How to Create and Manage a Simple Bedtime Routine for Toddlers

Here’s the scoop about my experience. My first two children started sleeping through the night just weeks after they were born. YAY! I kept their bedtime and routines the same every evening. Only problem was, they woke up so early. I noticed over time, if they went to bed later, they woke up earlier. It was maddening! I was told “keep them awake so they sleep in”. This was not true for my young ones so.. I made bedtime early! My friends were, dare I say, jealous when I said my 1 and 3-year-old kids went to bed at 6:30 PM and woke up at 6:30 AM. HELLO MOMMY TIME! It was a dream! My third little angel is 6 months old today and still will not sleep through the night. Here are my mistakes: I started putting her to sleep in the swing (in my room) when we come home from the hospital because I didn’t want her to wake up the older children. Now, occasionally I will try the crib but currently she needs the rocking motion to fall asleep. I also failed to keep her routine and bedtime consistent and I feel strongly that’s why she doesn’t sleep well.  I am so passionate about making sure my kids get adequate sleep. I know that it’s good for brain development and I saw what a difference a good night sleep does for children at school when I was teaching.

So how do we decide what our child’s routine should be?

First, hang on while I climb up my opinion soapbox–

Let’s think about decisions we are making as a parent and how they can affect our children. You know the phrase, ‘common sense isn’t very common anymore’? I do believe this to be true. Sometimes we forget our decisions we make with our 2-year-old can impact their behavior when they are 12. Let’s talk about name calling as an example. Adults find it amusing when a 2-year-old gets angry and calls mommy “dumb dumb”. We laugh because it is utterly unthreatening and super cute when a tiny person gets angry. After a good laugh, failing to correct the behavior, we move on about our day. By doing this, we might unknowingly deliver positive attention and teach the child that its acceptable to call mommy names. As our sweet little angles grow into teenagers, name-calling is not so cute anymore and it is much tougher to correct the behavior.

In my humble opinion, this applies to bedtime routines as well. If our child falls asleep to a noise machine during their whole childhood, I can assume he/she would need it as a crutch into adulthood. Children thrive when they learn to soothe themselves to sleep. Or, another example, if we allow our kids to come out of their rooms multiple times after bedtime then bedtime grows later and suddenly, we don’t know why our kid won’t go to sleep until midnight.

As we make decisions for how to raise your children we should think about the following: What make sense? What keeps it simple? Is it something you can live with and continue? Most importantly, remember to be consistent. I feel this can apply to everything when raising children. The two best pieces of advice I have EVER been given as a parent is 1. you have control over what your child will be accustomed to. (i.e. If you rock your baby to sleep every night, she will adapt and expect it.) and 2. Be consistent!

Phew! Stepping off my soapbox–

 Now, let’s get to the dreaded bedtime routine. I have a dear friend whom hates bedtime, she says everything must be in perfect order for her children to go to sleep. The routine must to be done in order (bath, brush teeth, 2 stories, 2 prayers, 2 songs). Her two boys cannot fall asleep unless it is pitch black, the noise machine is on, they have their favorite “lovies” or special stuffed animal, sippy cups of water next to the bed and her 3-year-old still insists on the pacifier. Even then, her children with come out of their room 3 or 4 times for another song or story, etc. This routine can last up to 3 hours or more.

I don’t know about you moms, but these seems exhausting. It causes a lot of problems for this family. The children do not travel well, grandparents or babysitters cannot help with routine because inevitably it isn’t done right, some nights there isn’t enough time to get through the routine so the kids don’t get enough sleep, and it is simply too much for mom to keep up with when she is exhausted. Let’s think through and work on this problem together!

What makes sense?

A short bedtime routine that allows for flexibility makes the most sense to me. This way when bedtime sneaks up on a busy mom the routine is quick and the children can fall asleep in different environments.

What keeps it simple?

Simplicity is key. If there are too many variables, routines get messy. In my home, we brush teeth, read one story, say a prayer and sing one song then, ta-da! Done! My kiddos have a small night-light next to the bed and usually will choose a stuffed animal to sleep with.

Can you continue or live with your decision long term?

I can live with this routine because it is easy! I keep it flexible. Some nights we take a bath and sometimes we don’t. I encourage my kids to choose a different “lovie” every couple of days so they don’t need the same one (in case it gets lost, torn, etc.). I also change the order at times just to allow additional flexibility.

Can it be done consistently?

Yes! This is a plan I can continue to live with. I don’t need to worry about noise machines, if the room is pitch black, rubbing oils on my kid’s feet (I know people who do this), or having that one special “lovie” they can’t live without. There isn’t added stressors to the routine. I have learned never to add to the routine because it might become a norm or habit, yet adding another crutch at bedtime. Once I gave my son a sippy cup of milk to bring to bed because he didn’t eat well at dinner. HUGE MISTAKE! Every night for months he came demanding a cup of milk and said he couldn’t sleep without it. The more I gave in, the longer it was a problem and, of course, became another excuse to come out of his room.

Additionally, my kiddos know when we are done with the routine it is time to sleep. There is no coming out of their room asking for another song or something to eat. When they did emerge from their rooms hoping to delay bedtime, I would swoop them up give them a kiss and place them back in their bed. I learned its ok to say “no”. I was insanely consistent about this. After a couple of days, they didn’t try again. I have nightmares of spending hours trying to get children to sleep, so I made sure this didn’t become a reality.

If you have a routine or habits you are not crazy about, its ok make changes. Remember to be consistent because going back and forth would be confusing for children. The first few nights of change can be rough but stay strong!

For all the loving parents that are just tired and can’t seem to keep their kids in their room, try a door monkey. I used it briefly when my daughter had trouble staying in her room. There were some nights she was up until 10pm. A friend told me about this device and I only had to use it twice before my almost threenager decided she could stay in her room on her own. The door monkey keeps the door slightly open but the door cannot be opened or closed by a child. I use it now to keep the older kids out of the baby’s room when she is napping. I can also keep little explorers out of closets or other areas of the house.

Still looking for more information on sleep routines?

Try reading, Babywise. I used the concept with my first baby and tried to stick with it the best I could with my second. I know this book can be controversial among moms, but I found it covered useful information about sleep habits and why it’s ok to let your baby cry. It also contained some helpful sleep schedules for babies. I used some of the same strategies as my kids grew and it worked! I wasn’t completely religious to the book, but it helped me obtain a starting point and grow confidence. My only hesitation with the eat-play-sleep schedule it demonstrates, is the challenge that comes along with having multiple children (example: one child has soccer practice while the baby should be sleeping).

Bedtime routines are hard! Kids are always changing, progressing and regressing. Clearly, I had challenges but they seem to be fewer and farther between then some of my mommy counterparts. I challenge you to choose a routine and be consistent. Come back and tell me how it worked for you.

What are your routines? Did you ever start something at bedtime you wish you didn’t?

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  1. This is such a wonderful post! Thanks for letting me know about it. I’ll definitely be sharing it with other parents.

    Consistency is the most overlooked commodity parents have. It literally affects every aspect of raising a child. I’ve seen lots of different bedtime methods and routines work, as long as they’re carried out consistently.
    It sounds like you’ve got a great system going. Way to go!

    1. Thank you! I was excited to read your post from the perspective of a teacher/caregiver. I agree consistency is key. I notice every time I go through a change with my children (potty training, whining, eating habits, electronics use), as long as I am consistent with however I choose to manage the behavior, it doesn’t disrupt our routine too much.

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