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The Toddler Bedtime Routine

I’ve been surprised by how difficult the adjustment to having two children is emotionally. I expected to be tired, harried, and any number of other things, but I did not expect to be sad. I’m not talking about the baby blues here, either. While I treasure and love our sweet baby boy just as much as I always have his sister, I find that I’m mourning the loss of all the one-on-one time I used to have with Annabelle. As she has grown up, one of the biggest parenting challenges we’ve had with her has revolved around sleep, so it’s funny that the salve for my growing and aching mama heart would be bedtimes with my girl. Bedtime has become my favorite part of the day with Annabelle, and these days it’s not (just) because I’m so exhausted from the day that I can’t wait for her to be asleep. Mostly, it’s the one time during the day when I can relax and spend time with just Annabelle, and I treasure it. The road to get here was long, and we still encounter bumps along the way, but we have a pretty darn pleasant bedtime routine going at the moment.

Ever since I realized months and months ago that a consistent, earlier bedtime was needed, we’ve been having dinner at a regular time – around six if Annabelle had a good nap, and closer to five if she didn’t sleep during the day. Once we finish eating, Annabelle goes directly to the bath and then brushes her teeth, contemplates pajamas (she’s a bit of a nudist most of the time), and then hops in bed to start winding down. I nurse her first, and recount some of the things we did during the day.

After nursing, we take out our bedtime book basket. For these books I have a few favorites, but rely mostly on the library. Whatever the source, I keep two to four books in the basket depending on length. My criteria are pretty simple: I like for them to be about something bedtime related, to end with a child going to bed, or to simply have a relaxing rhythm or story line. These books only come out at bedtime and I switch them out every couple of weeks. I’m particular enough about the whole thing that I usually read them in a certain order, starting with an engaging story and ending with a peaceful, relaxing one. No matter the books or the order, I find that reading slowly in a near whisper achieves the desired effect most of the time anyhow.

Once we finish reading, Annabelle takes one more trip to the restroom while I darken the bedroom and light a lavender scented candle on the nightstand. She tends to get a bit silly on the bathroom trip and with the way she fights sleep, seems to benefit from this continual dance of letting her do her thing and then providing her with something that calms and invites rest. Walking into a dark room is seldom inviting, but the burning candle definitely makes it so, and of course lavender is a calming scent. Annabelle climbs into bed and we recite a poem/verse. I plan to find others when and if she seems to tire of our current pick, but for now it’s “Goodnight Earth”, which I found via Kelly, here. At the end, Annabelle says, “Goodnight, Earth!” and blows out the candle.

Finally, I turn on a song or a story for her to fall asleep by. We have gone back and forth with music over the past year. At first, it was Celtic Lullabybut Annabelle never did love that as much as I do, so we moved on to Indigo Dreams bedtime stories. That is still in the rotation and includes several wonderful, relaxing stories. My only complaint is that a couple of minutes of soft music follow each story at such a low volume that you have to strain to hear. Having this break every few minutes seems to get Annabelle’s wheels turning again and actually interfere with her falling asleep sometimes. Recently, I downloaded the “Toddler Sleepy Time” track from Hypnobabies since Annabelle had so enjoyed listening to the birth preparation recordings with me while I was pregnant. She seems to enjoy it, so we’re still playing it, but it definitely is not my style. It walks children through some relaxing visualizations, which is great, but some involve a fairy and her “magical fairy dust,” and other things we didn’t really want to introduce into our Montessori home just yet. It works, though, so there’s that.

I sit with Annabelle for the first couple of minutes of her song or story and then tuck her in and say goodnight. She seems to be much more okay with my leaving when I let her know ahead of time when I’ll go. Of course time is still pretty abstract, so I always let her know that I’ll be leaving at a certain part in the story or the song and that does the trick. As for tucking her in, somehow we started a thing where she asks to be wrapped, “like a burrito” meaning I wrap a blanket fully around her nice and snug. I have two sarongs from Guam life that are perfect for this since they’re thin and wrap easily. When the sarong can’t be located, I go with the standby and tuck her “like a taco,” by tucking the duvet under her on either side.

The whole thing sounds awfully involved, but when a child who used to take two hours or more to fall asleep is out within half an hour most nights, it’s worth it. She’s so much happier when she’s rested! Plus I get to hang out with her through the whole thing, which is pretty sweet.

13 Responses to The Toddler Bedtime Routine

  • Melanie says:

    Thanks so much for this Melissa! When did Annabelle transition from falling asleep at the breast to laying down and going to sleep? Right now our sleep routine involves bath, brush teeth, story, then what I call our “wrestling match” wriggling around nursing on one side than the other going on and off the bed, chattering about our day – sometimes for hours before finally drifting off. What I like about your process is that A is much more of an active participant in the process.

