No more fight club: Tips for taming your toddler's bedtime tantrums

Kinderling News & Features

What am I doing wrong, I asked myself? As I lay on the floor with a pillow over my head trying to deflect the light from my phone.  Yes, I was scrolling through Instagram, while our 18-month-old stood screaming blue murder in his cot.

It was 7:40 pm and we’d been at it for at least 45 minutes. But this was a dance we’d be doing for weeks. My husband and I were determined to get our little one on bed by 7:30pm (like all the books say) but ended up with a battle; his screams of protest versus our willing him to sleep.  

Unfortunately, this is not new ground for our family. Most nights you’ll find my husband in the next room lying next to our four and a half year-old son. But more on that later. The point is, we’d been here before and I didn’t want to repeat it.

What change do you make first?

As parents in our very late 30’s I had started envisaging us lying on the floor at 7:30pm as we’re pushing 50. Um, no thanks. Something had to give. But what could we do?

Work back from the start of your child’s day, said Chris Minogue Kinderling’s Mothercraft nurse and go-to for families like mine, battling another sleep crisis.

For children like our son Lachie, toddlers between the ages of one and three who are down to one sleep a day – the day sleep is the first fix, said Chris.

Get the timing right on your child’s daytime nap

“Timing of the daytime nap is essential,” said Chris. “The general rule for children in this age group is that they go to bed for the night between five and five and half hours of waking up from their daytime sleep.”

So: If your child naps between 12 and 2pm, that means bedtime is no earlier than 7:30pm. And if you let them sleep till 3pm or 3:30pm, then they won’t be ready for bed until 8-8:30pm.

If you want your toddler to be asleep by 7:30pm every night, then cut nap time no later than 2pm.

“Also, be realistic about daytime sleeps in older toddlers,” said Chris. “While there are some children who will still manage a long sleep in the middle of the day and still be ready for a 7:30pm bedtime, this is more likely not the case, particularly for children older than two.”

 Create a simple, predictable evening routine

“Children like predictability not chaos. If you regularly pick your toddler up from daycare at 6pm, then there’s simply too much going on for them to be in bed happily at 7:30pm,” said Chris.

An ‘ideal’ evening routine would look like this: 

Food: Between 5-5:30pm.
Bath: 6:30pm
Quiet play: 7pm
Bedtime: 7:30pm

Working parents: Play with your kids as soon as you get home

“Working parents need to remember that children who spend more than three days a week in daycare need 110% of their parent’s attention at the end of the day,” said Chris. 

“As soon as you get home, dump your bag, switch off your phone and sit on the floor and play with your child for at least 20 minutes. Don’t do anything else. Give them your full attention,” said Chris. 

“You can even just play with them in the bath, if you want to get that ticked off the list too. And once you’ve done that say, ‘It’s time for me to make dinner now, why don’t you come and do some drawing on a stool in the kitchen’.”

This type of routine requires you to do some forward planning. It means you’ll have to delay any housework till your toddler is asleep and to keep dinner very simple – after all children in daycare are usually fed a hot lunch in the middle of the day. 

Chris suggests: scrambled eggs, their favourite toasted sandwich, simple pasta and sauce and some cut up cucumber, tomato and carrot.

Be firm about bedtime

Don’t let your ‘no’ become a ‘maybe’ advises Chris.

“Once you have had some quiet play and read a story, walk your child into the bedroom and don’t come back out,” she said.

If you send mixed messages about bedtime your child will be quick to use this to their advantage and demand more drinks, snacks, toilet breaks, cuddles, TV - you name it!  

“Stick to your guns, even if once you’re in the bedroom you realise you’ve come to bed too early, stay in the room and read another story somewhere quiet in the corner of the room,” said Chris.  

Parents also need to decide if they’re happy to be lying next to their children as they fall asleep – this must be a conscious decision.

“If you’re happy to stay with your child until they fall asleep then be prepared for a long journey,” said Chris. “Otherwise give your child a cuddle, sing them a song, say goodnight and leave them to self-settle and fall asleep.”