“I don’t want to go to bed Mummy!” Bedtime battles are hard. Particularly if, like me, you are struggling to keep up with life in general and still have the washing, cleaning, cooking or the day job to tick off between 7-10pm.
It can start with fun and games, but then the delay tactics may start to appear….”Mummy, can I have another story?”, “Another sip of water”, “Another cuddle”? Going to bed can turn into a bit of a marathon effort!
Then there’s the kids with extra bursts of energy, who jump and run around, pulling out all their toys, having a ‘funny 5 minutes’ or ‘getting the zoomies’.
My daughter is the queen of delayed bedtimes and bedtime battles. Not always a big battle, but certainly the extra things will creep in. The trip to the loo, the extra cream needed on an ouchy, the teddy that needs to be swapped for another. For sure, my favourite of all time was that she needed the light switched back on because she couldn’t see her fingernails…!
(For those of you wondering…but she’s a sleep consultant, why aren’t her own children great at this… well, they’re currently 4 and 2. This is partially their right of passage to wind me up and they have no respect whatever for my profession! So it’s not perfect in this house either, but here’s some fab tips about getting back on track if you feel bedtime battles are getting too much).
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Why toddlers and pre-schoolers resist bedtime
Well, here we go with my huge list! There are a few things here to note:
- It’s their job to test boundaries, and is pretty developmentally appropriate.
- Lots of kiddies have genuine FOMO, and would much rather continue playing!
- We can see bouts of separation anxiety, particularly between 2-3 years of age, they may really not want to see you go.
- Emotions are often heightened at night and when we’re tired. Small things seem so much bigger and unmanageable. Every had big worries waking up at night time and then wondering what on earth you were so worried about in the morning?!
- A power struggle can creep in. Perhaps to point 1 about testing boundaries, but some kids are more ‘head strong’ than others and pretty much rule the roost!
- We can get the timing wrong. They may be overtired (poor naps/busy day/poor sleep/early start) and have the notorious ‘second wind’, pumping them with adrenaline and cortisol to ‘keep them going’.
- Equally, they may be under-tired and are just not ready to go to sleep, giving them more energy than normal. This can happen when children in this age group are ready to drop their lunch nap.
- Food culprits! Sugar and caffeine in the main. Key culprits for some long bedtime battles. Even if you think they’re on a low sugar diet, be careful, they can be hidden, for example in tomato ketchup, yoghurts etc. Caffeine is found in chocolate (not just tea and coffee). Some kiddies are more susceptible to the effects of sugar and caffeine than others. This can given them a burst of energy and bring on the bedtime resistance.
- Screen time. White and blue light emitted from screens such as TV’s, iPad’s and phones has been shown to disrupt the production of melatonin in the body. This is important and helps the body feel sleepy. We definitely don’t want this to be disrupted!
- Big changes. Things may have changed recently, especially in this age group. School starts, potty training, stepping up to a ‘big’ bed – they may need to have some extra adult input and wind down time to help them ‘switch off’ and transition between day and night.
- Their sleep needs may have changed. The older we get, the less total sleep we need. Some older toddlers and pre-schoolers may be able to function really well on just 10.5 hours of sleep at night. Therefore, putting them to bed at 7pm and waking them at 7am isn’t going to work! They may need to work on an 8:30pm-7am schedule. (Or if you like your adult-only evenings then we may need to do 7:30pm-6am. Every family has their own preference here. You can get my FREE nap guide and wake windows chart here.
- Impulse control doesn’t tend to start developing until 3 years of age and doesn’t completely develop until 7! Even if they tell you they should be staying in bed, doesn’t mean that’s actually going to happen! Its more of a developmental thing than a behavioural thing.
- They just love you too much! Seriously though, you’re probably their favourite person on planet earth. Cute, but not so much when they are fighting sleep simply because they’d rather be playing!
Sleep tips to help with bedtime problems
So, having taken a look at the reasons why your child may be resisting bedtime above, now’s time to identify which ones could potentially be the culprits!
Then we need to set about taking some successful steps to make bedtime battles a thing of the past.
NOTE: One thing though, it’s always good to rule out battles and issues to do with sleep anxieties and a genuine fear of the dark as our response needs to be different.
Equally, there are some medical and developmental conditions that can affect sleep. Neurodiverse children can sometimes struggle with transitions. Day to night being a key example.
Also, if your child snores or is very sweaty at night – this can be a red flag and you should consult your medical professional.
Know you need more help? Check out my 2 hour Bedtime Battles Course.
