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Bedtime battles: creating calmer toddler sleep

bedtime battles crying toddler
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Bedtime battles: creating calmer toddler sleep

bedtime battles crying toddler
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Does bedtime feel like a battle? Do you feel like your toddler, or child, becomes your adversary as soon as you want them to go to sleep?

“She finally gave up the fight”  
“Yes, we won!” 
“Don’t let them win” 
“Is he good?” 

Dad holding sleeping toddler

We often use battle rhetoric about even the most peaceful of bedtimes; whilst we try our best to lull and soothe our little ones to sleep. The language of conflict often gets used even more when we are struggling, and it feels true. We feel like we are fighting our toddler to make them sleep. We believe that they were fighting against us. 

Now, few of us are genuinely adopting military tactics in our children’s bedtimes (unless we are going out, when we plan their bedtimes using every ounce of strategy we possess, only to see those go the least to plan!) But there’s nothing wrong with the phrase “bedtime battles,” right? It’s just a phrase. We don’t really rule our children under martial law. No, of course we don’t, but that isn’t really the point. ​

Conflict mentality: your toddler is not your adversary

bedtime battles stress getting toddler to sleep

When we talk about battles, we set up a conflict scenario in the way we frame bedtimes. For example, when in bedtime battle mode and our child is fidgety, angry or distressed we’re inclined to see this as a “tactic”; see the old “my baby is manipulating me” scenario. We tend to see it as us against them. Consequently, we have to combat their resistance with our own riposte.  

Is this really in line with what we know about how our children behave though? When your child is distressed, they are not employing a tactic against you. They don’t want a battle. They are expressing that they are not OK; there is an unmet need. They are not winning by being miserable and angry. This is not what they want, they are not fighting you, they are communicating. When in battle mode, we tend to focus on the outcome — getting our toddler to sleep— and not on the process, a calm bedtime. When we focus on the end goal of sleeping children, we can sacrifice much of our gentleness, respect and patience.

exhausted parents tend to have bedtime battles

Now, it isn’t only our battle mentality that contributes to a lack of patience at bedtimes. We are usually exhausted too. Perhaps, looking forward to some grown up conversation, a sit down, a break from the constant needs of our children. However, the effect is, right when we need our children to be the calmest, we are at our most stressed.As a result, we tend to read motivations and manipulations that aren’t there into their behaviour. It doesn’t take many bedtimes like this before a child expects bedtime to be distressing either. We can create this self-fulfilling and repeating battle scenario that makes getting your toddler to sleep a more stressful and miserable experience all round.

Winners and losers: the result of bedtime battles

The reality is that, just like at all other times of the day and night, their behaviour is communicating something. They need something. A change in atmosphere, a different ritual, something to calm them and help them soothe and sleep; some connection with you. Yes with you. Above all, toddlers crave calm, yet they are often met with the rigidity of conflict at bedtime. We often escalate with ultimatums “get your pyjamas on now or no stories” rather than reassurance and cuddles.  

Most significantly, the issue with bedtime battles is that if we win the other side loses. The other side is our child. That little human we nurture all day becomes our opponent when the lights go out and they have no idea why. I don’t want my toddler to end everyday a loser. I want my toddler to tell me about their day so they decompress; to feel them relax into me as they let go of their worries and their questions; rest into music or stories; snuggle into the blankets and my arms and drift off to sleep. I don’t want my toddler to pick up my tension, or to feel rushed to sleep.

Have you ever tried to get to sleep as fast as you can? It is a recipe for fidgeting and frustration for me so I can’t imagine it helps them much. Our understanding of the brain supports this. The more pressure we put them under, the more stress we cause. The more stressed they are the more cortisol (our alert system hormone) is produced, in so doing suppressing melatonin (the sleep hormone) production. As a result our children don’t sleep, we can’t relax and everyone is a loser.

Good guys and bad babies

This “battle” mentality begins right from day one, as we have seen demonstrated in the press recently with the birth of a royal baby. On the second day of his life, little Archie Harrison had his character put in question, directly in relation to the way that he sleeps. When bedtime is a battle it leads to ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ It becomes socially acceptable to publicly ask if a two-day old baby is “good”. I assure you, he is good, however, he is not sleeping through the night. Babies and young toddlers wake from sleep at night and that is normal and not a problem. This does not mean they are morally ambiguous or badly behaved.

We’re all winners when we drop bedtime battles

calm bedtimes toddler sleep

When we work as a team: we both win at bedtime, we can get our toddler to sleep without conflict, we get our evening, in fact we get more of it. This only works when we don’t get everyone more tense, and we don’t spend half of the evening in a wound up cortisol/adrenaline come down after our battle. There are ways to work with our children in order to understand them and to make bedtimes easier, and just reframing the way we think can really help.


If you are struggling with bedtime battles check out the map to find your local consultant or sleep workshop. Our consultants help you find ways to de-escalate bedtime stress and work together for calmer sleep all round.  Equally if you want to support parents to have calmer bedtimes, and get more sleep without tears and stress, take a look at our training to become a Certified Parenting Consultant.

Written by Jenni Littlejohns – a CalmFamily director

Jenni is a qualified and experienced sling consultant, mum of two, trainee consultant with CalmFamily, Director of It’s a Sling Thing, the largest online retail and hiring sling service in the UK, and manager of the CalmFamily shop.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Babies, Baby sleep, Calmer relationships, Child sleep, Toddler sleep
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