THE BEDTIME BATTLE: how to make bedtime easier!
Bedtime battles are one of the most common sleep challenges we're asked about. Many many babies and toddlers resist bedtime in the evening, ending up going to bed very late and in some cases, causing a lot of stress and frustration for their parents!
So why is bedtime such a battle?
Would you believe me if I told you it doesn't have to be? That you could have a far more relaxed, happy baby or toddler in the afternoon/early evening and a calm and peaceful bedtime? Imagine putting your baby or toddler to bed at 7 PM and then having the whole evening to just relax with your husband/partner/wife. Imagine having a nice uninterrupted dinner! Imagine being able to go out in the evening with friends!
If this is something that seems impossible for you, keep reading to find out how you can get your little one settling quicker at bedtime.
In this article:
- Why your baby or toddler is resisting bedtime
- How to help your baby or toddler to settle to sleep at bedtime
For more personalised advice and support, try our Little Ones App, where you'll have the option to access our certified sleep consultants in our Little Ones Village. They are experts when it comes to overcoming bedtime battles!
Why is bedtime such a battle?
Let's first look at why your baby may be unsettled and difficult to put to bed...
Your baby's naps have a lot to do with their readiness to settle in the evening. If your baby has had a lot (ie, too much) day sleep, they will genuinely need some more awake time before heading to bed for the night. This can mean they're reluctant to settle easily at bedtime. If your baby's last nap is too late in the day and/or for too long (age dependent), it can also mean they're a bit too awake to go down for the night at a reasonable hour.
For a toddler, having their daytime nap at precisely the right time of the day is crucial. Too early in the day and they'll be far too overtired come bedtime; too late in the day and they'll never go to bed! Your toddler's nap length is important too and from 18 months, their nap should be gradually reduced in length as you notice it starts to impact on their bedtime settling.
If your baby is a catnapper or a poor napper, chances are they are approaching the evening already very overtired due to a build up of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is accumulated throughout the day - more so in babies who are only napping for one sleep cycle (of 45 minutes) or less. This over tiredness means your baby or toddler can seem hyperactive at bedtime and it will be very hard for them to wind down and drift off to sleep.
Over tiredness at bedtime can also lead to a wake 45 minutes after going to bed for the night, night waking and early morning waking due to the cortisol still in your baby's system. Cortisol inhibits the production and release of melatonin, the sleep hormone, meaning an overtired baby will struggle to get into a deep night time sleep rhythm.
A hungry baby won't settle easily. If your baby's naps are spot on and you can rule out over or undertiredness, the next most common reason for an unsettled bedtime is genuine hunger. Very young breastfed babies can take a long time to settle. They might seem asleep, then suddenly wake again, needing to be fed more. This is referred to as a cluster feed, which can help help younger babies to sleep for a longer stretch at the start of the night.
Cluster feeding can sometimes take a couple of hours at this time of night and may be the reason your baby isn't settling easily to sleep straight away. For a bottle fed baby, if your baby is drinking the whole bottle and still not settling well, make more in their bottle to start with. There should always be a little bit left over once they've finished.
Hunger at bedtime can also be an issue for toddlers. If your toddler hasn’t eaten well for some reason, particularly at dinner, then you might notice they become cranky or irritable at bedtime - also known as "hangry"!. This change in behaviour can be a sign that they are still hungry so offering a snack, like a banana, before bedtime can help to fill them up and settle them down.
Too much stimulation before bed:
If your baby or toddler is having an exciting play session right before bed, chances are they will then struggle to switch off and go to sleep. Why sleep when you could play?! For young babies, overstimulation is very common and sometimes even just bright lights or too much noise can be enough to get a young baby overstimulated.
Having a nice relaxing quiet wind-down period before bedtime is a great way to get your baby or toddler good and sleepy. Close the curtains, dim the lights and read some books or sing songs. Get your child in the zone for sleep with a predictable bedtime routine.
The bedroom is too bright/stimulating:
If your baby or toddler's room is bright or has a nightlight (or a mobile or projector), this can cause your baby or toddler to resist bedtime. All mammals need the dark to release the hormone melatonin that allows us to fall asleep. Too much light coming into the room or the use of a nightlight can inhibit this release of melatonin and your child will fight going to sleep as a result. Having a nice calming dark room will promote sleep.
For babies and toddlers under 2 years, we recommend sleeping them in a completely dark room. Once over 2 years, some toddlers can start to develop a genuine fear of the dark. In this case, a dim, red nightlight can help to reassure them and interferes the least with melatonin production.
