How to Handle Excessive Toddler Requests at Bedtime
“One more cup of water”
“One more big hug”
“One toy to bring to bed”
“I have to use the potty (again)”....
All of these are requests that I have heard several times, and if you are a toddler parent then I’m sure you have too! The hard part about these requests is that they can start small and innocent enough, and before you know it your children have drained 3 cups of water, gone to the bathroom 7 times, and there is hardly any room in their bed due to the overwhelming amount of toys that have taken over. It’s kind of like the “If you give a mouse a cookie approach”.
First off let’s squash a few rumors:
“It’s too late for us to change, we are in too deep!”
It’s NEVER too late to put up new boundaries with our children, especially if we notice that the routines we have in place are no longer working for the family as a whole. I know it can feel daunting, but I promise that humans, children included, are more than capable of change.
Every example I’ve listed at the beginning of this blog are not only phrases I have personally heard from my own boys, but they are requests I have given into – and eventually regretted.
“They are stalling bedtime because of an unmet need”
Of course, we want to make sure we are meeting all of your child’s needs (I’m sure you are already doing this!), but this isn’t the main reason that children stall at bedtime. Children Stall at bedtime because they want to be near you (*Enter immediate parent guilt here*)
There is NO need for guilt. Of COURSE your child wants to be near you. You are their favorite person in the whole world. Them avoiding separation is a healthy sign of attachment, you are doing things RIGHT. This is NOT, however, a sign of an unmet need. You can spend every minute of every day with your child, and they will still probably not want to separate from you. This is normal.
Most importantly, just because they don’t want to separate from you at bedtime doesn’t mean that you are harming them by putting these boundaries in place. Separation is a normal part of life.
Okay, let’s get to the solutions
The short story:
The solution, in theory, is really quite simple.
1. We are going to communicate our expectations and boundaries
2. We are going to meet their needs during the day
3. We are going to follow through on our expectations and boundaries
4. Repeat 😊
For a more thorough explanation, keep reading! (And don't leave without scrolling down to the bottom for a free download!)
PREPARE them for the change
I’m a big fan of communication when it comes to working with older children. I would be incredibly anxious if I were forced into change with no warning! Talk to your child about it! I recommend bringing it up the morning of your change (and potentially early in the afternoon too!).
You don’t want to bring it up DAYS before hand because:
1. Your toddler might forget
2. It can feel confusing and can bring up more anxiety around the situation
Bringing it up in the morning has its own benefits, Mainly because we, as parents, are a little more brave in the morning. We are not burnt out from the stress of the day and we are little more confident and “gung ho” about our parenting choices.
Once you bring it up, we MUST follow through. We have set the boundary and been clear about what the expectation is. There is nothing that breeds more anxiety than inconsistent parenting. Children LOVE knowing what to expect. It doesn’t mean that bedtime will be flawless and easy, but it does mean that our children are learning that if we say something, then we will follow through with it.
Meeting their needs BEFORE bedtime
It is confusing to know if we are holding our boundaries at bed time or if we are denying something they actually need. I have fallen prey to the “one more drink of water” request too many times because who wants to deny their child water?!
Well, let me reassure you – since we have put some boundaries in place my children have indeed NOT died of dehydration.
Meeting their needs before bedtime will look a little different depending on what the need is (and I KNOW toddlers can get creative!), but here are a few popular examples:
We are going to start here because, like I mentioned above, your child’s real desire is likely to be close to you. As parents we are going to do everything we can to top off those desires for connection before bedtime starts. I know the evenings are busy, so keep in mind that this time is all about quality over quantity.
1. Spend 10 minutes of one on one time with your child during the evening. Call it your “special time” and let your child decide what they want to do during it.
2. Have a bedtime routine (I know this sounds like a broken record coming from me, but I cannot stress enough how important this is!).
3. Eliminate screens (for everyone) 30 minutes before you start your bedtime routine. Turn off the TV, put down your phone, and just be present. Screens have their places in most households (mine included) but they do not offer many opportunities for connection.
