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A Parenting Dialogue: How Do I Deal With Bedtime Battles?

by Vannessa Rhoades 02 Jun 2023
parenting dialogue
A Parenting Dialogue: How Do I Deal With Bedtime Battles?


Hey folks. Trying to figure out how to deal with my daughter refusing our bedtime routine. She will hide, refuse to pick a book…basically anything to prolong the bedtime process. I have used tactics like, "If you don't pick a book, you go to bed with no story." Then when she doesn't choose a book, I pick her up and take her to bed. She cries like I'm the worst person in the world, and after a couple of minutes, I try again and ask her nicely if she would like to pick a book and continue the bedtime routine. (She is very much a creature of routine, and if one step is missed, she gets upset). After a try or two, she calms down and we resume the proper bedtime routine with her a little pouty. Is there a better way to handle these problems?

My technique seems a little harsh on a 3-year-old. She needs to know that mommy and daddy are the bosses and that when we say it’s bedtime or story time, she has to listen. How can you get toddlers to respect authority while still being their best friends? Wondering how to deal with tantrums at bedtime and make this process go more smoothly.

The New Mom


It sounds to me like the problems happen when she's tired and asked to make a decision. Because you're the parent, you can just change the situation to remove the problem. Respecting her limits will help create a calm and happy atmosphere.

So after you've guided her through getting her teeth brushed and she's in her pjs, grab a book, sit down and say, "It's time for a bedtime story!" Then start reading, whether she's there or not. Basically, you're showing her that the train is leaving the station, with or without her. She'll probably come and listen at that point. If not, read the story to the end and then get up and put her to bed like normal. We did this a few times with my little one when we were trying to figure out how to deal with bedtime tantrums, and it did the trick.

-- Shawn, mother of one toddler

The Experienced Mother


It's not your job to be your kid's best friend. It is your job to set boundaries and stick to them.

I am not a fan of setting a consequence and then bending to a kid's noncompliance. You say, "Get to bed or no story," and then say "Oops, sorry, you actually CAN pick a story now, huggy-huggy," and those things don't add up. If you don't mean that you will forego the story, don't threaten it. Pick something else or follow through.

They will cry. They will complain. They will make you feel horrible. But when you follow through (with appropriate, natural consequences -- we're not talking about beating a child for not being in bed), they will learn. And they are somewhat less likely to challenge you later when they know that you follow through every time.

With my children, I used to use a variation of the Counting to 3 Method: "I asked you nice(ly), I asked you twice." No begging or pleading. I don't ask a third time. Three years old is definitely a willful age, and the sooner you make good on your word, the better. They start to talk back a lot more around this age. 

If you're taking away the story, it's still okay to hug and do all the rest of the bedtime routine. The hug is not for dealing with the defiance. It's because it's part of the routine. Just tell her, "We can try again tomorrow."

-- Katie, mom of four grown children

The Pediatrician's Approach


Toddlers can be notoriously difficult when it comes to convincing them to comply with a bedtime routine. To give parents a little guidance, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers the following suggestions on the best ways to help avoid bedtime battles:

  • Establish a calm bedtime routine for your child, which could involve reading a story, listening to quiet music, or giving them a bath. Avoid active play before bedtime, as it could make your child too excited to sleep.
  • Maintain consistency by setting the same bedtime every night. This helps your child understand what to expect and establishes healthy sleep patterns.
  • Allow your child to bring a favorite item to bed each night, such as a teddy bear, special blanket, or toy. Ensure that the object is safe and doesn't have any choking hazards.
  • Attend to your child's needs before bedtime, such as providing them with a drink of water, leaving a light on, or leaving the door slightly open, so they don't use these as excuses to avoid going to sleep.
  • Avoid co-sleeping with your child, as it can make it harder for them to fall asleep when they're alone.
  • Instead of responding to your child's calls during the night, make sure they're safe and well before bedtime, and allow them to figure out how to fall back asleep on their own. Remember that children's main goal is to get your attention, and responding to them each time they call out can reinforce this behavior.
  • Be patient and understanding when helping your child develop good sleep habits. Getting upset or responding negatively can worsen the situation. Remember that children need time and opportunities to learn how to fall back asleep on their own when they wake up during the night.


The Holistic Approach

A:Early childhood educator and creator of the Gentle Parenting courses Lizzie Mash offers a holistic approach to bedtime battles – without threats, tantrums, sticker rewards, or locking kids in their bedrooms. She says the key to figuring out a solution that works for you is understanding why your child is resisting bedtime so much. Are they feeling insecure or scared? Do they have still too much energy in their system? Do they need more time with you? Do they need more transition time?

Daytime prevention measures are a good place to start. If your child still has a lot of energy at night then they’ll likely benefit from more physical activities during the day, particularly outdoor activities. Mash suggests giving your child safe opportunities to run, climb, jump, catch, and roll to burn all their excess energy. Sometimes a little one just feels low on attention at night. Giving your child more one-on-one time during the day (distraction-free – no phone, TV, or while cooking dinner) can make bedtime transitions easier. 

The most important step in reducing bedtime battles, though, is establishing and following a routine. “Routines have a profound effect on children and give them their much-needed predictably,” says Mash. Eating dinner at the same time every day, and doing the same thing after dinner every day can give your child a sense of peace and control. She reminds parents that they should respect their children “by keeping in mind that they might not understand the natural order of events for the evening unless we give them a predictable routine.”

Once your child is in bed, Mash recommends spending time with them there. In fact, she argues the more time, the better. The need for connection is one reason many children end up getting out of bed a lot and why it’s hard for them to settle down for the evening. Making bedtime comforting and relaxing will not only help them sleep, but it can strengthen your relationship. Mash points out that parents may want to make bedtime earlier to make up for the extra time spent in their room. This extra quality time will help kids feel safer and more relaxed, helping their bodies wind down and fall asleep more quickly.


The Takeaway

Figuring out how to deal with bedtime battles can take a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best for your family. Nevertheless, helping your child establish healthy sleep habits at an early age is an essential aspect of their overall well-being. Consistency, a calming bedtime routine, and attending to their needs before bedtime can help create an environment that promotes restful sleep. Encouraging children to fall back asleep on their own, rather than responding to every call during the night, is an important step in helping them become independent sleepers. You may even find that starting the bedtime routine earlier so that you can spend more time just snuggling with your child in bed helps things go more smoothly. While it can be challenging, patience and understanding are key when helping children develop good sleep habits that will benefit them in the long term.

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