How do I stop my toddler screaming at bedtime?
What do you do when your toddler cries at bedtime? Sleep expert Rachel Waddilove joins our mums to explain how to stop bedtime from becoming a battleground
It's so frustrating. Your toddler used to be great at settling at bedtime. But, all of a sudden, he's started refusing to go to sleep in the evening. If that's happening to you, you're not alone.
"It's entirely normal among toddlers," explains Rachel Waddilove, baby sleep expert and author. “Some children will be about 2 when they start making a fuss about going off to sleep at night; others will be as young as 1.”
The good news is, it's just a phase. Just as it came, so it will go. But in the meantime, while you're in screaming land, we've got expert advice and mums' tales of how they coped.
Screaming at bedtime is a hot topic on our forum. It all started when Rachel Oldroyd posted the following heartfelt call for help, one evening at 11pm...
“My 21 month baby suddenly does not want to go to sleep. Up to now he has been a brilliant sleeper - going straight down and usually sleeping through the night. But for the past week or so he has screamed and screamed every time we have put him to bed. It is heart-breaking. He now screams for between 20 and 30 minutes before falling to sleep. If we go in to comfort him it seems to make the situation worse.”
So why do toddlers suddenly start crying at bedtime?
No surprises, but refusal is all part of your toddler growing up. It's about the discovery of the power of that tiny little two-letter word... NO. Your toddler is starting to assert his independence. And guess what, he's going to wield that power at bedtime. Which is just when he and you are feeling tired. Perfect!
Try this: Give your child the power to make choices - but not about when to go to sleep. For example: "It's bedtime, why don't you choose which book we should read tonight?" Or "Which toy is going to sleep next to you tonight?"
There could be other reasons why your toddler suddenly starts kicking up a fuss about going to bed.
He may be starting to feel afraid of the dark. Your toddler's imagination is full of adventures, characters and action. Fine in the day, but when it all goes dark, those funny creatures may turn into scary monsters. Is your toddler afraid of the dark? Here are six steps to help them fight their fear
Your toddler may also be anxious about a big life change looming, such as the arrival of a baby sister or brother.
This is something MFM Editor, Susie Boone, experienced. "My 20-month-old daughter went from a perfect sleeper (12 hours every night) to a child who howled from the moment we brought her upstairs for bedtime. We tried everything. Even when she finally fell asleep (exhausted from all the upset), she'd wake up in the night and start screaming again.
"She particularly wanted me and I was so worried because I was about to give birth to twins, and knew I'd be in hospital for a few days. I recorded my voice on a tape, and my husband prepared himself for some difficult nights. When I came home with the boys, my daughter was more relaxed at bedtime, and within a week, she was back to being a perfect sleeper.
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"Looking back, I'm sure it was the fact she was so worried about this big 'something' that she knew was going to happen (ie the twins arriving) but didn't really know what it was."
Small changes (or at least small to you) may be big changes to a toddler - for example, a switch of carer at nursery or a change of routine. The thing to do is reassure your child and try to make bedtime a time of safety and comfort.
- Physical factors
Bedtime tantrums can sometimes be due to more practical reasons. Ask yourself, is your toddler...
- Unwell – How has he been during the day? "Often, if your child is coming down with something, the first sign is difficult behaviour at bedtime the night before,” advises Rachel
- Hungry or thirsty – ensure that your child eats and drinks enough at teatime
- Teething – If you think your toddler is crying because he’s teething, try applying teething gel or giving him a dose of infant paracetamol to reduce the pain
- Insufficiently tired – Perhaps your toddler needs less daytime sleep, or more exercise during the day
- Overtired – On the other hand, a toddler who hasn’t had enough daytime sleep can become almost hyperactive at bedtime, and struggle to wind down
Should you leave your toddler to cry at bedtime?
Parents vary dramatically in their views on whether you should ever leave a toddler, or baby, to ‘cry it out’ – or settle themselves.
