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My Toddler Won't Go to Sleep until Midnight... HELP!

Do you have a night owl on your hands? I recently heard from mom Katie, whose 3-year-old simpy won’t fall asleep earlier than midnight(!) While Katie’s exhausted, her little one seems to have plenty of energy well into the night hours. 

Katie’s at her wit’s end, and her toddler’s sleep habits are far from healthy. Even 9:00pm is much too late for a toddler to get the 11 to 12 hours of quality sleep they need! (Check this video out to learn more about the benefits of an early bedtime.)

Thankfully, there are ways to transform Katie’s night owl into an early bedtime bird. Here are my tips for Katie, and for other parents with little ones who resist sleep until late into the night.

Rather read than watch? Click Here.

Step One: Pay Attention to the Circadian Rhythm

All of us – from newborn babies to adults – have sleep cycles governed by a type of brain activity called the circadian rhythm. This natural rhythm ebbs and flows throughout the day and night. When it ebbs, we tend to feel a dip in energy. During the day, we often feel this in the early afternoon (ever come close to falling asleep at your desk after lunch)?

Another dip usually happens around 7:00 to 7:30 in the evening, which makes this an ideal time for your toddler’s bedtime.

If you wait too long after this dip, your child’s circadian rhythm will gear up again, and they’ll get a second wind.

Once a toddler gets to this stage, they can seem alert and full energy – even hyper. But that hyperness is actually a sign of overtiredness setting in. Once they’re overtired, it can be really hard to get a young child to wind back down.

My suggestion? Push bedtime way forward to 7:00 or 7:30 in the evening – 8:00pm at the latest. It may seem drastic, but by moving bedtime to that natural lull in your circadian rhythm, you’re giving them a far better chance of settling down and getting to sleep in good time.

Step Two: Create a Consistent Bedtime Routine

The best way to transition your little one into an earlier bedtime is to put a solid, consistent bedtime routine in place. 

A routine will go a long way towards moving your child from waking to sleep. By following the same steps every night, you establish strong “time for sleep” cues in your toddler’s mind.

My first suggestion is actually a pre-routine one: stay off of screens for at least an hour before bedtime. The light from laptops, phones, tablets, and tvs is highly stimulating and can make it hard to get to sleep for adults and children alike.  

I recommend the following steps for a toddler’s bedtime routine:

  • A bath will help relax your child
  • Pyjamas will get them comfortable for sleep
  • Story time is a great way to bond with your child at bedtime
  • Time to be tucked into bed!   

If you’re looking for some tips to perfect your bedtime routine, check this out.

Give these simple steps a try. If you stick to them, your little one will start to “know the drill” at bedtime, and the consistent sleep cues will help them get to sleep faster and more easily.

Step Three: Helping Your Little One to Sleep

You’ve run through your bedtime routine and tucked your little one in bed. What now? 

There’s no doubt that it will take some time for your toddler to get used to the earlier bedtime, and it will likely take some encouragement and guidance from you.

Whatever you do, don’t crawl in bed with them to ease them to sleep! This will just put another bad sleep habit in place. Instead, you can either sit by the bed and offer your little one the occasional encouraging words, or leave the room and come back to check on them from time to time.

With your encouragement, they should start to get used to the “new normal” and will develop the self-soothing skills they need to get themselves to sleep. 

That said, there will probably be times during the transition to an earlier bedtime that your little one will protest or simply get out of bed ready to play!

In these cases, I recommend that you put clear boundaries in place, and follow them up with clear rewards and consequences. 

Step Four: Reward Good Sleep Skills

At 2 or 3 years old, your little one is old enough to understand and be motivated by a reward system. Explain your boundaries to your child – that after story time, you expect them to stay in bed, close their eyes, and try their best to get to sleep.

Offer them a small reward the following morning if they do their best. It could be a sticker, a cookie, or a candy. Choose something you know will motivate them.

You can even try a sticker chart or another visual reminder to get your little one excited about this new challenge.

Step Five: Establish Clear Consequences

On the flip side, it’s important to establish consequences if your child crosses the boundaries that you’ve put in place, and be clear about those consequences with your little one.

If they aren’t listening, or if they’re getting out of bed constantly and being disruptive, give them one warning. 

Let your little one know that you expect them to lay down quietly and do their best to try to sleep. And be clear about the consequences should they cross those boundaries.

You know your little one best, so choose a consequence that you know will be meaningful to them. In my experience, one of the most effective consequences for toddlers is “locking the door” – holding the door closed. 

If they choose to get up, shout, sing, or otherwise ignore the bedtime boundaries, give them one warning. If they keep up the behavior, shut the door without engaging with them too much. 

Start with 5 minutes, then settle them back in bed. If they still don’t want to settle, repeat the consequence, this time for 10 minutes. Keep this up until your little one understands that the door is going to stay closed when they don’t follow the bedtime playbook. 

Watch this video to learn more setting expectations and how to respond if they’re not met.

In my experience, it only takes a few nights of consequencing “out of bounds” behavior before a toddler adapts to the bedtime rules. 

Step Six: Create a Healthy Sleep Environment

Your child’s sleep space is equally important to a healthy night’s sleep. 

A few tips:

  • Keep the room as dark as possible after the bedtime routine. Consider investing in blackout curtains if there’s a lot of light coming into your little one’s room in the evening. 
  • Your little one may be getting distracted by the books, toys, and other fun things in their room. Try to keep their sleep space as clear and uncluttered as possible to reduce distractions.
  • You also may want to incorporate a clock into your child’s sleep routine. There are sleep clocks specifically designed for young children. Or simply tape over the minutes of a digital alarm clock, and teach your little one that 7 (or 8) is the “magic number” – time to go to sleep, and time to wake up in the morning.

Looking for more tips to optimize your little one’s sleep space? Read my 10 Tips for Creating a Sleep Sanctuary.

Troubleshoot Your Toddler’s Bedtime Today!

For parents like Katie who’ve got a night owl on their hands, the short nights can be tough, and the long days with an overtired toddler can be even tougher! But thankfully, there is hope! 

Follow the simple steps I’ve outlined above, and you’ll have your little one effortlessly adapting to an earlier bedtime in no time! 

Sleep well!

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The Sleep Sense Philosophy

Cry-it-out? Coddle? Co-sleep? Attachment parenting? Ferberizing?
If you’re going to let me help you with something as precious as your child’s sleep, you probably want to know a little bit about who I am and exactly how I think...

Dana’s Sleep Blog

Straight talk about sleep, parenting,
babies, toddlers, relationships… and
just about anything else!
My blog is a great place to find opinions, advice, the occasional rant, and some great videos about sleep.

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