Bedtime battles: how to have a calm, easy bedtime

Young child lying in his bed. He looks upset

Bedtime doesn't have to be a battle

Have bedtimes become really stressful for you? 

Bedtime battles are hard! I get it, you’ve spent a long day at home with the kids, or at work, you’re trying to get dinner ready, your kids are grumpy, out of sorts, uncooperative and hyper. You’re mentally checking off all the things you need to do in the evening, you’re desperate for your kids to go to sleep at 7 pm. You need time to tidy up and perhaps even get an hour in front of the TV! But your child is delaying going to bed, putting up a fight, they won’t stay in their cot or bed and you are just so exhausted.

It’s really tough.

You’re not alone! Lots of parents face the same issues as you, and I’ve helped countless families turn bedtime into a relaxing, stress-free experience. Often, we focus on just the bedtime routine as the magic cure all. But what if I were to tell you that the bedtime routine isn’t really where you need to focus? 

Here are my top tips for turning bedtime from a battle ground into a calm, relaxing experience for everyone.

Sleep hygiene

Let’s start with the background stuff that you can adjust to improve sleep! Sleep hygiene are measures that you can put in place to help sleep happen more easily. These measures work for children of all ages, and adults too!

Start the day at the same time every morning (including weekends) 

Set a wake up time and stick too it, even if the night has been tough. It means that the rest of your day will fall into a pattern and you are much more likely to get a regular bedtime. Often, we think that bedtime is the most important thing to get right, but actually, good sleep starts with a regular wake up.

Can’t bear the thought of getting up every day at 7 am? Then negotiate with your partner so that one of you gets a lie in one day a week, and the other one gets a lie in on another day.

Exposure to day light

Getting lots of exposure to natural light really helps us sleep better at night time, as it helps to increase our production of melatonin. Additionally, exposure to light around the time the sun rises and sets is an important trigger for our circadian rhythm. This is because our body clocks are very sensitive to the light frequencies at these times. One way to really help reset bedtimes is to go for a family walk after dinner! Especially on days of the year where it is still light in the evenings (this tip is less helpful in the depth of Winter!)

Sensory needs

We all have sensory needs and meeting these needs in the lead up to bed time can improve our sleep! This is because meeting our sensory needs helps to regulate our nervous system. And our nervous system needs to be regulated for sleep to happen. 

Children who are sensitive to noise and who have been in a noisy environment all day may need some quiet downtime to help reset this. A lot of young children have a really strong vestibular need for movement – this may have been curtailed in a school setting. These are the children who really benefit from rough housing, or playing in the garden for a while after dinner. Or bouncing on a trampoline! Other children really find that their nervous system gets regulated with deep pressure. Ideas include deep pressure massage, getting them to carry or hold heavy objects, or even wrapping them up tight like sushi rolls in a blanket! 

Exercise

We know that exercise improves our sleep. Most children need a lot more exercise than we think (at least 2 hours a day). If they aren’t getting this exercise during the day, then having some active playtime after dinner can be really helpful.

Bedroom environment

Your child’s bedroom environment should be as dark as possible, with no chinks of light around the windows or doors. If you stand in the room at night, you shouldn’t be able to see any shadows. That being said, some children are scared sleeping in a dark room. So if there is a lot of resistance to going to bed and you think that this might be the reason why, then a dim red toned night light may be helpful. Just make sure it doesn’t cast any scary shadows!  

Temperature

The temperature of your child’s bedroom should be around 16-20 degrees Celsius, not just at bedtime, but overnight too. This may mean using a thermostat in Winter to maintain the room temperature. In Summer, you may need to close windows and blinds in the afternoon, and only open the windows again in the evening when the temperature outside has dropped. Some children enjoy the background noise of a fan in which case you can use this to cool the room too.

Background noise

Some children are particularly sensitive to noise and it doesn’t take much to wake them. In this case, having a bit of background noise can be really helpful! Especially if it’s a sunny evening and there are a lot of people or older children outside playing. White noise can be helpful, but so can audiobooks or music.

Don’t make their bedrooms too exciting

Limit toys in the bedroom! You don’t want your child to go to bed and then see a toy that sparks their imagination and has them wanting to play instead of sleep. You may also need to look around their room and see how visually stimulating it is. Are there lots of things to look at? Bright colours? For some kids, this can all contribute to the bedroom feeling like a “wake up” zone, rather than a “settle down to sleep” zone.

Two children running on grass. The sun is low on the horizon.