One MFMer says, about leaving her little one to cry, “Heather is almost 17 months now but we definitely let her ‘cry it out’ when she was tiny, knowing she was fed, burped, clean etc. We felt she cried then because she was tired and on her own. It was the only way she would sleep in her cot.” Gemma Black
But another mum, DarkStar, on out forum thinks its wrong to let your child cry: “Leaving a baby to cry can cause long term anxiety. When a baby cries it's their only way of communicating and there is usually a reason behind it. If you leave a crying baby, they just think, ‘Where's my mummy, where's my daddy, why I have I been left alone?’ Eventually it will get to the point that every time you leave them they will become more and more anxious and probably cry even more.”
Sleep expert Rachel Waddilove encourages mums of children aged 6 months or more to allow their child to cry at bedtime, so that they learn to self-soothe. If you have a toddler who won’t go to sleep in the evening, she recommends sleep training them using the ‘controlled crying’ technique.
What is controlled crying?
Controlled crying is the process of allowing your child to learn – or in some cases relearn – how to settle themselves during nighttime hours and naps. When you use controlled crying, you resist the urge to immediately pick your child up when she cries at bedtime. Instead, you wait for a short, gradually increasing, intervals of between 2 and 10 minutes.
How does controlled crying work?
Rachel Waddilove explains the method she uses for a sleep-fighting toddler:
- If you're sure that your child is well, but he fusses and yells when you put him in his cot, leave him for a minute or two to see if he settles.
- If he doesn't settle, go back after a few minutes.
- If your toddler is standing in his cot, give him a cuddle over the side, but don’t pick him up. Lovingly explain that it is bedtime, and that he needs to lie down and go to sleep. Lie him down and leave the room. Don’t be surprised if he is standing again before you reach the door.
- What you are saying to your child both verbally, and with your actions is: “No, this isn’t acceptable. I’ve tucked you in. I love you, but now I have to leave and you have to go to sleep.”
- Leave for a few more minutes and if he's still crying, go in and repeat the process
Do you need to cut down your toddler’s daytime naps?
Reducing the number or length of your toddler’s day time naps is another way to try to solve battles at bedtime – the theory is that your child will feel more tired at bedtime and less inclined to make a fuss.
Does it work?
Sometimes this seems to be the answer. But don't automatically think that because your toddler is less willing to sleep in the evenings that he no longer needs daytime naps.
“Young toddlers still need a good sleep in the day," says expert Rachel. "If you cut the daytime nap down, you often find that they sleep for a shorter period at night. If you have a toddler who is napping badly in the day and is up at night as well, you will often find that if you get the night sorted out, the day will improve as well. Toddlers thrive on sleep.”
On our forum, Kirsty Clark agrees: “We have tried cutting the daytime nap both completely (bad idea) and to only half an hour or an hour (also bad idea). He was foul and then would be overtired and would cry anyway! I have now limited [his nap] to an hour and a half and don't let him sleep past 3pm.”
How many hours of sleep does my toddler need?
Age 12 months
Hours of daytime sleep: 2.5
Hours of nighttime sleep: 11.5
Age 2 years
Hours of daytime sleep: 1.25
Hours of nighttime sleep: 11.75
Age 3 years
Hours of daytime sleep: 0-1
Hours of nighttime sleep: 11-11.5
Age 4 years
Hours of daytime sleep: 0
Hours of nighttime sleep: 11.5
Age 5 years
Hours of daytime sleep: 0
Hours of nighttime sleep: 11
Adapted from Solving Children's Sleep Problems by Lyn Quine
Please note, these times are intended as useful guidelines only, and your child may have slightly different sleeping patterns.
Should I adjust my toddler’s bedtime routine?
