Let’s talk about long toddler bedtimes. These can be downright infuriating for parents. I’ve been there, it’s so hard to stay calm and not get frustrated when we are just looking for a break at the end of the day. There are lots of reasons this could be happening and in this post I’ll cover the most common ones. Like anything to do with sleep, there is no one size fits all. You’ll have to take what makes most sense for your family and do some trial and error. Always remember to stay in touch with your instincts and follow your baby’s lead!
How long should bedtime take?
Sleep onset latency is how long it takes someone to go from fully awake to asleep. Generally speaking, a healthy person takes between 10-20 minutes to fall asleep (as per the National Sleep Foundation). If the amount is too short it could indicate that the person is sleep deprived. Whereas if it takes too long, it can indicate under-tiredness or some of the other things we shall discuss today.
Every child has a unique amount of sleep needs. The chart below shows the general sleep needs as per the National Sleep Foundation. Each child will fall somewhere in that chart. Notice the ranges are really wide! So if you have a baby that generally needs about 11 hours of sleep in a 24hr period and you are expecting them to take a 2hr nap and sleep 7-7… well… I’m sure you can see the problem. That child will likely have really long bedtimes, very early wakes, or split nights (when a child is awake for 1+ hours in the middle of the night).
When it comes to toddlers, this is the most common cause I see for long bedtimes. Little ones will be taking 2-3 hour naps and then taking forever to fall asleep at bedtime. So take a look at the nap times and see if capping the nap slightly helps. Start small (for example, capping at 1.5 hours and then take it from there).
To wake them gently, start by making some noise around the house and letting more light in. Then gently rub their back or hug them so it’s not a brisk wake. A good tip is to have snacks on hand to help them perk up. Of course, if with all these tips your toddler seems really miserable for the afternoon it might not be worth it to shorten the nap.
Bedtime is Too Early
A study found that parents struggling with toddler bedtimes were often putting their babies to sleep too early. You might hear that 7PM is the ideal bedtime. But in reality, it is different for every baby and most older toddlers actually benefit from a later bedtime.
While we can all empathize wanting to get your kids to sleep earlier, a 9-10PM bedtime might be more prudent for your toddler.
A really important aspect of sleep that the mainstream narrative is missing is that sleep is separation. What do I mean? When you go to sleep you are no longer with the person you love, you are unconscious and you cannot be sure they are right there. For infants and toddlers, this is really scary as they are wired to stay close to an attachment figure. Feeling close and connected with their caregiver is what helps them feel safe enough to fall asleep.
What happens in our modern society is that we’re often spending a lot of time with our kids but we’re not spending a lot of time WITH our kids. We are on our phones, doing chores, focused on a million things…. Our children need quality time with us to feel seen. If your toddler suddenly wants to tell you about their day when it’s bedtime… chances are they are using this as connection time with you.
One option is to go with it: enjoy this special 1:1 time with them and use it to connect after a long day. Option two is to add connection time during the day. Scheduling special time with your children is an amazing tool that can go such a long way.
Sensory Needs/Activity Level
If your child seems to be really wiggly and restless at bedtime, this might be the culprit. Little ones are made to be active. In our modern society, babies and toddlers are often spending a lot of time inside ‘containers’ which limit their movement. Step #1 is to make sure they’re getting as much free time to move during the day as possible.
Now you might be the parent that says ‘my kid is moving ALL DAY and they’re still restless’. In that case, your little one might just have higher sensory needs than other children. The girls over at Development Tools have a fantastic resource you can download for free.
The two that come up most often are proprioceptive input and vestibular input. To put it simply, a little one that is seeking proprioceptive input might be the kid that jumps up and down all day, likes to bump into things, doesn’t seem to know their strength, etc. If this sounds like your kiddo, try providing them with lots of ‘heavy work’ games during the day to ensure they get those sensory needs met.
As for vestibular input, a child that is seeking in this area might be running around a lot, love swings, love going upside down, and require lots of motion to fall asleep. Provide them with lots of vestibular movement during the day such as swinging, rocking, bouncing, spinning, etc. Learn more about sensory diets here.
Don’t be afraid to do some rough and tumble play at bedtime if your child needs it. Try different things and see what works!
Please note this is a very simplified version of sensory needs. Check out the links provided and if you have any concerns, reach out to an Occupational Therapist for support.
Is your child getting a lot of screen time during the day? No judgement, I get we sometimes need it to survive. But what I want you to understand is that for little ones watching too much TV can be really overstimulating. It causes their senses to go on overload from all of the images, sounds, etc but their bodies aren’t moving in response to it.
The other concern is that the blue light coming from screens interferes with your little one’s circadian rhythm. It tells their brain it is still daytime, preventing them from producing the melatonin they need to fall asleep.
My recommendation is to be sure to turn off screens 1-2 hours before bedtime. Also dim the lights slightly to signal bedtime is coming. During the day, try to keep screen time to a minimum and always make sure it is met with lots of gross motor play during the day.
The last factor I’ll touch on today is stress. This goes for you and your baby but we’ll start with your baby. Going to sleep is extremely vulnerable and requires us to feel safe and calm. Although it seems to us that babies and toddlers have an easy life, they have a lot to be stressed about. The world is big and scary and they don’t always understand it. Oftentimes it is in the comfort of their bed at night and in your arms that it all comes out. Think of it like coming home after a long hard day at work: sometimes you just need to vent!
If you are noticing this with your baby or toddler, try and build in some time for them to release those emotions. You might be thinking ‘but they’re not even verbal yet!’. That’s alright, you can still give them space to release their emotions. This might be why your toddler suddenly hates every color cup you give them even though they loved it yesterday.
One great way to help your toddler de-stress is play. Play is the best medicine for kids. Don’t be afraid to make bedtime fun and exciting. Chase them around the house, engage in rough and tumble play, make funny noises and silly faces. Observe how your child reacts and always stay in tune with them. For some kids, they might need some wind down time after playing. Others can go straight from chasing to bed. There’s no right or wrong here, just test it out and find what works!
Your State of Mind
Last but not least, how are YOU feeling at bedtime? Like we said before, babies need to feel safe and calm at bedtime to be able to drift off. The thing is little ones are also highly intuitive. They pick up on our moods, especially those of their primary caregiver. So if you are feeling anxious and stressed at bedtime, chances are your baby is feeling that way too.
Try practicing some mindfulness before starting the bedtime routine if you know you’ll get frustrated. As well, repeat some mantras to yourself:
‘They’re not giving me a hard time, they’re having a hard time’
‘It is a privilege to be my child’s safe space’
‘It won’t always be this way. They won’t always be this little’
These can help to keep you in the right state of mind so you can calm your baby to sleep. Of course if you are experiencing signs of Post Partum Mood Disorders, please seek help through Post Partum Support International.
I hope this article was helpful! Let me know if you tried any of these strategies or had any ‘aha!’ moments. If you need further support, visit the Sleep Coaching tab for a list of services so I can help you out!