Toddlers are natural-born boundary pushers. If you have a toddler, you know just what I’m talking about. Now, this doesn't mean you have a "bad" or disobedient child. Little ones at this age are simply testing to see if what you say is actually the truth. And how do you show them that it is the truth? With firm loving boundaries. Now, I know it can be tempting when every boundary is a battle to simply give in. But when it seems like "giving in" must be the answer, remember that loving boundaries lead to secure little ones. This also applies when your toddler is fighting bedtime.
I’m going to share with you some common reasons your toddler may stall at bedtime and how you can help decrease the bedtime battles.
Why is my toddler suddenly fighting bedtime?
There can be several reasons your toddler is resisting bedtime. Let’s examine six likely causes for bedtime battles:
1. Your child’s daytime schedule
What happens during your toddler’s day can set bedtime up for success or failure. Most toddlers younger than 4 years old still require a nap or quiet time. So if your toddler is skipping their nap and is overtired at the end of the day, she’s more likely to stall at bedtime.
Pay attention to your toddler’s sleepy cues to watch for when she needs sleep. I know this can be tricky since some signs of overtiredness – like being hyper or having bursts of energy – looks like being undertired, leading to longer than ideal wake windows.
2. Normal toddler development
Becoming a toddler is all about learning to use their voice and choices to impact their world! At around 18 months, our toddlers learn they are separate from us, and they try to exert some control over their environment as they develop their independence.
It's both an exciting and trying time as your toddler pushes for independence and learns cause and effect through testing boundaries and pushing limits. The toddler years can bring about more discipline issues and often this will carry into bedtime or nap time. This can be why your toddler may be suddenly crying or fighting bedtime, which also means he’s getting less sleep leading to an overtired, cranky toddler.
3. Toddler sleep regressions
A sleep regression simply means your child is working hard to master new skills and concepts. Sleep regressions can happen any time our little ones are having a progression in learning or going through a big event like potty training or adding a new sibling. But the most common toddler sleep regressions are the 18 Month Sleep Regression and the 24 Month Sleep Regression. This time of big developmental strides could be the culprit for your bedtime battles.
4. Illness or teething
If your toddler is uncomfortable or sick, this could be the source of your bedtime battles. Here are a few common issues to watch for:
Physical discomfort: Pain can make it difficult for your toddler to settle down, fall asleep, and get the rest she needs.
Teething: Your toddler’s molars breaking through the gum line can cause painful teething because of the larger size of the teeth. The first set of molars typically comes in by 18 months and the second set around 20-30 months.
Ear infections: Disrupted sleep is sometimes the first sign of an ear infection. If your child has been a consistent sleeper and is now getting very upset when it’s time for bed, it might be a good idea to have those little ears checked!
5. Big changes such as adding a sibling, moving, or starting daycare or preschool
Big changes in your toddler’s life can have a direct impact on his sleep and can cause bedtime battles. If your toddler is starting a new school or daycare, is expecting a new sibling, or experiencing separation anxiety, you may see an increase in crying at bedtime. To help decrease bedtime fights, work in more 1-on-1 time with your child, even just 10-15 minutes a day of your intentional face-to-face time. The extra attention and time to connect can do wonders for helping your child adjust to these big changes!
6. Difficulty with transitions
If your child struggles with transitions, this can be a reason she is fighting bedtime. Children can be easily overwhelmed with emotions when we ask them to stop doing one thing (especially something fun and exciting, like playing) and start doing something new (like getting ready for bed).
Fighting or stalling at transitions is often a learned behavior. For instance, if throwing a tantrum has successfully delayed leaving the park, there’s a good chance your toddler will try this again at bedtime. One way to help ease the transition of moving from day to night is to use a consistent bedtime routine.
Why is my toddler taking a long time to fall asleep?
Taking a bit longer to fall asleep is normal at this age. Part of the 24 Month Sleep Regression is a developmental shift that takes your child from falling asleep in 5-20 minutes to falling asleep in 20-30 minutes. This is likely caused by your toddler’s budding imagination. Bedtime is often a time when littles start imagining new and exciting adventures, sometimes even scary images too. This can definitely impact the time it takes to fall asleep.