A few small tweaks to your toddler’s bedtime routine could help him drop off more quickly at night. You could try:
Make bedtime slower - by starting it earlier
“If a toddler is rushed at bedtime, and there isn’t enough time for him to wind down, it is hard for him to settle,” Rachel says. Start bedtime 15 or 20 minutes earlier, and allow time for a longer bath and more stories. “Try singing a few songs; if he is sitting on your knee, you can often feel your child’s body relax.”
Ask dad, or another adult who knows your toddler well, to put your child to bed
Many children play up at bedtime for mum in particular. One mum tells us: “The thing about the whole drama he kicks up is that he doesn't do it for his Grandmother when she has him and if my husband were to go in to soothe him, he would go to sleep. Just me... he likes to torture me personally!” Heather Hargraves
The only challenge is that sometimes your toddler only wants mum to put him to bed. If so, don't push it. Keep up the great (hard) work and it will blow over. All of this is just a phase.
Avoid letting your toddler watch TV or play active games directly before bedtime
Many of us do it, but TV or active playing around can stimulate your child when in fact he needs to wind down. Scary images can also haunt your child and could mean a broken night. One MFMer, youngmummy, allows her little one to have books in bed, instead: “I put a nightlight in the room and a selection of books and very quiet toys… but if they make lots of noise I will take them away.”
What to do if you are really struggling with your toddler's bedtime behaviour
Don’t be surprised if you find bedtime battles exhausting and frustrating. It can be particularly hard to deal with if you have other children to get to bed too. Think about...
- Getting some extra help. Ask a friend or family member to come and be with you through the evening – particularly if you are sleep training your child
- Ask your partner to come back from work earlier for a few days, so that you are not alone at your toddler’s bedtime
- Talk to your health visitor or bring in the experts – Rachel (and other sleep experts) will visit you in your home, observe your toddler’s bedtime routine and help you to resolve the problem. Visit www.rachelsbabies.com for more information
- Call the Cry-sis helpline on 08451 228 669 www.cry-sis.org.uk. These guys are experts in helping parents deal with difficult sleep problems, and will give you non-judgemental help - and understand what you're going through
How long will this last?
Every child is different, so there’s no blueprint for just how long your child may play up at bedtime. It may last for just 4 or 5 nights, or it may go on for a few months.
If your child was previously easy to settle in the evening, this could indicate that the evening wakefulness phase will be a brief one. “If you’ve got a child who has slept well in the past, it’s likely that this won’t last too long,” Rachel says.
Sometimes toddlers will relapse into bad sleeping habits, and illness also often disturbs sleep patterns - so try to return to your toddler's regular sleep routine as soon as you can.
And remember, it is just a phase (honest!)
Remember what we said at the beginning. These bedtime battles won't last forever. Mums on our forums agree that it will soon pass. On our forum, Theoldwomanwholivesinashoe says: “If you stick to his normal routine, and don't give in to the crying, it should pass. We have had this with some, maybe all of our children. The worst was my eldest, who kept it up every nap and all night for a fortnight, but we kept going with his normal routine and it did stop.” And MFMer Caroline Middleton agrees. “I've just found it’s a case of perseverance. The phase passes once they realise that they're not getting their own way.”
And don’t assume your toddler’s refusal to go to sleep in the evening is down to your parenting methods. Some toddlers naturally go through this phase, others don’t. Who better to test this than a mum of twins...
“I have twin 21 month old girls and one of them is a screamer. It seems like there isn't a night that goes by that she doesn't stand, bounce, scream and cry in her crib. She and her sister are in the same room, in adjacent cribs and my other little girl sucks on the satin lining of her blanket and is perfectly quiet every night.” Moe BLevins
About Rachel Waddilove:
Favourite of royals such as Zara Phillips, and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Waddilove has over 40 years’ experience as a maternity nurse and nanny. She trained at Doctor Barnado’s nursery college in the 1960s and she gives advice which she describes as mother-led, rather than baby-led. She is the author of The Baby Book Journal, The Baby Book, Sleep Solutions and The Toddler Book.