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Is Your Toddler Fighting Bedtime?

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Cara Dumaplin

toddler looking at camera pushing boundaries and fighting bedtime

Toddlers are natural-born boundary pushers. If you have a toddler, I bet you've seen this. Maybe you've even seen your toddler fighting bedtime. It can be tempting when every boundary is a battle to simply give in and let your toddler have what she wants in the moment. But, can I tell you something? When it seems like "giving in" must be the answer, remember that loving boundaries lead to secure little ones.

infographic saying "When it seems like 'giving in' must be the answer, remember that loving boundaries lead to secure little ones."

So, what's a parent to do?

First, it's important to understand that something exciting is happening in your little one's brain between 18 and 24 months! Your little one is learning that he can impact the world around him with his voice and his choices. And isn't this incredible? I think we're all trying to raise little world changers! At the same time, it's not your toddler's job to change the routine you've established for your family, 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 them to be in charge of the world?

We find a way to balance offering choices with setting safe boundaries for our little ones to thrive. This is true whether your toddler is fighting bedtime, having trouble leaving the park, or anything in between.

Here are some practical ways to do that:

1. Offer choices that are simple.

Your toddler doesn’t need a lot of options. That can actually be really overwhelming! Offer two options, and let your toddler choose. Your little one is getting to exert his will within the boundaries you've created.

2. Only offer choices that 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 actually choices that your toddler should have any control over. 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.

3. Offer choices BEFORE a meltdown.

Offering choices and letting your toddler use his voice is a great strategy to help avoid a meltdown. If your toddler is in the middle of a meltdown, offer connection first (hugs, singing a song, etc.) and then a choice, or simply move on with what needs to happen.    

4. Be clear about your expectations. 

If your toddler is fighting bedtime, know that little ones thrive on knowing what to expect. Explain to your little one 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, begin to warn your little one that bedtime is coming. Try something like this: "We're going to start getting ready for bed in 5 minutes. That means we can build one more block tower or we can play with your farm animals. After that, we are going to put away our toys. Then, we get to snuggle while we read your bedtime book."

Parents, did you catch all that? First, we mentioned a timeline, then we offered an opportunity for one last choice, we set expectations, and we gave her something to look forward to. 

Guess what?! These exact same methods can apply to any part of your toddler's day. Let's apply the same strategy to leaving the park: If you are playing at the park and know you have about a few minutes left, begin to warn your little one that you'll be leaving soon. Try something like this: "We need to leave in a few minutes, so you can pick one more thing to do: go down the slide or swing. Then we are going to say goodbye to our friends and walk home. When we get home, we can have a yummy lunch."

Again, we mentioned a timeline, then we offered an opportunity for one last choice, we set expectations, and we gave her something to look forward to. 

5. Hold firm to your boundaries.

When you are clear about your expectations, the next step, holding 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 safety and security.

Keep in mind that even if your little one is struggling, you can acknowledge that he doesn't like what's happening AND stay steady with the boundaries you set. 

Watch Bridget and Dave use these strategies with their 22-month-old daughter Stella:

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 keeping those important boundaries. I know that it can feel like your toddler is constantly pushing. 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.

If steady boundaries aren't solving your sleep struggles or your toddler is always fighting bedtime, I can help. My ABCs of Sleep class offers a step-by-step approach to independent sleep. Not ready to invest in a class? I have a free resource to get you started. I’ll give you practical ideas to implement today. It’s not too late to have a great little sleeper.


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