Toddler Anxiety & Bedtime Stalling

Aug 23, 2019

Toddlers are fascinating little humans, aren’t they? Watching them develop into thinking, creative little people is such a fascinating time, and one that parents often wish would last a little longer. The innocence and genuine curiosity I love. The toddler bedtime can be a battle though — especially with Back to School season here.

Of course, they usually wish that after the baby’s grown out of the toddler stage because along with that creativity and growing independence, we usually see a lot of boundary-testing, which can be a frustrating experience. My son Max is 5, has literally done the same bedtime routine for his entire life and still tries now and then to crow-bar another book, hug, head-rub or snuggle out of us in an attempt to prolong his day and hang out just a bit more. I mean, who could blame him, we are fun parents.

When I have my initial consultations with the parents of a toddler or school-aged child, there’s usually some kind of amusing story surrounding bedtime. They’ll tell me, sometimes a little sheepishly, about how their little one gets three or four stories a night, sometimes five, and then they usually ask for a glass of milk that they’ll only drink a few sips of, then they want to say goodnight in a very specific, drawn-out way, and the parents will end up looking at each other wondering how on earth they got to this point.

Parents lay in their room for hours on end, waiting for their little one to fall asleep, then they add 10 minutes, then they tip-toe out of the room like a ninja and cross their fingers that they will sleep through the night.

And it always happens the same way… a little bit at a time.

Kids love to test boundaries, especially at bedtime and they know that the one thing you want from them at bedtime is for them to go to sleep, so they’ll use that to their advantage. I know it sounds a little diabolical, but it’s their way of seeing where your boundaries lie and how much authority they have.

Children crave routine and structure and have a sense of calm knowing what is coming next in their day, despite trying to test the boundaries. It helps them to reduce their bedtime anxiety, as they look to you to be the source of authority and confidence.

So one night they ask for a glass of milk, and the parents think, “What’s the harm?” The next night, they ask for a glass of milk and an extra story. A week later, they want a glass of milk, an extra story, and three hugs and two goodnight kisses. Little by little, these crazy bedtime routines get established, all according to what the toddler wants.

So there’s a simple, two-step solution to this issue.

Establish a short bedtime routine. The routine should not last more than 30 minutes and should be consistent every night. An example routine would look like this:

  • Bath or a washcloth to the face
  • PJ’s & then a final drink
  • Brushing teeth & potty
  • A story or song
  • Hug & Kiss
  • Lights off!

Never deviate from it.

That’s it. It’s that simple. I won’t kid you, sticking to the rules can be a challenge, because they’re going to ask, test and complain, but if you stick to your guns, they’ll understand sooner rather than later that the bedtime routine is not up for debate.

If you start allowing them to make the decisions, they start to feel like they’re in charge, and that feeling that Mom knows what she’s doing starts to fade.

Additionally, a predictable, repetitive bedtime routine is greatly conducive to a good night’s sleep. It signals the brain to start secreting melatonin and signals the body to start relaxing muscles in preparation for a restful, relaxing snooze.

Now, who can put your little one down? Only mom? Only dad? My best advice here to alleviate parental preference is to take turns. Set the precedence that there may be times where mom or dad is gone. This avoids sending bedtime into a tailspin. The key to success is to plan out what works best for your kids, based on their age. Older kids can be more self-directed. Babies, especially under 1 can be impacted if the timing of bedtime is off, so it is important to get them down at the right awake window.

Reward charts are a helpful motivation for a toddler at bedtime and can be used for children who are 2 years and older as they will grasp the concept and love the ability to have some positive vibes added into bedtime. I am going to be sharing more reward charts later this week on my site but wanted to share one now to get you started.

Toddler Anxiety & Bedtime Stalling


So how do you use this the right way? You want to start by customizing a few easy wins. Things like taking a bath or brushing teeth. Find something kids will do and immediately be rewarded with a sticker for making the right choice. Toddlers LOVE the control and ability to be the one making the decisions. When they complete that task, they get the sticker. Then you add in perhaps a challenge area, like going to the potty, where once they do, they again get a sticker.

See what we are doing here? Positive praise and rewards. Kids feel special and in control, even though you are calling the shots. Then, for the remainder of the evening, you reward them based on what you want the desired behavior to be. So, for example, staying in bed all night, not waking until their clock comes on, not throwing things at their sister. Whatever it is in your house, reward the right.

Set up a goal, whether it’s a daily goal or something cumulative over the week. Give them something to work towards. Show excitement and consistency in using the chart too, so it doesn’t lose its luster.

If you find your child is struggling with things like anxiety at bedtime, a fear of the dark or perhaps had a traumatic situation happen that is derailing bedtime, a few additional things you can do here can help you with that transition to sleep.

For anxiety, I have found that the Calm app or Relax Kids to help with guided meditations. I also share with clients to spend time during the day with their children drawing. Discuss what they have anxiety about or what dream seemed so real that it scares them to sleep. As a family, draw out the dream or fear, like monsters.

You see, like gum, whatever the dream is loses its flavor when it’s discussed.

Draw monsters, all of you, as a family. Make masks, then trade and everyone draw funny faces on the masks and have a monster dance party. See what we are doing? Making Monsters fun and funny. That’s the memory of monsters they have tonight, not the scary one of them being under the bed.

Then, at bedtime, after you have read a book, grab the funny masks and have them tell you a story about the monsters coming with us to the amusement park. Tell them tonight, if they wake up, think about the monster on the bumper cars or the swings. Turn it into a fun positive adventure. The more you normalize the thoughts and discuss them, the less scary they are and like gum get tossed in the trash.

Doing this will send them to bed with a goal, a positive head-space and a little sense of creativity. The most important part though is to follow through. In the morning, be sure when they wake that you ask them what they did and where that adventure took them. If you don’t ask, it takes the goal and fun out of it and kids won’t waste their time because they believe you do not care if you do not ask.

I am not a fan of night lights but know in older kids they can sometimes help. I like the Projectables® night lights because after your kids are asleep, you can turn the ball, so it’s a bit darker, but still shows up on the wall faintly, if they need it.

In summary, it’s important to set a consistent bedtime routine that is realistic and can be something you stick to. Listen to your children, they have real fears and anxiety but be sure to differentiate truth from stalling. Support them, because as parents, that is all we are trying to do as they learn this brave new world and finally, love them with all your heart, these years fly by quickly. If you would like more information on toddler sleep, or wish to have specific questions answered, join me in my Facebook Group Slumber Made Simple where every week, I host live streams, add new content and conduct weekly training sessions!

My name is Courtney Zentz, a Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Lactation Counselor and founder of Tiny Transitions. As an award-winning specialist, I and my team help exhausted parents teach their infants & toddlers to sleep well every night with gentle, customized solutions and both group and private coaching options, so your family can all be at their best. Based in Philadelphia, I work in-home and virtually to provide the support that families need to all be at their best.