If your toddler is taking longer than 30-35 minutes to fall asleep, this can mean it’s time to look at your toddler’s schedule and consider if she’s getting too much daytime sleep or is overtired heading into bedtime. On a one-nap schedule, we like to see a morning wake window of about 6 hours before nap time and an afternoon wake window of about 5 hours before bedtime. Read Toddler Nap Schedules for 2, 3, and 4 Year Olds for more details and sample toddler schedules.
How do I stop my toddler from fighting bedtime?
First, it's important to understand that something exciting is happening in your little one's brain between 18 months and 24 months: Your little one is learning that he can affect the world around him with his voice and his choices! And isn't this incredible? At the same time, it's not your toddler's job to change the routine you've established for your family, alter the limits you've set to keep your little one safe, or to be the tone-setter for your household.
So, how do you empower your little one to "change the world" while not allowing him to be in charge of the world?
Well, we must find a way to balance choices with safe boundaries. (This is true whether your toddler is fighting bedtime, having trouble leaving the park, or anything in between.)
Here are some practical ways to balance safe choices with loving (but firm) boundaries:
1. Be clear about your expectations.
If your toddler is fighting bedtime, know that little ones thrive on knowing what to expect. Explain to your toddler in very concrete terms what she can expect before it happens. Follow through with the plan you presented.
Here is an example: If you have about 5 minutes left before you start your bedtime routine, set a timer and give your toddler a heads up. “Charlie, we have 5 minutes left until bedtime. When the timer goes off, we are going to put pajamas on and read books.”
2. Offer simple choices.
Your toddler doesn’t need a lot of options. (That can actually be really overwhelming!) Offer two options, and let your toddler choose. For example, at bedtime, “Do you want red jammies or blue jamies?” or “Do you want to turn on your sound machine, or do you want me to do it?”. Your little one is getting to exert his will within the boundaries you've created.
3. Only offer choices your toddler can and should control.
Be mindful of the questions you're asking. Things like when to go to bed or where to sleep aren't choices your toddler gets to control. Try to replace a question like “Do you want to go to bed?” with “It’s time for bed. Do you want to walk to your room or do you want me to carry you?” Some other choices you might offer her could be which book to read, which pajamas to wear, or who will put her to bed.
4. Hold firm to your boundaries.
When you are clear about your expectations and you’ve offered choices, the next step – holding firm to your boundaries – is much easier. Remember: You've already done the work of preparing your little one and offering a reasonable choice. The boundary is where you have to follow through – this is the part that your toddler doesn't get to choose. This is the part that will provide him with safety and security.
Keep in mind that even if your little one is fighting your boundary, you can acknowledge and validate that he doesn't like what's happening AND stay committed to the boundaries you set.
5. Use a bedtime routine chart during bedtime.
A bedtime chart is a visual reminder of your expectations. Using a bedtime routine chart can make bedtime easier, especially if transitions are hard for your toddler. Read my blog for more help on setting up a successful bedtime routine, including a free printable bedtime routine chart that makes bedtime a fun experience for your toddler.
Can I leave you with one more piece of advice?
Here's one of the best parenting tips I've ever received: "Make your word as good as gold." When you make a boundary, stick to your word.
We want to balance encouraging your toddler to use his voice and holding firm to the boundaries we set. I know it can feel like your toddler is constantly pushing the limits. The truth is that every day they are exploring how the world works, and part of that exploration is figuring out those boundaries. He isn't being manipulative – he is learning. Your job is to stay calm and steady. Steady boundaries lead to secure little ones.
Need more than just boundary help? My Toddler Sleep Training is here for you. I'll walk you step-by-step through a completely customizable, holistic plan for independent sleep at night, consistent naps or quiet times, and every new stage along your toddler sleep journey from now through your child's 5th birthday. It's not too late to have a great little sleeper!