4. Offer physical touch whenever you can. This is a simple one because it doesn’t have to be complicated! Whenever you see your child walk by, give them a hug, pat on the back, or a high five.
One more glass of water
The classic! I swear my boys drank their whole daily intake of water within a 20 minute time slot one time. That was the night I knew something had to change!
If your child is still in diapers, then you CAN offer some water at bedtime but be clear how much that will be! Again, you decide what this boundary is.
As for us, we fill one of their cups halfway full and give it to them to take into their room. We have made it clear (through repetition) that they will not get any more water after that.
We, of course, make exceptions when they are sick!
If your child is not in diapers any more then consider only offering small amounts of water after 5 PM. I knew one friend who would offer a “shot glass” size of water! At bedtime they would offer a similar amount.
It’s amazing how a toddler’s stomach will seem to grow at bedtime!
Our boundary is that we won’t have food at bedtime. If they say they are hungry once it’s bedtime then we reply “we will have breakfast in the morning”. However, if they seem hungry before bedtime then we will typically offer any leftover dinner!
We also are intentional about letting them know when bedtime is coming up and that they should take some last bites of food if they are hungry.
If there has been a serious lack of intake that day in regards to food (for whatever reason) we may offer a filling snack before bedtime starts (Bananas and peanut butter are our go to!). However, I advise against making this a habit every night because if your toddlers are anything like mine, they will hold out on dinner until they get to banana time.
I need to go potty!
Let me introduce you to the “double void”. If your child is potty trained then we are going to give them two chances to use the bathroom. Once before you start your routine, and once at the very end of your routine.
If this is a common issue then we also may want to consider limiting fluids before bed.
If your child is potty trained but currently wears diapers to bed then it’s okay to lay the boundary that we are all done using the potty once our night time diaper is on.
I need (another) hug or kiss
Well, nothing makes me melt more then my child asking for a hug or kiss… Except when it’s the 37th kiss of the night. For this one I have a unique suggestion.
Communicate when you are giving your last hug and kiss for the night and give them some choices with it! Let them have some control here. The script might sound a little like this:
Parent: “Okay for your last thing do you want a hug, a kiss or both?”
Parent: “Do you want 5 little hugs or one BIG hug”
If your child asks for more afterwards then I would reassure them that you will give them more hugs in the morning.
Expect Resistance the first 2-3 nights
Whenever you make changes or put-up new boundaries in life (not just with your children) You should prepare for resistance. Resistance is a normal and expected response to boundary setting.
It’s your child’s job to learn and test the boundaries
It’s your job to be calm and consistent when implementing your boundaries
But what if they really DO have a need….
Okay, I get it. These are all good ideas in theory, but what if we ARE denying an actual need. Have you ever tried to go to bed when you have to pee? No thank you!
Introducing: The bedtime pass
Offer your child a certain number of bedtime passes every night. These passes are good for: a drink of water, a snuggle, or a trip to the bathroom. Once the passes are used up then they are done!
I recommend you start with two passes! This is usually enough to meet their actual needs, but it’s not an excessive amount. When the passes are used, it should be brief, and then encouraged to return to bed. If your child runs out of passes at bedtime then simply send them back to bed.
I do not recommend taking the passes away over time. Eventually your child will out grow them and stop using them all together. Some professionals recommend removing the passes after your child stops using them – but this almost feels like a “punishment” for “good behavior”. This is why it’s especially important to start with a number of passes that is not excessive.
Another Tool: Use a Visual Timer
If you have been following me for a while then you know how much I love our visual timer. It was recommended to me by our occupational therapist and It's one of our best tools!
If struggling with bedtime battles then consider using one for bedtime! You can use it to count down when your bedtime routine starts so there are no surprises! We use this one (Affiliate link)
What bedtime excuses did I miss?
List them below and let’s see if we can work through a good boundary! Don't forget to download your free bedtime pass below!