she’s loved, no matter what.
4. Offer a comfort item or special toy
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In your absence, sleeping in bed can feel empty and lonely for your child. Add in the long hours you’re away, and no wonder he resists going to sleep.
If that’s the case, a special toy or comfort item can be exactly what you need to convince him to go to bed. Maybe it’s a new stuffed animal he gets to sleep with, or a favorite household item you don’t usually let him sleep with.
Sometimes the newness of sleeping with a special item can disrupt these toddler tantrums at bedtime that he’s grown used to. Short of having you sleep next to him in bed, a special item can do the trick.
I’ve given all my kids the Angel Dear lovies, which they all love!
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 him to find a way to draw it out longer or postpone it for as long as possible.
That’s why it’s important to set clear indicators he understands. This means keeping your word when you say bath time starts promptly at 6:45pm, or that he only has one minute to pick pajamas. You can even point to the hands or numbers of a clock to show when that time occurs.
Even better if he has a visual cue to rely on, leaving no doubt on when he 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 him 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 room just to get him to stay in his bed.
But taken too far, this can send mixed signals to your child. She gets used to this way of sleeping that she begins to accept as normal, so that once you take them away from her, she throws an even worse fit.
Be intentional with the choices you make. You might set up a plan for yourself on how to deal with her bedtime tantrums tonight. Get into the mindset that you’ll no longer enable unsustainable habits or choices that aren’t working for you.
For instance, if you don’t want to spend one or two hours lying in bed with her, then decide not to do so. Tired of negotiating with her in the middle of the night? Nip it in the bud, even if it means that she screams and cries longer than you wanted.
We can point the finger at our kids all day long, but 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 for it.
In fact, make a list of the habits you want to change, from staying in her bed until she falls asleep to letting her sleep in yours. Then, write their opposites 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 the 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 that you’re doing things differently now, and that what you had tried in the past hasn’t been working. You’re teaching her that it’s okay to sleep 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.
The next morning, you might find her asleep and curled up on the floor, but at least she did it—she was able to sleep without relying on 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 predictability 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 finally ending the constant tantrums.
Dealing with bedtime tantrums is exhausting for even the most patient parent, and the ensuing sleep deprivation is no joke. But with these seven strategies, you can change how the evening 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 bedtime 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 transitions simpler with clear indicators, from laying out a stack of books to pointing to the clock. Stop enabling unsustainable habits that are no longer working for the family. And finally, put your foot down and be consistent with bedtime, providing the boundaries she needs.
Every parent who has dealt with bedtime tantrums feels like this will never end, but it will, my friend. By following these tips and providing loving but firm boundaries, your little one will be a “great sleeper” once again.
p.s. Check out Go Sleep in Your Own Bed by Candace Fleming, a book I read to my kids to help them understand the importance of sleeping in your own bed:
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
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