What is a good bedtime routine for a toddler?

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What is a good bedtime routine for a toddler?  I keep hearing that our almost two year old should have a routinge, but it seems like every night winds up being different.  Once he’s in bed he goes to sleep pretty easily, but getting him there can be a drag, and the time he goes to sleep is sometimes later than we want.  There’s not a lot of time in the evening to do all we want--we’re both working parents--but there has to be a way that goes better than what we are doing now.

A good bedtime routine is just that--a series of activities that can be followed consistently.  Routines are important because they are constant and predictable and don’t require much thought.  That’s really important to children, especially when they are young.  Evening routines give them a feeling of security because they know that there will be a predictable time and manner in which they go to bed, Some toddlers will even add their own touches to the routine a parent provides.  Your toddler may want you to fix his blanket a certain way, say “I love you” in a  or close the door to exactly the same angle as you whisper your last goodnight to him.

Is it possible that you are trying to do too much?  To be consistent, bedtime routines should be fairly short, twenty to thirty minutes at most.  A good routine might include settling down, getting into pajamas, brushing teeth,  one short book or maybe a story you make up rather than read, a soothing song or prayer, and special words to accompany your good night kiss.  

You may be thinking, "But what about bath?  You’ve left out time for reading! How can we read our usual three or four books in such a short time?  I love our bedtime routine even though it takes an hour and a half!”

You don’t HAVE eliminate any evening activities that you enjoy.  But if you make them part of an essential routine that you want to be predictable and consistent, you won’t have any flexibility.  Even if you love to spend time with your child every evening, there will be times when you’d like to play outside after dinner or have friends come for dinner and stay late.  If your toddler is still expecting a bedtime routine that includes playing with his toys,  a twenty minute bath, four books, a cuddle in the rocking chair, a glass of water, and a story about his day while you sit by his crib, you’ll end the evening with a tired, frustrated child and maybe even a tantrum.

Instead of training your toddler to expect the exact same sequence of activities throughout the entire evening ,keep some of your earlier time together flexible. For example,  if one evening you have extra time to read, tell your child that he can choose three extra books to read with you before it’s time to get ready for bed.  After you've read the three extra books, take a short break, finish getting into pajamas, and then tell him, "Now it’s time for your bedtime stories and songs."  That way, your child can separate his “extra” reading time from his bedtime routine and you’ll avoid protests and negotiations for more books the next night. 

Meg Zweiback is a pediatric nurse practitioner in Oakland, California