Ever feel like the moment bedtime arrives your usually happy toddler turns into a screaming, sobbing mess that you hardly recognize? Facing this daily struggle is enough to leave you feeling exhausted, exasperated, and dreading bedtime.
So, what’s a parent to do? And what’s causing this shift in behavior? (And, perhaps most importantly, should you be worried about your toddler?)
Keep reading for useful information about the causes of toddler bedtime tantrums and some tips to help you weather this storm.
As a parent it can seem like every day your toddler is doing new things and developing from a baby into a kid. Part of this development may come from changes in their sleep needs, patterns, and preferences.
Sleep is an important part of development, as it allows the brain to process new information. Studies have shown that quality sleep can aid in both cognitive and emotional development. For this reason, solving the puzzle of sleep resistance is worth a little detective work.
So what are some reasons your little one may be unhappy at the thought of snuggling in for some shut-eye? Reasons for your toddler screaming at bedtime could include:
A sudden onset of screaming at bedtime could be caused by an illness, like a cold or an ear infection.
If your toddler is just feeling under the weather, they may not want to be alone. They also may simply feel uncomfortable from teething, congestion, fever, or other issues. (Even as adults, when we’re not feeling well and struggling to sleep, who hasn’t gotten a little crankier than normal?)
The one upside to this is that the illness will hopefully pass quickly, and you won’t have to worry about any long-term bedtime tantrum issues. If there are continuing issues you may want to check with your child’s pediatrician.
Feeling too cold, hot, or itchy
The right pair of PJs and a good sleep sack or blanket can go a long way in helping your child feel snug as a bug in a rug!
Keep their bedroom cool and dark for a better sleep environment and consider their preferences when choosing how to dress them for sleep. Some kids prefer to be snuggled in warm pajamas and comforters while others might do better in just a T-shirt and underwear, covered in a light blanket.
During their first few years of life, it’s common for children to go through phases of separation anxiety where they fear being apart from trusted adults and especially their parents. This anxiety can lead to tantrums at bedtime.
Consider ways to reassure your little one that while you might be leaving the room, you’re not leaving them. Some toddlers respond well to sleep training methods that involve staying close by or checking back every few minutes until they’re asleep.
You might also provide your toddler with a special blanket or item that makes them feel connected to you even when you’re not physically there.
Fear of the dark
If you discover that your little one has a fear of the dark, it might be time to bust out a nightlight or crack the door for some hallway light glow.
As your child becomes more confident in their abilities and eager to explore the world, you’ll probably notice that they are more assertive and insistent about what they want.
While this can lead to some really wonderful moments, it can also mean that you have a toddler on your hand that makes clear they don’t feel like sleeping.
Your toddler’s personality also factors in. Some kids are more sensitive or reactive to changes or challenges. Recognizing your little one’s preferences can help you tackle sleep resistance.
Try incorporating some elements of choice into the bedtime routine to give them a sense of control. Options like, “Do you want to read this book or this book?” or “Do you want to wear your blue pajamas or your llama pajamas?” can help create a sense of cooperation.
As your child ages, they’ll probably require less sleep than they did as an infant. On the other hand, if your toddler skips a nap or you’re eliminating their afternoon nap, you may find that it’s necessary to tuck your little one in earlier at night to ensure that they get sufficient sleep.
Recommended average sleep needs by age within a 24-hour period are as follows:
- Under 1 year: 12–15 hours sleep
- 1–2 years: 11–14 hours sleep
- 3–5 years: 10–13 hours sleep
If you’re looking for more information on the amount of sleep that’s right for your little one, check out this article, and don’t hesitate to talk with your pediatrician.
If you find yourself with the bedtime blues, there are a variety of methods you can try to prevent or handle toddler bedtime tantrums.
Establish a bedtime routine!
This routine can be as elaborate or simple as you like. Using a consistent routine
Make sure their room or bed is comfortable and safe
Set the room temperature not too hot or cold, and consider using a night-light to offer a soothing glow. Before tucking your child into bed for the night, also ensure there are no safety risks present, such as positioning the bed away from window pulls and cords. (That will help both of you sleep more soundly!)
Ensure needs are all met before tucking in
Make sure that your toddler has just been to the bathroom, had a sip of water, gotten a last cuddle/story, and that their favorite stuffed animal is in bed ready for them!
Assuming all of their needs are met, if your toddler keeps trying to come up with creative ways not to go to sleep and delay bedtime, you may want to consider implementing a bedtime pass system or some other limiting plan.
Giving sleep training a try
There’s a wide range of sleep training plans to choose from, like controlled crying, so it should be possible to find one to fit your parenting style and the age of your child! (Bonus: If you have already sleep trained your little one in the past this should hopefully just be a quick review course to get back on track.)
Avoid screen time before bed
If you allow your toddler to watch television or use a device such as a tablet, you may want to consider not having them do so in the hour or two before bed.
Alter bedtime as needed
If your toddler is overtired or not yet tired when their bedtime comes around, falling asleep will be harder for them to do. If you find that your child has been rubbing their eyes for a while before bed or has barely woken up from their afternoon nap when it’s bedtime, adjusting their schedule may make the end of the day more pleasant for all.
Make sure they’re getting plenty of physical activity each day
Toddlers have a lot of energy. Ensure they have ample chance to run, jump, and wiggle so that they’ll be more ready to settle down when bedtime arrives.
But get that energy out early
A calm, quiet evening that allows them to wind down works best for most toddlers.
Have someone else handle the bedtime routine for a bit
Sometimes a change of adult is just the thing to reset patterns and get back on track.
Keep it consistent
Remember no matter what tips and tactics you choose to implement, consistency is key! Establishing clear boundaries and expectations — and sticking to them — can help your toddler know what’s acceptable and take the wind of their screams sooner rather than later.
Communicate with all caregivers
If multiple people take turns putting your little one to bed, you’ll want to make sure that everyone is on the same page about any new routines or rule changes.
Consult a pro
If you find that things aren’t improving or it’s clear your toddler is not getting adequate sleep, you may want to reach out to a sleep professional or your pediatrician for further guidance. They can help you find solutions and make bedtime more manageable.
It probably seems like every parent has been there and can tell you stories about the horrors of putting their child to bed, which can be comforting. On the other hand, it may seem like stories with solutions to the problem of toddler bedtime tantrums are a lot harder to come by!
While there is no one perfect solution for every toddler, by thinking about your child’s specific needs and focusing on consistency, you can help address the underlying issues that are likely leading to end-of-day upset.
If after trying different tips you find yourself still struggling with bedtime, don’t give up hope! Sometimes it just takes a bit of time for developmental phases to pass. Also, remember, there are professionals who specialize in young children’s sleep who can help you!