Ending the Never Ending Bedtime Routine
Updated: Nov 10
Every parent of an older child knows how the bedtime routine can go from a quick 5-10 minute soothing sleep cue to a seemingly endless hour long saga of new nightly additions, one more book negotiations, and the long list of curtain calls.
While every toddler or preschool aged child has what it takes to create this scenario, NO, this is not the way it has to be!
I’m going to explain why firming up the bedtime routine is in your child’s best interest, and how exactly to get back in the driver’s seat when it comes to saying “goodnight”.
It’s a toddler’s job to push boundaries so that they can learn what the rules are in this big, scary world, and how they fit into it. They are also begging you, with all of this boundary pushing, to confirm that making big decisions is not actually their job. They are asking you to confirm that you are a capable and competent caregiver and that they are very safe with you because you are in control.
Young children actually feel most secure when their parents hold firm boundaries, even when what they are asking in the moment is for you to break them. They just want to clarify, quite often, that you have it together and that you are a capable caregiver.
Of course your firmest parenting boundaries should be appropriate and thoughtful, so you can hold them lovingly and with confidence. It also helps to offer plenty of small and age appropriate choices so they are able to satisfy their growing need for some autonomy and sense of control.
Once you’ve decided to change something that is no longer working for your family, and implement a no-nonsense 20 minute structured routine that your child will love, it’s time to put in the prep work!
Changing something as important to them as their bedtime routine without warning, would be upsetting, confusing, and unfair. They need to know exactly what the new rules are, and exactly what to expect in this new situation. They need to be warned about what is allowed and what is not allowed anymore, and YES, of course we want to prepare them in a fun way!
Get out the colored paper or poster board. Get out the markers and stickers. Make a list of the exact bedtime routine, and keep it simple. It might look something like,
1. Brush Teeth
2. Potty Trip
3. Turn on the Sound Machine and Dim the Lights
4. Change into pajamas
5. One Book
6. Two Songs
7. Big Hug and Kiss
8. Lights Out
9. Voice Quiet and Body in Bed till Morning
I highly recommend taking photos of your child performing each step in the bedtime routine that can be added to the poster. Children love pictures of themselves, and we want them interested and engaged.
Call a family meeting to present the new routine, and explain how the whole family is going to make a change when it comes to bedtime because getting into bed on time to get lots of healthy sleep is so important!
Let your child decorate the poster while you explain what the new routine really means. Talk about each step with excitement and remind them about which parts of the new routine are the same as always. It’s also important to comment on the things that wont be included anymore in a matter of fact way.
If your little one loves to stall, including the use of a timer is an excellent strategy, as it’s much harder to negotiate with the clock.
“Let’s get into your jammies right now so we have time left to read your book and sing songs”.
Explain that your little one needs to be in their bed with eyes closed and voice quiet by bedtime in order to get the sleep they need to have energy for all the super fun activities tomorrow. Remind them that you will check to make sure they have everything they need before leaving the room, but after you leave, it's only time for sleep.
Keep the activity and conversation light, but do make sure to convey confidence in what you’re saying. If they sense your own weariness over bedtime, they’re likely to wonder if there really is something to worry about, and will therefore be much less at ease about the whole thing themselves. Fake it till you make it if you have to!
Of course, you can expect tantrums, tears, and big emotions. Change is hard and despite all of your wonderful preparations, when it’s finally time to go through the routine, they may still want things to be how they were before. The key here is to mentally prepare for a meltdown at every turn, so anything less will feel like a breeze!
Remain lovingly calm to show them that they can’t rattle you with their big feelings, and validate their emotions without folding.
“I know you’re upset because you want another book, but we can only do one book during our bedtime routine. It’s OK to be upset. There will be more books tomorrow”.
It’s wise to plan for a longer than usual routine for the first night or two just in case emotions run high and there needs to be a lot of space for voicing frustrations around the changes. This means starting the routine extra early to ensure that your child can be in their bed with the opportunity to fall asleep by bedtime.
A too late bedtime will make all of this a lot harder than it needs to be. As long as you’re not adding to the routine, and staying the course, it will naturally shorten up once your toddler or preschooler recognizes that the boundaries around bedtime are firm and the option for negotiations and additions is officially off the table.
The difficult part of the process is short lived, and the end result is long lasting. It’s also helpful to consider that your child may surprise you with their adaptability once you make the decision to be lovingly firm.
You will be doing your child a favor by giving them the opportunity to know exactly what to expect from you, and after only a few nights, you will truly enjoy saying goodnight to your little one.
If you're interested in reading more about how to facilitate healthy sleep habits for your child, you can find my top 5 healthy sleep tips here!
If you're interested in working one on one with me to finally restore the peace and calm around bedtime and support your child in sleeping through the night, schedule a 15 minute free discovery call.