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My Toddler won't Settle at Bedtime

My Toddler won't Settle at Bedtime

Toddlers are renowned for tantrums and limit testing, and bedtime is no exception!

Children who have been self settling easily and sleeping through the night for ages can suddenly turn into complete nightmares at bedtime. It's not at all uncommon for a brilliant sleeper to start taking 2 hours to settle, screaming and protesting for the whole time. This is obviously a very rude shock to parents after more than a year of easy bedtimes with a baby who just needed a story, cuddle and went quietly off to sleep.

The changes with settling at bedtime often tie in with developmental changes in the daytime, such as increasing language and the usual limit testing that goes on with toddlers. And they don't always wait until they are 2 before they start being ‘terrible’!!!

Toddlers often suffer from separation anxiety, which leads to loud and vigorous protesting for mum to stay with them at bedtime. This is especially common with toddlers who are in day-care or have very busy mums, who don't have time to sit spending hours reading stories and having lots of quality one on one time during the day. Don't feel at all bad if you are one of those busy mums - most of us are!!!

Here's what we have found can help remove the battle from bedtime:

Toddlers are renowned for tantrums and limit testing, and bedtime is no exception!

toddler standing in cot wearing cotton bodysuit

Bed versus cot

Keep your toddler in a cot for as long as it is safe. Once your toddler can climb out of the cot, you don't have much choice but to move him into a bed. But once your child is in a bed, many other sleep issues can arise, such as constantly getting out at bedtime and visits to mum's bed during the night.

If you have moved your toddler out of their cot to make room for a new baby, consider if you would be better borrowing or buying another cot, or using a bassinet for the first few months.

Limit testing

Toddlers learn through repetition and the knowledge that making a fuss and protesting doesn’t change your expectations. So decide on a plan of attack, eg use verbal reassurance or sit with her until she goes to sleep, but do it consistently until she is back to settling easier.

If the bedtime battle is one of the first limit testing situations you encounter, it can be scary and seem like your child has suddenly been possessed........ however tantrums are very common and will occur in all aspects of your toddler's life, so it's best to decide on a plan of being consistent and not giving in from the start!

For example, your toddler is also likely to protest about getting into their car-seat...but you won't cave in on that one I'm don't give up on being consistent at bedtime!!!

If you need more information on dealing with tantrums, we highly recommend Dr Karp's excellent book or DVD 'The Happiest Toddler on the Block'. The DVD covers communicating and avoiding/diffusing tantrums, while the book also covers specific toddler issues such as sleep, toilet training and separation anxiety.

Bedtime routine

Look at your bedtime routine and ensure you allow enough time and create the right atmosphere for your child to un-wind. Life as a toddler is pretty full-on and it can take at least an hour after dinner to wind-down enough to even think about sleeping.

Also it's very easy to fall into the trip of trying to rush through getting your toddler into bed, particularly if you've dinner to cook/eat/clean-up, chores to do, TV program to catch..... but often toddlers sense being rushed and play up even more.

Avoid any TV or rough play after dinner, as this has the opposite effect of helping your child relax.

Allow an hour to have a bath, feed or bottle, 3-4 stories, cuddles before lights out. We find it's better to plan for a longer routine and not try to rush, and if things go a bit quicker some nights then it's a bonus. Once your toddler is back to settling easier, you can always trim the routine back a bit.


Reinforce the bedtime message

There are some wonderful bedtime stories that can help reinforce the bedtime message, as well as general storybooks which are great to reinforce your little ones bedtime routine.

Bedtime environment

Make sure her room is dark enough that she can't see light outside. Bedtime battles can start after daylight savings, as it still looks like playtime outside. Preschoolers will argue and say 'it's not bedtime, it's still light outside!'

However using a nightlight inside the dark bedroom can really help. This creates a cozy bedtime environment, with just enough light to help a child scared of the dark or helps your child find their dummy or special comfort item. Other relaxation & comfort ideas:

Often with toddlers, half the battle is getting them to lie down and relax. Music or a story on CD can often help with this, as you can say 'lie down and I will leave your story on'. You can start using a CD while you sit with your toddler, then leave it playing as you leave the room.

Toddlers continue to benefit from a comfort item to help them settle at bedtime. usually by this age a child will have attached themselves to something, however sometimes they can suddenly reject their beloved item. Or if they have never attached themselves to something, now could be a good time to get a new special bedtime companion.

Jill & Jennifer from Sleepy Planet talk about introducing a 'mummy bear', which stays with your toddler to give them cuddles after mummy has gone to bed. Their toddler CD covers this concept in detail.

Separation Anxiety

Toddlers can suffer from separation to the point that is really effects settling at bedtime. Have a look at your child's behaviour with you during the day - is she clingy during the day? What happens if you leave the room – does she cry or always follow you? Do you spend time just with your toddler during the day, or is bedtime the first time during the day that she gets to sit quietly on your knee and have some mummy only time?

If you think separation anxiety could be contributing to your bedtime battle, try to work on it during the day. This will both make your toddler feel more secure separating from you at bedtime, and make you feel less guilty if you need to leave her screaming 'mummy' in her cot.

Work on finding more time to spend one on one during the day, even just 10 mins together reading a couple of stories or playing a game down on the floor with her. It's especially important if your child is at daycare during the day and the mornings and dinner etc is a constant rush. And as above, allowing enough time for your bedtime routine so it's not rushed is essential.


While toddlers definitely learn from consistency, there can come a time when you may need to look at changing your established routine. Toddlers are quite different to babies, particularly once their language starts to develop and their needs are different.

I suddenly had issues with my Tom not settling at bedtime when he just turned 2. Usually my husband read stories for both our boys together in Jack's single bed, but when Tom was put in his cot he was crying for mummy. As his language started to develop he was asking for ‘mummy story’ or ‘mummy knee’. By going down to their bedroom at that stage and spending 5-10 mins reading him another story sitting on my knee and having a special mummy cuddle, he went back to settling much quicker and with far less fuss. And if he is still protesting about bed, I then feel OK about leaving him . . . he generally stopped screaming after 5 mins if he’s had the extra cuddle, where as without it he could get quite distraught. And I am definitely one of those busy mummies, and had not spending enough one on one time with Tom at that stage...and he has come to really need that one on one time at bedtime.

Further information on toddlers & self settling

I recommend you try all those things for starters and see if your bedtime battle becomes easier. If not, then have a read of our info on teaching a baby to self settle. This goes through all the options for sleep programs to teach your child to settle at bedtime. Remember to choose a program you are comfortable with, so you can be consistent in following through.

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