Help! My Toddler Just.Won’t.Go.To.Bed! – How to Manage Bedtime Resistance with Positive Reinforcement

The toddler years (typically from about 18 months to 3 years) are jammed packed with milestones. Everything from rapid language development, getting more sturdy on their feet,  getting a few more teeth, transitioning from a crib to a bed, dropping to one nap, maybe dropping naps all together, possibly gaining a sibling, and all the growing and learning in between.

Anything to NOT go to bed!

All of this change can have mega impacts on sleep behaviour. With all the newly discovered autonomy of these years, bedtime resistance can become real (fast!). This is coupled, no doubt, with some serious surges of separation anxiety. And it can quickly ramp up from mild reassurance to hours of pre-sleep request. Water. Another song. Pee. A hug. Anything to grab ma and pas attention for just a few more minutes. This is what I like to call the FOMO stage.

You are not alone

The first thing to note is that this is completely developmentally normal. In fact, bedtime resistance may be one of the most commonly reported childhood behaviour “problems” of all time! Up to 25% of children between the ages of 1 and 5 exhibit regular bedtime resistance and frequent night wakings.

So you are not alone. And your child is not trying to interfere with your evening alone time. For many parents, this is just part and parcel of their child getting bigger and not viewed as problematic. 

For others, the behaviour can escalate into an extensively delayed bedtime, regular night wakings, and excessive daytime sleepiness. All of which can impact behaviour, emotional regulation, impulse control, cognitive flexibility, learning, and memory consolidation (just to name a few). Regular and heightened struggles around bedtime behaviour have also been linked to parental sleep deprivation, marital distress, and maternal anxiety and depression.

Only you know how much the behaviour is impacting your child and your family. And if you are feeling guilty, anxious, frustrated, burnt out… these are all legitimate responses and signal a need for change.

Bedtime support is out there

The good news is, bedtime resistance can actually offer an incredible opportunity to reinforce feelings of confidence, independence, and attachment between parent and child.

I decided to review the literature on bedtime resistance (also sometimes called bedtime noncompliance) in toddlers. Below I summarize the most effective approaches to making bedtime a calm and enjoyable routine for both parents and children. And just because I like numbers, I am talking a clinically significant behavioural improvement in 94% of cases.

Ok so here goes.

There are two primary areas of sleep “hygiene” to focus on:

1. Creating a sleep-promoting environment

You are fighting an uphill battle if you are attempting to improve a behaviour in an unregulated sleep environment. What does a regulated sleep environment look like?

An age appropriate sleep schedule

This includes a set bedtime, set wake time, and naps falling within about 30 minutes of each other. Each and every day.

In many cases, a set bedtime is exactly what you are battling with. For the interventions discussed below, the most effective strategy is to watch what time your child actually falls asleep each night for about 4 nights. Wait until that time (say 8pm) to implement your chosen strategy. This is because your child is more likely to be tired at this time and will exhibit less resistance overall. 

Once you see improvements in the resistance, you can start to gradually shift sleep time earlier to your desired bedtime. Work with about 15 minute intervals every 3 to 4 nights.

For example, if your child is not falling asleep until 930pm because of bedtime resistance, then start with your selected strategy at this time of night (or once your child is exhibiting sleepy signs). Once you have seen clear improvement, you can shift bedtime to 9:15pm, then 9pm, and so on, until you get to your desired bedtime (say 730pm).

The key here is that you do NOT shift morning wake up or nap times to accommodate for this later bedtime. You do not want to inadvertently introduce a circadian phase shift. In other words, the whole schedule just drifting later to make up for the late bedtime. And you want to make sure your little one has a high drive to sleep when reinforcing bedtime behaviours.

A consistent and predictable pre-sleep routine

This one is a bit of a given, but the research shows that when performed in a reinforcing chain of events, this routine alone is associated with an earlier bedtime, shorter sleep onset latency, longer nighttime sleep duration, fewer night awakenings, and decreased caregiver-perceived child sleep problems. 

The trick is to use each piece of the routine to cue the next one. This way the sequence is clearly communicated, predictable, and eventually leads to bedtime. The use of cue cards can help to provide a visual if your child struggles to keep track of the sequence.

Routines consisting of 4 factors:

  • nutrition (a bedtime snack or breast/bottle milk)
  • hygiene (bath, teeth brushing)
  • communication (stories and songs)
  • physical contact (rocking, cuddling, massage) – are particularly relaxing for toddlers.

“a bedtime routine is a vehicle for promoting an array of healthy developmental outcomes [including language development, literacy, child emotional and behavioural regulation, parent-child attachment, and family functioning] during early childhood. Given that everyday routines are thought to provide a clear framework for child development and health promotion…. it stands to reason that a bedtime routine in particular….could promote far-reaching positive child developmental outcomes” — MINDELL AND WILLIAMSON (2018)

2. Informing yourself about what behaviours to reinforce and what not to.

Although factors such as individual temperament, age, family expectations, cultural practices, and room-sharing can all impact the extent to which a child exhibits bedtime resistance, parental response is reported to play the largest role.

We have the tendency to inadvertently “train” the behaviour through the way in which we respond to it.