You can also check out my Bedtime Battles Course! Priced at just £47, the 2 hour course guides you through everything needed to restore bedtimes.
Tip #1: Start With A Consistent Routine
Often, especially when boundaries are being tested, moving towards a consistent routine is best all round. No curve balls, the pattern is similar and predictable.
This may sound a little boring, but we all know where we stand on this one. Sure, it may take a few days to get in place but when it is, and they know the steps inside out the battles become fewer.
Try using my bedtime routine flashcards in your child’s bedroom. Choosing what your bedtime looks like and displaying them as a poster, on the wall, or as bunting. They’re designed specifically for helping with bedtime battles! You can pre-empt the delay tactics, for example choosing 2 story cards if they always ask for one more…
Tip #2: Specific strategies to avoid bedtime battles, power struggles, and meltdowns
I LOVE using a timer with this age group. Especially when bedtime battles are in play. Want some quiet play? Sure! Let’s set the frog (pick one of those silly kitchen timers) to 5 minutes and when it goes off, then it’s bath time! Want to have a silly 5 minutes and burn off some steam? Sure! Let’s set a timer for 5 minutes, then I’ll be back to read your bedtime story. Some children really need to burn off some steam.
Using a timer helps deflect things a bit. A compromise. Also, it helps avoid that conflict where you feel like you’re saying “NO!” all the time.
Some children really do need to burn off some steam at bedtime – that’s OK. Let’s just build it in to the routine, rather than try and avoid it altogether.
Tip #3: Wind Down the House
Think zen like spa! But, lowering the lighting after bath time can help prepare our body to recognise it’s nearly bedtime. Equally, avoiding screen time in the hour leading up to bed is great and avoids the melatonin issue discussed above.
Using quieter, indoor voices and trying to speak calmly is helpful. Trust me, I do know how frustrating it can be to have a kiddie running wild at the time they should be winding down, but you getting wound-up isn’t going to get you any closer to resolving the situation.
Remember, an escalated adult cannot calm and escalated child. So even if you’re reaching your limit inside, you’re going to have to model the calm, controlled parent! Stepping outside your child’s room for 5-10 minutes when it gets tough is imperative. Stick on your best acting face and re-enter when calmer.
Tip #4: After Lights Out: Gro Clocks, Time Clocks, OK to wake clocks
I really love gro clocks (toddler clocks) and think they can be incredibly effective in this age group, especially when preschoolers resist bedtime. They’re a perfect visual cue that it’s now time to sleep and the going to bed rule applies!
I love toddler clocks so much, I even dedicated a whole new blog post to them here.
Tip #5: Check that sleep environment
Is it conducive to good sleep? Or, is it an extension of a playroom? Are the lights too bright? What distractions are there? If we’re expecting our child to fall asleep next to their favourite toy then we should think again. Take a spare moment to think about your child’s room. Clear out the clutter, bring it back to basics.
If you need to keep toys in the room then pop them in baskets or boxes before bedtime each night. Out of sight, out of mind. No more FOMO. Small things make perfect sense.
You may want to consider my easy to follow course on perfecting your child’s sleep environment!
Tip #6: Use visual cues & think about your language (what is ‘sleep’ anyway?!)
I feel for kiddies in this age group. What the heck is sleep anyway? Clients have said to me that their little one has said “But Mummy, I don’t know how to go to sleep”… Aw poppet. But it’s a good point! Sleep is a really abstract concept and even as an adult, it can be difficult to understand ‘how’ this happens!
Phrases such as “Lie down” “close your eyes” “Be quiet as a mouse” mean a LOT more to a child than “go to sleep” or “go to bed”. We’re more clearly explaining our expectations.
Tip #7: Pre-empt the bedtime battles and delay tactics!
Most of them we can foresee..
“One more sip of water”
“One more trip to the loo”
“One more story”
Another shout out for my bedtime flashcards and pop them in! For example the potty or toilet before bath and one last visit before bed! Ask them if they want a second sip of water (to pre-empt that this may happen anyway!) Use two or three story cards. The visual cards can help with the boundaries and will also be great at helping your little one learn to count.
Tip #8: What to do when my child refuses to sleep
Stalemate? That’s ok! Most parents will see this from time to time and we don’t want to turn bedtime into a power struggle.
The likely scenario is that they don’t want to have a bath or get changed into their pyjamas (because it clearly indicates the start of bedtime!)
You may want to consider introducing a bedtime timer at this point. One of those silly kitchen ones! Get them to twist it for 5 minutes, leave them to play, but when the timer goes off then it’s bath time!
