Does bedtime with your toddler feel like a battle? Toddler tantrums at bedtime can leave moms and dads feeling exhausted and frustrated when their usually happy little person turns into a sobbing, screaming mess. Toddler tantrums aren’t fun at any time, but when your toddler is screaming at bedtime, particularly when you have had a long day, it can be challenging. So what is causing this change, and more importantly, what can you do to bring a sense of calm back to bedtime?
What are Toddler Tantrums at Bedtime?
A toddler tantrum at bedtime is much like a regular tantrum with kicking, screaming, flailing, flopping, arching their backs, running away, or even hurting themselves. It’s a sudden outburst of emotion, loss of control, or disorganized behavior. It’s generally a way that your toddler expresses a big feeling, and it is how they communicate these feelings to us. Your toddler screaming at bedtime or fighting at bedtime is likely occurring because they haven’t developed the verbal skills to tell you what is the matter or because they haven’t yet learned how to manage or regulate their big feelings.1
Are Toddler Tantrums at Bedtime Normal?
Toddler bedtime tantrums come about specifically in the lead-up to bedtime or are associated with sleep in some way. Essentially, sleep, or their feelings about sleeping, are a trigger of some sort. Tantrums are more likely to occur when our little people are hungry, tired, or overstimulated and during periods of transition, which are the critical elements of bedtime.2
At the end of the day, they are exhausted, and often, you ask them to stop doing something they enjoy, like playing and getting them to settle down or start getting ready for bed. Although they might be incredibly challenging, toddler tantrums at bedtime (and tantrums generally) are typical for children between 18 months and five years old.3
Why is My Toddler Screaming at Bedtime?
There are many reasons why your toddler might be screaming at bedtime, such as:2,3,4
- Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development, so leaving you and having to go to their bedroom alone can be distressing for some children.
- FOMO (fear of missing out)! Our little people can see us, or older siblings, staying awake and feeling like they are missing out on the fun.
- Challenges being able to regulate, wind down, or self-settle
- Sudden or unexpected transitions from some enjoyable activity to having to go to bed
- Recent nightmares and subsequently feeling triggered about going to sleep
- Being overstimulated, in particular, having too much screen time before bedtime
- A desire to be more independent and feeling out of control about the choice to go to bed
- Wanting your attention
- Illness or other discomfort
How To Handle Toddler Tantrums at Bedtime
It’s essential to remain calm during your toddler’s tantrums at bedtime. I know it’s easier said than done, but if you yell, shout, or have an outburst, it can escalate things as your toddler will feed off of your emotions. So, ensure that you have strategies for calming down when tackling the nighttime routine.
Try and Identify the Trigger
Is your toddler over-tired? Are they seeking attention? Have they had a recent nightmare? Once you figure out the trigger, it can help determine which strategy might be the most effective.
Ensure your toddler has plenty of opportunities for connection and attention before bedtime. If you “fill their cup” before bedtime, they will be less likely to tantrum as a way of gaining a connection with you. If separation anxiety is at the root of their tantrum, then lots of contact, snuggles, and time together before bed can help ease their worries.
Leave Plenty of Time for Transitions
If you announce that it’s time for bed and expect your toddler to pop into bed without a fuss, you are likely to get a big reaction. Particularly if you request without warning or they are engaged in some other enjoyable activity. To remind them well in advance that bedtime is coming, you can use strategies to ease the transition like:
- Have a clock on the wall and show them how much time is left before bed.
- Use a timer or alarm to announce that bedtime has arrived. And remind them at intervals in the lead-up (30 minutes to bed, 15 minutes, 5, 1, or whatever interval suits you)
- Put up a chart with the bedtime routine so they can easily see what is next and how far through the routine they are (so they know how close bedtime is and what is coming next).
- Get preparations started well in advance. Do you want bedtime to be 7:30 pm? Don’t start the nighttime routine at 7:15. Give yourself and your toddler plenty of time so the pressure is off and you both feel calmer. If they are early to bed, you can have more time snuggling or reading together.
Have a Routine So They Know What To Expect
We like to know what is coming next; it makes us feel safe and secure. It can be easier to relax, or our body goes into autopilot because it knows what’s coming next. Stick to a straightforward routine for your toddler so things are predictable. You are helping their body recognize the cues for bedtime.