Tackling bedtime

Is their bedtime too early?

I totally get that this section may not be what you want to hear, but… the number one reason I see for bedtime battles? 

Kids just aren’t tired enough to sleep. 

We often think that an earlier bedtime is better. And clearly, for those of us who want to sit on the sofa with snacks while watching TV, an earlier bedtime is tempting. However, a lot of kids can’t sleep for 12 hours in bed. Look at my charts below. You’ll see that for kids under the age of 18 months, a 12 hour night in bed is rare. And for older kids, it may not happen either. If you are expecting them to wake up at 7 am, well… 7 pm may just not be a realistic bedtime. If they aren’t tired enough, they won’t sleep!

So… how do you work out when their bedtime should be?

For most kids a bedtime routine of around 20-30 minutes, plus 10-20 minutes to fall asleep is reasonable. So, we’re talking 20-30 minutes of getting into pj’s, milk feeds for babies/toddlers, brushing teeth, stories. etc. Then 10-20 minutes with them lying with their eyes closed and actually falling asleep. If the falling asleep stage takes ages then there are a few things you can try:

Push their bedtime a bit later every few nights

So, you gradually push their bedtime a bit later every 3-4 nights by about 15 minutes until they are easily falling asleep within 10-20 minutes. If you do this, don’t forget to keep your wake up time and naps times consistent! 

Bedtime fading 

This sounds a bit radical but it works really well! In this scenario, you ONLY put them to bed at the time they fall asleep and then bring their bedtime forward gradually. This can be a really good option for resetting a prolonged bedtime with toddlers or older kids. Basically, in this scenario, a child no longer associates going to bed with falling asleep. Instead going to bed means they expect to mess around for an hour or two. 

By waiting until they really are very tired, they fall asleep quickly and you reset this association. After a week or so of falling asleep quickly, you can then gradually bring their bedtime forward until you find that “sweet spot” – you can still get a bedtime routine in, plus it takes about 10-20 minutes for them to fall asleep. So, for example, say you’ve been putting your child to bed at 7 pm, but they aren’t actually falling asleep till 9 pm. Instead, you take them to bed at 9 pm – let them stay up and play until this time, no need for a bedtime routine! Hopefully they’d fall asleep quickly. 

Repeat this every night for a week, while keeping your wake up time and nap times consistent. Then gradually start to bring that bedtime forward by about 15 minutes every 3-4 days. Gradually start adding in your bedtime routine again until you find that “sweet spot”:  you have time for a bedtime routine, and they fall asleep easily within 10-20 minutes, but they still wake up easily the next morning.

Reduce your day sleep

Sometimes, you do have a later bedtime in place and you still have bedtime battles. Often, this is because your child is getting too much day sleep. Clearly, this one is only relevant if your child still naps. However, especially where toddlers are concerned, sometimes they spend too much time napping. In this case, it can be helpful to gradually reduce the amount of time they are napping during the day. Again, 15-20 minutes every 3-4 days usually helps you find the right balance. 

What if I have introduced a later bedtime, my child no longer naps, and I’m STILL facing bedtime battles? 

Well, in that case, my advice is going to be the same as it is for everyone else. Read the next section! Focus on regulating their nervous system and providing lots of connection. 
Dad rough housing with his two kids. They are all laughing

The gap before bedtime

So what are you supposed to do in that extra hour or so before they go to bed?

I hear you… it’s tough trying to hold out for a later bedtime! You’re exhausted and deserve some downtime too. But… honestly? If you change what and how you do things, it’s not any more effort, it’s just going to be a whole lot less frustrating because evenings are going to be a lot more pleasant with your kids.

So let’s look at two really important things you can do with your kids in that extra time:

Regulate their nervous system by letting off steam

I’ve touched on this briefly already, but that time after dinner can be really important for helping children soothe and regulate their nervous system. Children depend on us to help them regulate their emotional state, right up to school age. Often, rather than jumping straight in with calming activities it can be really helpful to let them get their big emotions out! 

So, for example with a school age child, this may mean that they have a bit of a meltdown, perhaps even some tears over something frustrating that happened at school. Younger children may need the opportunity to let out some of the stress of being separated from you all day, or perhaps having to “hold in” their emotions while in daycare or preschool. 

Often, we think that rough housing or playing chasing games after dinner just winds them up. Actually, the opposite is true! It can give them the release that they need from all that emotion that has built up during the day. So, it’s perfectly ok to get your child squealing and laughing.

