How to Make a Toddler Sleepy by Wearing Them Out Before Bed

Exertion helps wear a child out, but there’s no better way to help them sleep than a firm and regular sleep ritual.

by Matthew Utley

Problems with infant sleep are very typical. But even toddlers and school-aged kids can develop poor sleep habits. Time zone changes during a vacation, daylight savings, even just seasonal summertime evenings can make it hard for kids to settle down at an appropriate time. Luckily there is a way to help a kid get tuckered out and sleep tight.

The big key to making kids more receptive to a regular bedtime is getting them to exert themselves during the day with games and activities. “It’s totally worth it to wear toddlers out before bedtime,” stresses clinical sleep psychologist Lynelle Schneeberg, a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Yale School of Medicine. “I think the best way to do this is to offer lots of outdoor play or any type of ‘large motor’ play. Physical exercise deepens sleep and also relieves stress and frustration, which all toddlers certainly have.”

It isn’t that exercise and exertion is a bedtime activity – Schneeberg recommends avoiding it in the hour before the bedtime ritual starts – but it can certainly help make bedtime easier. When kids exert themselves doesn’t necessarily dictate how weary they are unless they are still taking naps. The level of exertion, on the other hand, even hours before bedtime, can really exhaust kids. Swimming can be very draining, and usually, the pool is so much fun kids don’t notice. In order to capitalize on this end-of-day weariness, though, parents need to stick to the bedtime rituals that cue children into when bedtime has actually arrived.

How to Tire Out a Toddler Before Bed

  • Active play that really engages the gross motor skills of a child can help make them weary by the end of the day. It doesn’t have to be outside, but it does have to be exertion.
  • Exercise is not a bedtime activity; parents should avoid encouraging energetic play the last hour before the bedtime ritual starts.
  • Bedtime rituals are key; they help even an energized kid recognize when bedtime is coming and help them mentally prepare for it, so over-tired kids can adjust and go to sleep more easily.
  • The end must be clear, otherwise tired kids are going to keep pushing for parental interaction and miss the signals that parents are losing their patience.

“I encourage parents to use the same relaxing routine done in the same order each night so that this routine begins to ‘cue’ sleep and relaxation,” advises Schneeberg. “I usually recommend what I’ve nicknamed the Five Bs: bedtime bite (just a snack in the kitchen), bath, brush teeth, bathroom trip, and books read with a timer to mark the end of the routine.”

Rituals can be any number of things – turning lights off or minimizing blue light exposure, playing music, cooling down with meditation or yoga, or simply getting ready to read a book — but they have to be routine and consistent. Like any habit, sleep habits need to be repeated to be effective. It also needs to send a clear message to kids about what behavior is expected of them. In the Five Bs, the sound of the timer makes it pretty clear that parent-child interaction is over and it is time for sleep. That’s a pretty important part of getting kids to regulate their own behavior.

“Kids get more excited and worked up if they can’t tell when their bedtime routine with a parent is actually over,” explains Schneeberg. “They do this because this keeps a parent around and engaged. Unfortunately, without a clear endpoint, most kids will keep stalling and making extra requests as long as possible, and the endpoint to the bedtime routine becomes the moment when parents finally lose their patience.”

That’s not a great way to end the evening, and a loud and energetic display of annoyance may key up a tired kid into an overtired nightmare. Instead, Schneeberg suggests, after the end of the bedtime ritual, parents should get really, really boring. Pretend to be sleepy themselves. Keep the lights turned low in the house for a little bit. Avoid noisy jobs like loading the dishwasher. If kids have had a full day of play and exertion, it won’t take parent very long of staying quiet until the kids are sound asleep.