Good Nights -top tips to help your toddler fall asleep

Your toddler’s delaying tactics at bedtime – needing a drink, one more kiss, a lost toy – are her way of saying, ‘I really want you to stay with me.’ From a toddler’s perspective, it may be difficult to relax and fall asleep if she feels stressed about being left in her room alone, especially if she can hear adults having fun (talking, watching television) in another part of the house. Consider also if this is the only time of her – and your – busy day that your little one has your undivided attention. If this is the case, try to spend more one-on-one time with her during the day so her needs aren’t so intense at bedtime. If she spends her day in child care, try to have some special time together when you pick her up.

A consistent bedtime routine with specific rituals is important to enlist your toddler’s co-operation and help him feel secure. If your child seems especially clingy at bedtime, one way to help him is to tell him the story of his day so that he can process the emotional ups and downs and ‘let them go’.

Once your toddler is closer to three, you can begin setting limits at bedtime by telling him how many stories you will read before you start and to minimise delaying tactics and calling out, try to anticipate his needs: before he gets into bed, let him get his toys in order and perhaps choose a soft toy to sleep with, place a lidded cup of water within his reach (juice is not good for tiny teeth) and, before you settle down to read, ask him, ‘what is the one last thing you need to do before stories?’ Help your child stay in bed until he is sleepy by sitting in his room with him.

If you have things you need to do or you are moving to the next stage of helping your child get to sleep by himself (he will probably need to be close to three years or older before this will work), you could tell him that you will check on him in a few minutes ( make this a very short period at first and gradually increase as he manages to stay in bed and wait for you to return). It is important to keep this promise so that he relaxes, knowing you will be back soon. As you check on him, give him a kiss and stay with him until  he falls asleep. Soon you will be able to just check in then leave again for another few minutes. If your toddler gets out of bed, try not to get upset or yell or you will wake him up even more. Simply take him by the hand, lead him back to bed and tuck him back in then,  (depending on your child’s readiness), either tell him you will check on him in a few minutes or sit with him until he is settled and falls asleep. Gradually he will relax, and fall asleep with less and less help and you will soon be saying, “ill pop in and check on you when you are asleep.”

Please try and see this time spent with your toddler at bedtime as an investment in your connection with him rather than an imposition and consider that like all toddler development, sleep is  a process that can take two steps forward then on or three steps backwards depending on what is happening in your child’s world.

If you have a baby as well as a toddler, see this blog for tips to manage both little ones for calmer bedtimes. 


Food for sleep

Restless sleep can be related to sensitivity to additives in processed foods and soft drinks – don’t feed your little ones any drink that contains caffeine such as ‘coke’ ( even diet coke!) or guarana – day or night! This will hype up behaviour and prevent your child from being able to sleep well, if at all. Some sensitive children may be affected by naturally occurring chemicals such as salicylates in otherwise healthy foods like grapes, oranges, strawberries or tomatoes and, as well as causing behaviour changes, these can affect sleep.

Rather than becoming stressed over foods ( as well as your child’s sleep), it could help to simply reduce the amount or combination of foods – say, instead of giving your child grapes and strawberries for dessert after a spaghetti with tomato sauce dinner, stick to the mantra ‘all things in moderation’ and try these foods separately in smaller amounts.

Bedtime snacks can also affect sleep, either positively or negatively – for instance, high protein foods can trigger the production of dopamine, a hormone that will keep you ( or your child) aroused while a banana for instance will help boost tryptophan levels, the substance needed to make the mood stabilising (calming) chemical serotonin and this will encourage sound sleep.

Splish splash

The relaxing effects of a bath work at a physiological level as well as a psychological one. One of the triggers for sleep is a slight drop in core body temperature. A warm bath temporarily increases the core body temperature, then as this temperature lowers after a bath, we feel drowsy – this is why timing of the bedtime bath matters. For example, it is best to have a quiet play before your child’s bath, then dress her warmly and take her to bed, drowsy from the bath, for the remainder of her bedtime routine.

A few drops of lavender mixed with vegetable oil or milk or a baby bath product that incorporates the effects of aromatherapy can be added to the bathwater for extra soothing effects. Please be careful, though, about using bubble-bath products. While some infant and child bath products will create bubbles and only contain natural ingredients, including essential oils, read labels carefully and use all bath additives sparingly as these can cause skin and genital tract irritation that may have the very opposite effect you are aiming for – itching and sleeplessness, rather than relaxation.

Bathing with your toddler can be a special fun and bonding time for you both, especially if she is in childcare all day or, if you prefer, you could take a shower together.

A magic touch

If you can get your wriggly toddler to keep still long enough to allow you to massage him, silent nights could be at your fingertips: research from Miami University showed that infants and toddlers who were massaged daily for one month, for fifteen minutes
prior to bedtime, fell asleep more easily by the end of the study. Massage reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and releases hormones such as oxytocin, endorphins and melatonin that make your child feel relaxed –and drowsy.

Remember to always ask your child’s permission to massage him and respect his response. This way you are teaching and reinforcing to him that his body is his own and he has a right to refuse any unwanted touching. Often, rather than a ‘formal’ massage, simply stroking your child’s forehead or rubbing his hands or back when he is lying in bed, can help him ‘wind down’ and relax.