Avoid Giving In to Their Demands
Toddlers are learning how they impact those around them with their behavior (which includes tantrums at bedtime). If they realize they can delay bedtime or get that extra story by throwing a tantrum, you better believe they will keep throwing tantrums to get what they want. If you aren’t willing to continue certain activities or budge on bedtime (for example), it’s best to remain consistent and not give in; otherwise, your toddler’s tantrums at bedtime will likely escalate.5
Name That Feeling
Helping your child learn how to identify and label their emotions helps them feel more in control and less frustrated or scared by big feelings. It can also help you understand why they might be avoiding bedtime or becoming distressed by it.6
Bribes only work in the short term, and your toddler may learn that if they have a tantrum at bedtime, you will offer them something nice to get them to stop. This will most likely increase the behavior rather than reduce it.8
Watch for Sleepy Cues and React Quickly
Don’t let your toddler become overtired. They can get wired, making it harder to get them to sleep due to the hormones racing around their bodies. Watch for rubbing eyes, yawning, getting a glazed look, etc. If you spot any of these signs, move bedtime up and get moving on your nighttime routine.9
Give Your Child Some Control
If your little toddler’s tantrum at bedtime concerns control, give them some, so they are less likely to create a battle over bedtime. I’m not saying let them take over and rule the roost, but give them more choices in their day, like picking their PJs or the goodnight story. Get their input into the nighttime routine, like whether the bath/shower or brushing teeth comes first.
Don’t Reason With Them During Your Toddler’s Bedtime Tantrum
Your child isn’t ready to hear you amid their meltdown, nor is it always the best time to talk directly about their behavior before bed. You might pick another time or even the next day to address things or make a change.
Build Relaxation Strategies Into Their Bedtime Routine
You might want to consider teaching your child how to do certain yoga poses for kids or learn how to do relaxation breathing and then ensure each night you practice these strategies before bed to help them feel calm.
Avoid Sugary Foods and Drinks Before Bed
This one is probably self-explanatory, but it is still essential. If you want your child to be prepared for bed, avoid having stimulants like sugar or caffeine in their system.10
Don’t Try and Avoid Toddler Tantrums at Bedtime
Sometimes, when we try to avoid tantrums, we accidentally do too much for our kids or potentially are too permissive because we fear the tantrum. It’s okay if your child has some big feelings. Identify their feelings and help them find strategies to manage them, but don’t give in or tiptoe around them for fear of provoking a tantrum.
How Can You Prevent Toddler Tantrums at Bedtime?
There is no magic key or set of steps you can take that will entirely prevent toddler tantrums at bedtime. This is because they are mostly developmental in nature. They are normal; despite your best efforts, your toddler will still have tantrums occasionally. However, some strategies for how to deal with toddler tantrums or minimize the length of the tantrums or their frequency include the following:
Limit Screen Time Immediately Before Bed
Phone and computer screens emit a blue light to make the images clear and crisp. But this light interferes with our body’s natural sleep rhythm and can trick our brain into thinking it’s filtering in daylight. More simply, our brains think it’s time to be awake. In addition, the things you watch on the screen can have an input. Games, vibrant colors, and loud noises can all result in the release of stress hormones (adrenaline or cortisol) that muck about with the hormones in our body and our ability to relax, fall, and stay asleep. So limit access to screens in the hours directly before bed to prevent toddler tantrums at bedtime.7
Give Them Time to Exercise
Ensure they get plenty of opportunities to move their bodies in the daytime and use their energy. Ensure you give your child a chance each day to get outside, run around, and expel energy so they are nice and tired and prepared for bed.
Wind Down in Preparation for Bed
Don’t take a leaf out of my husband’s parenting playbook. He loves to play chasey games or tickling and giggling activities as he takes the kids to their bedroom. Cue an overexcited child who doesn’t want to go to bed now. Try to keep the lights dim, the screens off, and the noise to a minimum, or give them a warm bath to try and wind them down and get their bodies relaxed and ready for sleep.
Toddler tantrums at bedtime may be expected, but that doesn’t mean you have to like them or accept them. Dealing with these tantrums can be exhausting, but consistency is critical. Get your child involved in making a bedtime plan or routine, set your expectations and make them clear, prepare your child, and then stick to the plan like glue. It may take some time, but with repetition, your toddler will soon be more prepared and ready for bedtime, hopefully, minus the tantrums.