Behaviour is all about reinforcement. A behaviour will be repeated if it is positively reinforced. And the attention that various bedtime “stalling” behaviours bring, works to actually increase their frequency.

So your child may be thinking (not consciously, but from a learned perspective) “hey calling out to mama or asking for that glass of water or sneaking into the hallway all brought mama back to me and got me all the more cuddles. I am going to do that again!”

The key here, then, is to be highly selective in the behaviours that you reinforce. You want to aim to reinforce the stay in bed and go to sleep behaviours and not the sneak out of bed and go on a mom hunt behaviours.

Positive Reinforcement Strategies to Reduce Bedtime Resistance

Here are some clinically tested methods that you can try which all work to positively reinforce desired outcomes and help your child to go to and stay in bed willingly.

The Bedtime Pass

In this approach, you give your toddler a pass or a token that buys them one short departure from their room each night. This can be exchanged to get a glass of water, to go to the bathroom, to get one more hug, etc. The time out of bed remains short – no more than about 3 minutes – followed by a brief return to bed. Subsequent attempts to leave bed are met with a gentle return to bed with little attention.

This technique provides your child with some autonomy in his/her bedtime and can be effective on its own in reducing resistance.

However, it may not eliminate bedtime resistance completely. And in this case, you may choose to couple it with other approaches (described below).

The Sleep Fairy

Janie and Macy Peterson decided to write a children’s book to help parents mediate their toddler’s bedtime struggles. The Sleep Fairy is a story about small children that are having trouble going to bed at night. They are visited by the Sleep Fairy who leaves a special gift under their pillow when they are able to go to bed calmly and remain in bed throughout the night.

After telling this story to your child, you can place a reward under her pillow before she awakens in the morning. Once you see an improvement in your toddler’s bedtime behaviour, you can gradually fade out the story, reading it only every other night, or a few times per week.

You can purchase a copy of The Sleep Fairy, or you can make up a story of your own! The key here is the positive reinforcement of your desired bed and nighttime behaviour.

The Excuse Me Drill

This one makes me laugh a bit, because I have definitely pulled the “hang on buddy, mama just needs to get a glass of water” as a way to sneak out of the bedroom and shorten an extensive bedtime routine. I didn’t realize that there was a more “formal” technique associated with this.

But I really like this one, because it promotes strong attachment and positive reinforcement at the same time and, as a result, is something that many parents would feel very comfortable with. Here’s how it works:

Steps to happy sleep

  • The first step is to make sure that your child is very familiar with her sleep environment. What this means is that you make sure that all naps and all nighttime sleep occurs in your child’s room, even if that means you being in there with her. You want your child to fall asleep in the space and wake up in the space so that it becomes a secure place to be.
  • Choose your start night wisely. Make sure there are no major disruptions in sight – travel, start of a new daycare or school program, other developmental transitions; things that may muddy the water for a successful new routine.
  • Select a bedtime that is aligned with your child’s current internal clock. As noted above, this may not be the desired bedtime (i.e. 7/730pm) and may seem later than a toddler should be going to be (i.e. 9/930pm), but in the beginning, this is when you are going to be most successful at a low-resistance bedtime. You can phase shift the bedtime earlier once the behaviour improves (see above). Be sure to keep morning wake up and nap times consistent with the desired bedtime. You want the sleep drive to be high and you don’t want a full forward shift in circadian rhythm.
  • Positive reinforcement of calm bedtime behaviour using the Excuse Me Drill. Go through your regular bedtime routine (you may wish to implement some of the strategies suggested above), give your child a hug and a goodnight wish, and say

    “Excuse me, I need to go…..grab a glass of water, or to the bathroom, or check on your brother (pick a reason)….but I will be right back to check on you.”

Then leave the room. But only for a few seconds at first. Before your child has a chance to protest, return, praise their wonderful bedtime behaviour (calm, quiet, lying down) and give them another hug of reassurance. After a few minutes, come up with another “Excuse me, I have to….” and leave the room for slightly longer.

Rinse and Repeat

You can continue to do this for longer and longer intervals, always returning to praise “good” behaviour. This way you are shifting the attentional reinforcement away from unwanted behaviours (like tantruming or getting out of bed) and moving it toward desired behaviours.

If, in the process of this drill, your child does leave his room,  pick him up and bring him back with little comment or attention, and then repeat the drill (you may have to go back to a very short interval to avoid negative repetition). 

If separation anxiety is an issue currently, it may serve well to practice this drill during the day using a chair and some tangible rewards to help your child feel more comfortable with the routine of you leaving for short intervals.

Finally, any of the above approaches can be combined based on your individual child and what you think will elicit the best response. Be creative and always keep aiming for that positive reinforcement of “desired” behaviours.

Consistency is Key

Each of these techniques have been clinically shown to reduce or completely eliminate bedtime resistance within a few weeks. Be consistent in your cues and be patient in the process.

And as a little extra token, in addition to improving bedtime behaviours, these methods have also been shown to improve daytime behaviours, increase child happiness, promote parent-child attachment, and benefit the whole family through improved marital satisfaction, lowered parental stress and anxiety, and better sleep for everyone.

It’s a win-win-win!