Read me a story

Even if you love reading and are happy to read several stories at bedtime, it is good to use the same story as the ‘sleepy story’. For instance, many toddlers love listening to a combination of ‘Where is the Green Sheep?’ followed by ‘Time for Bed’ ( both by Mem Fox). As you read to your child, the calming effects of reading together are increased if you cuddle as you read – while a story will help engage the frontal lobe of your child’s brain and this will inhibit motor impulses, body contact during cuddles will encourage your child to release sleep inducing hormones. Also, dim lighting such as that from a bedside lamp (not with a bright overhead light) will stimulate melatonin, the sleep inducing hormone.


Pinky McKay is an IBCLC lactation consultant, mum of five and bestselling author of Toddler Tactics and Sleeping Like a Baby (this covers birth to 3 years) . See Pinky’s books and recording packages  plus interviews with early childhood professionals about aspects of toddler development and behaviour  here. 



  1. Leanne Robertson Says Reply

    HI Pinky

    Thks for your info here on sleeping toddlers, we are trying to transfer our toddler to his bedroom. he is so big now and still wants to sleep in with us. I know it won’t be easy but he needs to know he has to sleep in his new junior bed. Was hoping to get to a one of your sleep seminars when we were in Australia last month but just missed out as we arrived one day to late.

    Anyway I am following along up here in Norway on your great advice and methods for babies n kids online !!

    Thanks again !!

    Leanne 🙂

  2. pippa Says Reply

    My daughter was fine as toddler but is now six and it takes us two hours to settler her.
    We have a set routine and have tried all of the above advise but she just won’t go too sleep unless we lay beside her until she falls to sleep.

    I’ve tried bribary, telling her we won’t go somewhere or do something she likes but she just shrugs her shoulders and says I don’t care.

  3. Kylie Says Reply

    Hi, I have a 21 month old. He is good at going to bed and sleep most of the time but still wakes 2/3 times during the night. The only way we can get h back to sleep is by giving him a bottle of milk, and of coarse a cuddle. I know we have to get him to give up the bottle but just don’t know how to do this without world war 1 on out hands at 3 am. Also I have a 3 year old so we don’t want to wake him either. We have tried to let him cry it out the first night it was for 3 hours the second night was for 3.5 before we gave up, I really didn’t like doing this I felt sick. Just wounding if you can possible help us to get this little boy to sleep all night.

    • Jackie Says Reply

      Hi Pippa,

      I’m not sure if this would work for your child since you said bribery doesn’t usually work. You could try a sticker chart for a reward, prize, toy, special outing (anything that would motivate your child) and have a chart with each day of the week. Start small.. if she can fall asleep once for the week (have her place a sticker on that day to keep track), she gets a prize/reward. The next time, do two days, then three or four, and so on until she does a whole week and gets rewarded with a big prize! Hopefully by then it will be a habit and she will begin to fall asleep on her own.
      Also, having a special stuffed animal or blanket may help if she doesn’t have one already. You could try giving it a special name like “the sleepy time bunny/bear” or whatever animal interests her, and tell her that it is a special stuffed animal to help her sleep. Rubbing a few drops of calming essential oils (lavender, marjoram, sandalwood) on the stuffed animal may also help, and help to convince her that it is a special sleep time bear.
      Just some ideas, I hope they help!

    • Emma Says Reply

      Hello I have the same thing with my 17 month old, and lately after 3am he won’t sleep at all unless cuddled. Have you tried gradually watering the milk down a little (say 25% for a week then 50% etc). I’ve found this has helped a bit (he gets half strength formula at night). He’s also teething I think which throws things a bit, plus the crazy weather. But I would love to hear any advice you get too as I’m knackered! Good luck 🙂

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  5. Emily Says Reply

    Thank you!!
    Our 3yr old has always been a great sleeper (mothers at playgroup always envious!). But after a stressful period in our lives (including his Daddy spending 54 days in a psychiatric ward – he’s doing really well now, home for 3 months and still stable) getting our son to sleep became a real battle – it was taking us 3 hrs every night. It was exhausting and so incredibly stressful for us all.
    This article popped up in my FB news feed and I can honestly say it changed our lives. We went back to basics – spending quality time together, bedtime routine full of love and clear boundaries (2 books!) and making it a peaceful time.
    After 3 nights, I am happy to announce it took 30 mins (including books and cuddles), before my little man nodded off to sleep. Three nights of no tears for our son, no getting frustrated for us and no guilt for my hubby.
    Thank you!!

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  7. Yasmin Says Reply

    Hi there! Our awesome 2.4year old boy has always been quite the unsettled sleeper and most definitely an early riser but has always gone to bed pretty smoothly no matter where. We have a consistent bedtime even if we’re out, good routines and he is limited to 1hr day naps (as he was waking consistently between 445-530). Bedtime has become a nightmare taking 2hrs regularly. We have always fed or since he was older laid with him to sleep although he didn’t need it every time. Now he wants me to lay with him still but it seems to hype him up more and prolong the process. Gentle music worked for a while and me sitting at the end of the bed but now he just gets up and jumps like a kangaroo. I’m concerned he’s not getting enough sleep and he’s overtired constantly. His day nap is usually between 1230-130 and his bed time is around 7. At the moment he wakes anywhere between 530-7 as he’s going down so late. Any thoughts? Thanks 🙂

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