    • melissa says:

      I’m so glad it was helpful, Melanie! Your “wrestling match” sounds exactly like what we were doing some months ago and it drove me crazy. I love bedtime snuggles, but the wriggling and switching just got to be too much after so long each night.

      My memory is a little fuzzy on the transition from nursing to sleep, to nursing then sleep. I remember there was a point around the time she was one and a half when I decided I really needed A to be able to go to sleep with her dad, too, so we made a deliberate effort to involve him in the bedtime routine and start trading off, but that may not have been complete until we night weaned when she was about 20 months. At that point I had a little chat with A and told her that we were going to start having milk on the couch first, and then going to bed, and that once we were in bed, the milk was not going to be available until morning. I wrote about our night weaning process here: not sure if that’s helpful or not :)

      • Melanie says:

        My daughter is 17 months and we are on the fence about if she is developmentally ready for night weaning yet. She wakes up in the morning and happily declares that she had “milkie all night”, than says “thank-you Mama”. Ill keep you updated on our progress and thank-you again! Its nice to ready about a family with similar beliefs about parenting. :)

        • melissa says:

          How sweet that she thanks you for milk! I’m sure that you’ll work out if/when she’s ready – I hope you find a routine that works for everyone soon. Thanks so much for saying hello and sharing with me. xo

  • Wow, I feel like this is just the post I need! My son sounds a lot like Annabelle in terms of resisting sleep, especially in the wake of major changes, so I am encouraged that you have found a routine that is joyful and effective even after the arrival of your son. Our second baby arrives in a few months, so I have a lot of anxiety about this. Thank you for giving so much detail about your routine. It gives me a lot of ideas to try!

    • melissa says:

      I’m so glad it was helpful, Leanna. I’ll be thinking of you as you add your second. It has been a challenging transition for us, but it’s full of so much goodness, so all of the challenges are worth it. I can’t wait to read about life after your new baby! :)

  • You are such a sweet, gentle and purposeful mom! Even though I don’t have little ones anymore, I still learn a lot from you! I know what you mean about the sadness. Being a mom is the most awesomest (I know that’s not really a word!) thing that I have ever done but I must admit it has had its bittersweet moments, like letting them grow up!!

    I can see that you are a very busy mom, but I am hoping that you will write a guest post for me to include on my {About You} page. If that is something you think you would like to do I would be honored. Just let me know, thanks!

  • I am totally doing the scented candle routine immediately. I think this would help my children get to sleep quicker. Thanks for reminding about about soft music too. Sometimes I forget just because they are older dosen’t mean I can’t add a bit of “magic” to bedtime. When they are older they still want to resist bedtime too. I rather have the thirty minutes of pleasure, then the hour worth of fake trips to the bathroom. Thank you so much!!

  • Amy says:

    You have a beautiful routine! I’ve read so much about integrating music into our routine, and I’d really love too. But, I’ve been fearful because typically Q-ball wants to get up and dance and jump when she hears music. Soon, however, I think I’ll try it. And, i love the aromatherapy mix! I have never heard of this!

    And, I can imagine the sadness involved with losing one-on-one time. It will be interesting to see how we learn to adapt and appreciate new times and memories.

  • Rach says:

    This is such a lovely post, it made me cry a bit. You are so tender with her. Change can be sad can’t it, you are so wise to acknowledge and embrace the present heartache. These things pass and change. Also maybe a tiny lessening of mama intensity is good for the little uns ultimately, I dunno.
    I must reinstitute the candle, it lasted about a week here. Also music/story might be just the thing for B too. The bedtime shenanigans sound familiar to say the least!

  • What a sweet, sweet bedtime ritual. Glad that you and Annabelle have that.

  • I’m not glad to hear that you’re having some blue moments about your loss of time with Annabelle, but I’m glad that you’re writing about it – because it’s been the thing I’ve been worried about the most about (maybe) having another child. My heart is so full for this first one – what happens when that relationship changes? And our bedtime ritual is one of the things I’ve been wondering/worrying about. How do you have the sweet snuggle time when you have two to get into bed? Anyway, thanks as always for your honesty in posting. I’m reading and watching with interest as you learn how to manage two!

  • This sounds like a wonderfully calming routine, so much so that I feel more relaxed after reading it ;) Sleep is a constant struggle in our household too, and I am definitely going to use a few of your ideas here, thank you!

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