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The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that toddlers sleep 11-14 hours per day. If your little one doesn’t get enough sleep, you may have to deal with an overtired toddler; which all parents know, isn’t pretty. Establishing sleep associations and a consistent bedtime routine will help your child to get the sleep that her little body so desperately needs.



Leading Up to Bedtime

The lead time to sleep is important. In our house we do wind-down time an hour before bedtime. My two-year-old has no concept of time, but hearing me say “One hour until bedtime” has conditioned her to understand that she still has time to play, but we are changing the mood. I then encourage calmer play activities. I try to keep my own energy and voice calmer. She follows my lead. At thirty minutes until bedtime I say “Almost bedtime. Let’s head upstairs.” These updates allow her to prepare. It is expected and consistent.


Developing Your Own Routines

Every family that I know has different steps to bedtime. There is no one-size fits all routine, but there are two key components that all children need—hygiene and comfort. Bathtime has always calmed my little ones and been a great segway to bedtime, but my sister says that evening baths make bedtime too long and crazy, thus she opts for morning baths. Do what works for you!

Sample Routine

My toddler’s current bedtime routine looks like this:

Bath During her bath I let her play for a few minutes, then I begin talking to her about the day as I soap her up. She gets a pump of liquid baby soap as she begins to wash her own body. We always end the bath by rinsing her hair and saying “All done! Bedtime.” It isn’t the words that are important, it is the consistency.

Settling into Her Room Next I allow her a minute or two in her bedroom. She typically gathers stuffed animals or starts to look at books. During this time we continue to talk, modeling language and conversation, but in a calm way.

Brush Teeth I play the song Brush Your Teeth by Raffi as I brush her teeth.

Story Reading with your child is one of the best things that you can do to help to build his brain. Bedtime is the perfect time to share literature with your child. My little one chooses two books, then climbs onto my lap.

Song When the stories are finished I ask my daughter which song she wants. Choices are better than yes or no questions when you are trying to establish a consistent routine. (“Do you want Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star or You Are My Sunshine?” versus “Do you want a song?”)

In Bed As soon as we finish our song, I lower her into her crib, and say goodnight. Most nights she lies right on her pillow and waits for a goodnight kiss, but some nights she stands up or wants to tell me one more thing. Every night I kiss her stuffed animal, then kiss her, and say “I love you, sweet girl. Goodnight.” Then, and I think that this is key, no matter her reaction, I turn on her nightlight, close her blinds, turn on her music, and leave her room. It is important that my response be consistent, even if her behavior isn’t.


Developing a bedtime routine will help your toddler to, not only, get the sleep that she needs now, but also set her up for sleeping success in the future.

When is bedtime at your house for your preschool children? If your answer something like “It depends” then you could be setting your family up for problems. A new study from University College London, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that children whose bedtimes are variable are more likely to be behavior problems for Mom and Dad.

Bedtimes reported by parents of 10,000 English 3-, 5- and 7-year-old children were compared to parents’ and teachers’ reports of children’s behavior. A clear link was found between irregular bedtimes and hyperactivity, conduct disorders, problems getting along with friends, and emotional outbursts. The longer irregular bedtimes persisted and the older children got, the more severe the behavior problems became.

Researchers speculate that variable bedtimes throw off the body’s circadian rhythm, leading to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation disrupts essential brain functions that occur during sleep and interferes with neural development of brain areas needed for behavior regulation.

They found that irregular bedtimes are most common among three-year-olds, when 1 in 5 children go to sleep at different times each night – and when behavior struggles and tantrums are common! By age seven, most children go to bed between 7:30 and 8:30 pm but children still up at 9:00 pm or who continue to go to bed at odd times continue to struggle with behavior.

Every parent knows that children who are overtired or who didn’t get a good night’s sleep are more likely to be irritable and unfocused. Imagine that this is a child’s daily experience. As lead researcher Yvonne Kelly notes, “Not having fixed bedtimes, accompanied by a constant sense of flux, induces a state of body and mind akin to jet lag.”

It’s obvious that irregular bedtimes might have daytime consequences.

What can you do?

  1. Set a bedtime and stick to it. Don’t let small children stay up to watch television, so finish a game, or participate in evening activities. Get things wrapped up in time for the same bedtime every night.
  2. Maintain your child’s bedtime even on weekends and vacations. Goodness knows, you want your child to be sweet when she’s around you all day. And just as jetlag lingers for a day or two, a late-night on the weekend may have repercussions for your child’s learning later in the week.
  3. Make certain the sleeping arrangements provided to your child work for him. If older or younger children disrupt your child’s sleep, take steps to adjust the sleeping situation.
  4. Avoid letting your child watch television or play with computers or cellphones in bed. The light from these screens disrupts the release of the sleep hormone melatonin and can lead to sleep deprivation.
  5. If you allow your child to read in bed, have a firm “lights out” limit. Yes, we want our children to enjoy reading. But they need their sleep too.

The good news, according to the study, is that behavior problems caused by irregular bedtimes are reversible. Once children start going to bed at a the same time each night, they became better behaved during the day.

Having trouble with your child’s behavior? Look at her bedtime. If it’s variable, just setting a more regular sleep schedule may make a difference.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.