What is a good bedtime routine for toddlers?

young child lying in bed with mother

Establishing a solid bedtime routine for a toddler incredibly important. Not just so that your little boy or girl can get a good night’s rest, but also so that YOU as the parent can rest and recharge.

Work backwards to build your structure

There’s no right or wrong routine at bedtime. But if you are struggling, here’s a way to get the basic routine established. I do this by working backwards.

First, what time does your child need to get up in the morning? My children need to be up by 7am to give us time to get showered, fed, and out the door to get to preschool on time.

Toddlers need 10-14 hours of sleep a night, in general. My toddler son tends to sleep about 12 hours a night. Because my son needs to be awake at 7am, I know that I need to have him ASLEEP by 7pm. Not in bed bouncing around. But ASLEEP at 7pm.

Once you know what time you have to have your child to SLEEP in the evening, you can build your bedtime routine.

When do lights have to be out?

If you’ve never tried purposefully to put your child to bed (and to sleep), you might not know how long it takes. None of my children have ever just fell asleep when their heads hit the pillows. Generally, they have to be in bed with the lights off for 20-30 minutes. I know that if I want my children to be asleep by 7pm, I need to turn the lights off NO LATER than by 6:40pm.

What should I do leading up to lights out?

Now that I know that I have to have lights out by 6:40pm, I need to establish a set of fairly strict steps that I will follow each and every night to stay on our schedule. My children love to bounce and jump and laugh and yell, so I work on making my bedtime activities/routine about relaxing, lying down, talking quietly, cuddling, and getting cozy and warm.

It’ll take some trial and error and you see how long things take. But here’s an example of what you could do in order to be ready to turn lights off at 6:40pm.

  • Complete dinner well in advance whenever bedtime starts so there’s no complaining about needing more food or milk.
  • Pick a specific time to start bedtime. In this case, let’s pick 6:00pm as a starting place. Tell toddler that bedtime starts in 15 minutes, and give him a warning every five minutes until 6:15pm. (We are starting bedtime in 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes). This will ease the transition into the bedtime routine.
  • At 6:15pm, announce that toddler is going to bedroom to change out of daytime clothes into pajamas. Don’t let them drag their heels or stall. If they struggle to go into their bedroom, then calmly inform them that you are going to help them, and then do so.
  • 6:20pm, brush teeth (because pajamas took forever).
  • 6:25pm, come out to say goodnight to other family members, and go into bedroom.
  • 6:30pm, be sitting in bed (under the covers) with a parent to read stories or talk.
  • 6:40pm, lights out

Reading stories is a very important part of my bedtime routine with my children, so I tend to rush them through pajamas, teeth, etc to get as much time with them reading stories. In fact, I am guilty of reading to them for 30-45 minutes some nights, though this might be long for a lot of families.

Seem early?

Getting bedtime started just after 6:00pm can seem pretty early, especially for parents who barely get off work at 5:30pm. Kids need a lot of sleep, they just do, at that age. If your child doesn’t see you all day (but doesn’t have to get up early in the morning), then feel free to keep them up later. But as parents you have to give them the space to sleep as much as they need to at night.

What if my child won’t go to sleep?

There are other things you can do to help your child relax and adjust to the routine. If you do dinner early enough, you can add a nice, warm bath to the bedtime routine. One of my sons really struggled with bedtime. He was a very active child with a very active mind. It was as if his limbs went on overdrive around bedtime.

To help him transition to relaxing his body in preparation for bedtime, I made sure to put him through the bath every single night. Frankly, the longer the bath, the better (five to ten minutes really isn’t enough). Once he took that long, warm bath, then got dried off and into his warm pajamas, he was also much more pliable at bedtime, and drifted off to sleep much quicker.

I also continued to utilize the white noise machine in my kids’ bedrooms. This prevented random house noises from distracting them from the important job of relaxing.

Other bedtime routine components

Anything that put the child in her bed, in her bedroom, and relaxing, is a pretty good idea. I know parents who sing songs at bedtime. There’s a father I know who plays the guitar outside of his daughter’s room, or plays the piano down the hall. I have told stories in the dark with the lights off.

Truthfully, it doesn’t really matter exactly what you do, as long as you do the same thing just about each and every night. A consistent bedtime routine is almost like magic for a child. They get to know the routine, and rely upon it to prepare themselves for bed.

Once a child knows how the routine is going to go, they will complain. Even through the complaining, please know that they actually secretly appreciate that you ignore their complaints and follow the regular pattern of their bedtime routine. It actually gives them a sense of security at bedtime that everything is the same, even if they make it seem like they are mad about it.

Avoid these at all cost

I definitely do not recommend the following for bedtime routines:

  • Changing up the time of lights out, or starting the routine, from day to day.
  • In the beginning, switching up between parents doing this and that. Once the step by step routine has been established, parents can trade jobs between themselves pretty easily. In the beginning, it is generally best that the parent who does bathtime consistently does bathtime, and the parent who reads books, reads the books.
  • Screen time of any kind, unless it is videochatting with a parent or other family member to say goodnight. Television, computers, cartoons, and programs seem like they should relax a child, right? Because they have to sit still? I have found that using television to “wind kids down” has the opposite impact upon my children. When my children watch screens at bedtime or even in bed, they tend to bounce around and stay awake much, much longer.
  • Sugar at or near bedtime (bedtime treats), unless you want to be up all night

What does your bedtime routine look like? Let us know in the comments.

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