The Best Bedtime Routines for Toddlers
What are the best bedtime routines for toddlers? The ones that work for you.
Families aren’t one-size-fits-all. Neither are bedtime routines.The details of your toddler’s bedtime routine aren’t actually that important, overall – even if that one cuddly toy or story seems like the bedrock of your whole night.
What’s important is having a structure that your child can predict and get to know. And that structure has to be on that fits your schedule, your family dynamic and your own wellbeing. It’s got to work for you.
But, as you’re probably finding during your journey into parenthood, everything changes as your child grows. One phase gives way to another – and while it’s amazing to watch them grow and change, it can get frustrating when your old bedtime strategies don’t work anymore.
Consistency is key in many aspects of parenting, and adapting is as hard for parents as it is for little ones. So, let’s look at some aspects of the best bedtime routines for toddlers, and answer some common questions about bedtime.
Build a framework for sleep
Many nights of unsettled sleep can take their toll. Patience can be hard to find during a tricky bedtime, especially if you’re on your own.
So parents – remember that if you need to, take a break and reset whenever you feel overwhelmed. You are the most important part of this all working, so take good care of yourself when you can.
The best routine will be the one that works for you, but you can adapt the best strategies from others. You can also adapt one that’s worked before, to help children cope with changes.
Consistency is key. Toddlers thrive on boundaries. They learn through repetition and frequency. Allowing them to understand what is and isn’t going to happen.
That said, don’t beat yourself up for missing a step or two (or even a day or two) if you’re travelling, celebrating a special day or if something unexpected arises.
Just pick it back up tomorrow, and stick to it as much as you can. Make a structure that’s memorable and predictable – that’s the main thing.
1. Pick a time to wind down
Read your toddler’s cues. They might be subtle or really loud! Is your little one irritable, getting easily overwhelmed – rubbing their eyes a lot? Are they unusually overstimulated and maybe behaving just a little unpleasantly? Make a note of the time. This is when they’re sleepy, so aim to wind things down a little before this time each evening.
Try turning off the TV and having some quiet play before your routine begins, to ease it in.
2. Have a bath
Bath time is relaxing for any age group, even if there’s play involved. Baths can be cooler in summer and warmer in winter, adding extra comfort to bedtime. They don’t have to be full rubdowns – just a familiar thing that happens each night before bed.
Dental hygiene should be practiced, too! Associate tooth brushing with bedtime and establish a good habit for life.
3. From bathroom to bedroom
Some kids hate getting out of the bath. Maybe it's the temperature change, or the acknowledgement that they’re one step closer to bedtime. Whatever it is, mini-transitions can be hard for some toddlers.
Try to ease each little change – from wind down to bath, from bath to bedroom – with quiet and soothing bedtime songs or rhymes. Talk your toddler through it, even if they don’t really understand, to reassure them that you’re there with them.
Take it slow and calm, but hold your ground and stay in control. Lift them out of the bath, get them into a towel and take them to get ready for bed.
Get the smiles back with some quiet songs while getting their skin lotion on, putting on pyjamas and brushing their hair.
So far, the parents have been pretty bossy. And getting bossed around isn’t much fun.
Try introducing simple choices and giving your toddler some input on their bedtime routine.
It’s important to give a limited and low-stakes choice – letting them pick their pyjamas, or a story to read before bed. Maybe just a choice between two things, to keep things calm.
It’s enough to give them a sense of importance and control over their situation, which can ease frustration and maintain their involvement.
5. Stories, lights out and leaving the room
Once you’ve had a story and cuddle, it’s time for the lights to go off. If you use a nightlight, add it to the routine here.
Now – this is the tough choice: do you stay or do you go?
Chances are, your toddler still needs your presence to fall asleep. It could take 15 minutes, it could take an hour. It can be really hard getting them down when they can’t be without you.
Like everything, this one’s up to you and how you want to parent. There’s no wrong answer.
Do what feels right. If you feel like they need you there, stay. If you feel you can gradually wean them off your presence at bedtime, then try it out – leave after saying goodnight, and try to lengthen your response time each time they call you back.
It’s all about finding what works for you.
Why does my toddler’s sleep pattern always change?
You might be aware of terms like "sleep regression" and "leaps".
Leaps are developmental and occur mostly in infancy.
They coincide with learning new skills – like processing language and adapting to the changes in body and mind – typically becoming less frequent and less predictable as children emerge from infancy into toddlerhood.
Sleep regression can appear in conjunction with a leap. Night-time waking, difficulty settling and even flat out refusal to go to bed, with new (and very emotional!) behaviours are just some of the ways a leap can manifest at bedtime.
Leaps are normal and by their nature, short-lived.
But sleep regression can also happen when routines change, if there’s a source of stress or if the environment changes dramatically.
This can be hard to pinpoint, especially with non-verbal children – but can be helped with comfort and gently easing into new routines.
This is a longer process, even though children readily adopt habits quicker than adults.
Does it matter what time toddlers go to bed?
Well, yes and no. Studies show that late bedtimes and late waking can have negative health effects, regardless of sleep duration. But these are geared towards older children and adolescents, where things like screen time and social schedules are a bigger factor.
In toddlers, bedtime can become almost self-setting.
Behaviour can range anywhere from grumpy to wild when a toddler is tired, and that’s the cue to trigger the bedtime routine.
In some toddlers, that time will be 6pm, pretty much every night. In others, it’ll be later or, depending on the activities that day, it might not even arise. Having a framework in place is helpful, even if your timing isn’t always exactly the same.
How can you change toddler bedtime routines?
Routines can be changed, but it takes patience. If yours isn’t working for the whole family right now, then anything you do to adjust it has to be small and incremental. A drastic change can be worrying for toddlers, and that will impact sleep negatively.
For example, if you want to help them go to bed an hour earlier, then change nothing in your routine except for the winddown and bedtime – and then only do it by 15 minutes at a time, over a couple of weeks or so.
This can be really tricky over the summer months, when the sun’s still out way past bedtime.
We’ll be covering seasonal sleep changes and how to tackle them in an upcoming blog post.
How can I make my toddler’s bedroom more comfortable?
We’ve developed a resource on how to help your child sleep in their own bedroom, which includes tips for creating a comfortable and secure environment that your little one will love to fall asleep in.
We talk about super comfortable kids bedding, fun decoration ideas and giving them a space they can call their own.
And if you’re looking for kids bedroom inspiration – get it from Pea.