If your toddler is regularly screaming when it’s time for sleep, re-evaluating pre-sleep routines can help make bedtime less stressful for everyone.
It’s natural for toddlers to want to stay up past their bedtime. At this stage in life, their days are filled with play, food, and family time.
Going to bed can feel like a big bummer when you’ve got a room full of toys and other family members who are still awake.
When toddlers become consistently upset at bedtime, screaming and crying for long periods every night, it may be more than just feeling left out. It could be a sign it’s time to improve your toddler’s sleep routine.
Young children don’t have a diverse communication skill set, and crying or screaming are natural ways of conveying even minor unhappiness. But, excessive crying, which happens regularly at bedtime, may have more complex underlying causes.
Debbie Gerken, a certified registered neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse, certified pediatric gentle sleep coach, and founder of Sleep Like a Baby Consulting from Winter Springs, Florida, explains toddlerhood is a time in development when children undergo physical, emotional, and cognitive changes that often contribute to crying before bedtime.
1. Separation anxiety
Separation anxiety is anxiousness in anticipation of being distanced from a loved one. It’s a natural experience for children and is most common in children under 3 years of age.
“Toddlers are more aware of the separation that occurs at bedtime,” says Gerken. “Because separation is harder for toddlers, and because they understand cause and effect, they can also seek attention from their parent by crying.”
This is especially true for children who have gotten a desired response in the past from crying, she adds. In other words, if crying brought you back into the bedroom in the past, your toddler may try it whenever they want you to return at night.
2. Stall tactics
Another reason toddlers cry before bedtime is to stall. Stalling is how they’ve learned to prevent the separation that leads to anxiety.
“They understand that if they ask for one more hug, two more books, a cup of water, etc., the separation from their parent can be delayed,” says Gerken. “Some children cry to also stall the separation and to keep their parent close.”
But stalling can be double-trouble. Due to the prolonged time it takes to get your toddler to sleep from stalling, overtiredness can set in, contributing to more tears.
Dr. Whitney Roban, a clinical psychologist, sleep expert, and founder of Solve Our Sleep from New York City, explains that general overtiredness affects toddlers just like any adult.
“Many toddlers are consistently sleep deprived, so by the nighttime, they are very overtired,” she says. “It is difficult for such young children to control their emotions even when well-rested, so you can imagine the difficulty in doing so on less than optimal sleep.”
Unpredictability can contribute to anxiousness at any age. Roban states unpredictability in bedtime routines can be an important factor in why a toddler might regularly cry at night.
“When children are allowed to control their bedtime experience, they tend to act out and try to pull at their parent’s heartstrings by using tears,” she says.
Exhausted parents often give in to demands, leading to unpredictability on any given night.
“The inconsistency in sleep schedules and routines on the parent’s part only makes a child more likely to use tactics such as crying to try to get what they want at bedtime,” Roban says.
5. Evolving fears
Gerken points out the emotional development stage of toddlers can also naturally contribute to bedtime tears.
“Between 2 to 3 years of age,” she explains, “a child’s emotional brain becomes more online. The line between their imagination and reality becomes blurred, leaving space for fears to become part of their world.”
This is a typical stage for fears of the dark, strange sounds, and monsters under the bed to emerge.
Consistent bedtime routines are a part of good sleep practice
For toddlers, predictable bedtime routines can also provide a sense of security and comfort. They can shift bedtime from a time of stress and emotional turmoil to a time of calm connection.
Gerken and Roban recommend the following tips to improve your toddler’s bedtime routine:
Having 1:1 time
Spending time one-on-one with your toddler for 10 to 15 minutes before bed can make bedtime something to look forward to.
To improve predictability and reduce anxiousness about “what comes next,” Gerken suggests creating a bedtime routine and sticking to it.
“Make a chart to put on the wall in the bedroom that outlines every step of the routine,” she says. “Use pictures next to the words so a child can understand what the expectation is and when it will happen.”
An example of a bedtime routine might be:
- brush teeth
- put on pajamas
- read two books
- gratitude expression/prayers
- one big hug
- two kisses
- lights out
Be on the same page as other caretakers
Roban recommends creating your bedtime routine along with other caretakers who might supervise a child’s bedtime.
“Every adult in charge of the toddler’s bedtime should agree on the sleep schedule and routine,” she says, “as consistency is key — both between the caregivers and within the sleep schedule and routine.”
If you plan on adding activities into a child’s evening, Roban cautions not to let them cut into the bedtime routine.
For example, it’s not always possible to predict how long something like bath time will take. Scheduling non-bedtime experiences early enough in the day so they don’t disrupt the bedtime routine can help you maintain consistency.
Focusing on connection, not separation
“Instead of focusing on the separation, parents can help children at bedtime by focusing on the next point of connection,” says Gerken.
This can be as simple as redirecting your child’s thoughts to the next morning with a statement like, “When I see you in the morning, we’ll make pancakes together. Would you like blueberry or regular?”
When a toddler screams at bedtime or cries excessively every night before sleep, it can be a sign they’re working through separation anxiety, fear, or overtiredness.
Changing your toddler’s bedtime routine to promote predictability and connection can help keep bedtime from becoming a negative experience.