The wake maintenance zone

There is also a really interesting mechanism that occurs in children called the “wake maintenance zone”. This is part of their circadian rhythm. Essentially, their sleep pressure has started to build up, so they are starting to get tired. However, their circadian rhythm isn’t quite ready to kick in with melatonin production. Therefore, they get a little surge of cortisol to keep them going until the melatonin production kicks in.

And what helps get rid of that built up cortisol? Some active play and a supportive parent who allows all that big emotion to come out in a safe space. If you don’t let it out at this stage, it’ll come out later on at bedtime. 

Reconnect and calm

Once you’ve had some active play, and you feel like your child has managed to off-load some of that built up emotion, that’s the time when you can move into the more calming part of your evening. This is a GREAT time to spend some quality time with your child. Because you’ve got a later bedtime, you have some time to kill so you may want to have some family time together. Perhaps play some relaxing music in the background, the grownups can get a cup of tea (or a glass of wine!), and perhaps engage in some quality family time before starting bedtime. 

This could be a time where babies get some floor time, or perhaps a big long cluster feed. Toddlers and younger kids might like to put puzzles together, older kids maybe want to play a board game, or chat with parents. Leave your phone in another room for 30 minutes and focus on giving your child your attention for that time. I love “special time” as a way for really reconnecting. 

Why is this important?

Well, often bedtime battles happen because our kids just want more of us. We really can’t ration the amount of contact they need, and if kids feel like they have to “demand” our attention or fight for connection, well… it’s going to come to a head at bedtime. Kids need to feel like they’ve had our full attention in the lead up to bedtime. They need to feel like they’ve had all they need, plus a little bit more. When they feel like that, then they are much more likely to settle down calmly and without a fight. This is what Dr Neufeld calls “resting” in our presence. When they feel like we are freely available to them, they can fully rest. We can’t force our kids to need us less. That’s just not how attachment works. 

Mum and dad reading a book to their two children in bed

Bedtime routine

And now it’s time for a calm, relaxing bedtime routine! You’ll find that your child is much more willing to go to bed and fall asleep. Keep it simple and keep it consistent. The same elements in the same order every night. Think of a natural progression, so start in the living room, move to the bathroom, then the bedroom. So for example, don’t get them changed in a dark bedroom, then go back to the brightly lit bathroom to brush their teeth! 

One final tip: baths don’t work for all kids as part of their bedtime routine. For many kids, baths can be an invigorating experience – lots of splashing and playing in a brightly lit room. If this is the case for your child, it’s perfectly ok to move it earlier in the day. 

Your self-care and meeting your needs

I know that evenings aren’t easy. Often, the reason why evenings are so tough is because we are running on empty. I really do get it. I solo parent 99% of the time as my husband works abroad. That means that for several years I was tackling bedtime on my own with two kids, one who is neurodivergent and the other one who was breastfeeding. I know just how hard it is to juggle bedtimes. 

If you have a partner, please make sure that you swap over in the evenings. You both don’t have to do everything I mentioned here. It’s perfectly ok to tag team – one parent tidies up, while the other one tackles bedtime. Alternatively, you may want to do bedtime with the kids as a team, and then tidy up as a team, and then sit on the sofa together! Or you may want to give each other a couple of nights off – whether that’s for going to the gym, football practice or yoga class. It’s ok to go out and leave the other parent going solo a few nights a week – I’m talking specifically to the women here! 

And what if you’re on your own? Well, then you may just need to be creative. I used to lie with my kids until they fell asleep. Mostly just so I could rest! I also went to bed fairly early and didn’t really watch tv in the evenings. I often left the kitchen in a mess and tidied it in the morning. Nap times weren’t for cleaning – they were my “me” time, when I watched tv and had a cuppa. While I was still exhausted in the evening, I’d had pockets of rest during the day so it was easier to manage. 

Need more support?

I love helping families navigate bedtime battles! If you feel you need some guidance with just bedtime battles, then usually a rescue call is enough. If, as well as bedtime battles, you’re struggling with other sleep issues then I also offer a more comprehensive sleep package. You can book either of those options here

Published by Rebecca Scott-Pillai

Rebecca Scott-Pillai is a paediatric sleep consultant and lactaction consultant (IBCLC) based in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. She lives there with her two kids, two cats and dog! With over 20 years experience working with families, Rebecca uses her knowledge and experience to provide collaborative flexible plans for gentle, responsive families.