Sometimes, even with the best intentions a tantrum or meltdown may ensue. Your child’s ability to manage their emotions, especially when tired (or over-tired) is reduced. When they’re calm and ready to interact, you can give big cuddles, kisses, then it’s best to repeat the last parts of the bedtime routine and get them into bed.
Tip #9: Keep a food diary
Sugar and caffeine are the key culprits here! Some children really do react to them more than others. Have a little look at what they are eating after 4pm and try to avoid anything with chocolate (as it contains caffeine), or sugar.
Be careful with sugar, it can be hidden in ketchup, yoghurts and fruit juice and other foods that seem quite benign! If they like a pudding after dinner, then it’s best to give a bit of whole fruit.
If you’re not sure, try reducing sugar in the evening for a week and see if it helps with an an early bedtime and new routine.
Tip #10: Start bedtime earlier (or see Tip #15)
Rubbish nap? Early waking the night before? Lots going on at pre-school or school? This is the perfect scenario (or perfect storm!) for an overtired and fractious kiddie.
Never be frightened to do an very early bedtime. You can build in a slower bedtime routine just to help them manage that transition between day and night. Then, even if the bedtime routine is still hectic they still go to bed and fall asleep at a decent time.
Tip #11: Review recent changes
Recently moved to a big bed? Gone up a class at nursery or school? As I mentioned earlier, emotions can be heightened at night and when we’re really tired. Try to fit in some conversations about your day with your child. Nice open ended questions that can help get them talking. This can help avoid some bedtime battles.
Tip #12: Review schedules and sleep needs
As children get older their sleep needs change. Common points where we see bedtime battles are when they’re ready to drop naps. Typically you’ll see your little one ready to drop to no naps around 2.5-3.5 years of age. The midday sleep may be keeping them from being tired enough by bedtime.
Equally, they may still need their nap for a little longer, but nap issues may cause it to be later than needed. As a general rule, they’ll need about 6 hours of awake time after a nap (on a 1 nap day) before being tired enough for bed. If that afternoon nap has crept later then bedtime will be creeping later as a result.
Tip #13: For Older Kids
Sometimes the bedtime routine can be a battleground of control! Let them be in control! Use the flashcards and let them guide you through the bedtime routine.
Tip #14: Help work on their impulse control
Impulse control doesn’t start developing until about 3 and doesn’t fully develop until about 7 years of age! So your little one may tell you they should stay in bed, but doing it is actually another thing. This is more of a developmental issue than a behavioural one.
Games like Simon Says, Hide and Seek (with progressively longer waits), freeze dance, sleeping lions and red light – green light, all help to develop impulse control.
Tip #15: Set them up for success. Use bedtime fading.
If your toddler or pre-schooler has been used to falling asleep late after 2 hours of bedtime battles, it’s highly possible that their body clock has become accustomed to a later schedule. They may just not be tired enough by 7pm!
To make sure that they are ready for bed, and to make it easy for them to fall asleep with less drama, then we may want to consider temporarily moving bedtime back to when they’ve naturally been falling asleep. This may feel like a long time but will help us move a bit quicker eventually.
Take the average time they’ve fallen asleep recently, say 9PM. We’ll start bedtime there. This should make it quicker and more manageable. After a few nights, we’ll move it slightly earlier – to 8:45PM. Then a few nights later we’ll move it to 8:30PM…you get the gist.
The Timing Of A Great Bedtime Routine
This is such a unique and special thing for each family. Everyone is different (which is why my flashcards have 40 different elements and also blanks for your own!).
Typically though, about an hour before bedtime we should make sure the pace starts to wind down.
More tips and advice on creating the best bedtime routine can be found here.
NOTE: Some elements of the bedtime routine can be particularly stimulating for certain temperament types. Your child for example may find bath time or books and reading time quite fun! In this case, you may want to try moving bath earlier, or reading more gentle stories (about sleeping!), avoiding books with flaps and sounds. Your child may calm better with you just telling them a story, rather than seeing it.
Bedtime Battles Course
You can also check out my Bedtime Battles Course! Priced at just £47, the 2 hour course guides you through everything needed to restore bedtimes.
Still need some help?
If the generic advice on bedtime battles isn’t helping, I’m here to help! I can tailor advice and plans to your family and situation.
I can help re-establish good bedtime habits and provide tips on how to cope with inevitable nighttime disruptions. I offer tried-and-tested sleep support solutions that are well worth the investment for your whole family.
There’s also my Bedtime Battles course to help you get back on track!