Toddlers and their fluffing!
One of the most infuriating toddler behaviours is the fluffing around at bedtime - especially once your child is out of their cot and in a toddler bed. They will think of ANY excuse to get attention from you - good or bad.
It’s quite common for toddlers over 18 months to “fluff” at bedtime for 30-45 mins so as long as they are happy in their bed and settling without your assistance, it’s fine to leave them to it. If it’s taking longer for them to settle or they are getting upset and needing your help to fall asleep, that’s when it might be time to take a closer look at their day sleep. To find out how much sleep your toddler needs, check out this article.
Having your toddler's daytime nap in the right place and for the right length is a really crucial element to their willingness to settle at bedtime. You can't blame an under or overtired toddler for their shenanigans, when the impulsive behaviour is quite out of their control! Once you have the nap sorted, you can begin to deal with your toddler's bedtime antics in a behavioural way - using the Check Method, Silent Returns or one of the bedtime strategies found in our Little Ones App.
How can I help my baby/toddler to settle to sleep at bedtime?
Once you have figured out WHY your little one is resisting bedtime, you can start to implement some changes to help them easily settle to sleep. Here are our top tips for ensuring a smoother bedtime:
- 1. Aim for age-appropriate nap times. This will help to rule out under and over tiredness and ensure that they are perfectly ready for sleep at bedtime.
- 2. Make sure your little one’s sleep environment is conducive to sleep. For babies and toddlers under 2 years, aim for a completely dark room. For older toddlers, use a dim, red nightlight to reassure them if needed. White noise can also be a really helpful settling tool, as it signals to your little one that it is time for sleep, rather than play. Also check that they aren’t too hot or too cold at bedtime. A swaddle or baby sleeping bag can help to ensure they stay warm and cozy all night long.
- 3. Rule out hunger. If you have a younger baby who is hard to settle at bedtime, offer another feed, wind them really well afterwards and then try settling them again. Or, if you have a toddler who hasn’t eaten much at dinner, offer a small snack before bedtime to make sure they are nice and full.
- 4. Establish a bedtime routine. Babies and toddlers thrive on routine and consistency so repeating the same steps before bedtime each night (bath, book, milk, cuddle etc.), will help them to understand that it’s time for sleep. It also gives them some time to wind down after their busy day.
- 5. Settle younger babies all the way to sleep. For babies under 6 months, don’t be afraid to settle them all the way to sleep at bedtime with feeding, rocking, patting, whatever works!
- 6. Give older babies and toddlers the opportunity to self-settle. For babies and toddlers over 6 months, who are otherwise self-settling, continue to give them the opportunity to self-settle at bedtime. If they are happy in their bed and just “fluffing”, it’s fine to leave them to it. If they are getting upset and need some help to settle to sleep, we have several methods in our Little Ones App that can provide them with this extra support, whilst gently guiding them back towards independent settling.
Our Little Ones App takes all the guesswork out of your baby or toddler's day and guide you towards a more pleasant bedtime. If bedtime is a battle in your house, let us help you to get your evenings back!
"I still remember the first time, a few days into the Program, when I put my baby to bed at 7pm and he just rolled over and went to sleep. I stood next to his cot for a full 15 minutes completely expecting him to wake up but he didn't! I went downstairs and had dinner with my husband then we had a glass of wine on the couch and watched TV. Together. I could have cried for joy!" - Emma from Australia
Zisapel, Nava. “New perspectives on the role of melatonin in human sleep, circadian rhythms and their regulation.” British journal of pharmacology vol. 175,16 (2018): 3190-3199. doi:10.1111/bph.14116
Horváth, Klára, and Kim Plunkett. “Frequent daytime naps predict vocabulary growth in early childhood.” Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines vol. 57,9 (2016): 1008-17. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12583
Scher, A., W.A. Hall, A. Zaidman-Zait, and J. Weinberg. Sleep quality, cortisol levels, and behavioral regulation in toddlers. Dev Psychobiol. 52(1): p. 44-53. 2010.
Paul IM, Savage JS, Anzman-Frasca S, Marini ME, Mindell JA, Birch LL. INSIGHT Responsive Parenting Intervention and Infant Sleep. Pediatrics. 2016 Jul;138(1). pii: e20160762. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-0762. PubMed PMID: 27354460; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4925087.
Bouchet-Horwitz, J. (2015). Ensuring Breastfeeding Success. ICAN: Infant, Child, & Adolescent Nutrition, 7(4), 208–211.