Toddler Stall Tactics at Bedtime

Nutrition, Behavior & More · Toddler Sleep

You’ve probably seen one of those hilarious memes that reads something along the lines of: “At bedtime, my children turn into dehydrated philosophers who need a hug.” Why is it so funny? Because it is so relatable to so many of us as parents! Toddler stall tactics are REAL!

While they may be developmentally appropriate, they don’t need to derail your family’s whole night.

Why do stall tactics begin?

In all honesty, we can’t blame our children for trying. It is literally part of toddler development. As kiddos age, the growing sense of autonomy becomes apparent. It is absolutely normal for little ones to try to use their words and behavior to elicit varying responses from the people around them, especially those in authority.

Some of our most persistent, strong-willed toddlers are especially willing to “play the lottery.” And if they win the “lottery” (even just once!), research says some little ones are willing to try that up to 77 more times. You probably have that sweet child’s face in mind as you’re reading this, the King or Queen of Toddler Stall Tactics in your world…

How can we curb stall tactics at sleep times?

Whether your child is asking for another drink of water, their 973rd snack, or a 14th opportunity to use the potty, you can set realistic limits without engaging in battle. In order to do so, you do not have to ignore your child. In fact, the desire to acknowledge requests is natural. However, remember the expectations you simultaneously want to instill. If we fail to set limits in concise ways, bedtime routine will snowball into being 29 steps long and become an unsustainable length.

Toddlers will use just about anything to delay sleep times. Toddler stall tactics can pop in at both nap time and bedtime, but as parents, we have a choice in whether or not we allow them to work!

Here’s our top 4 tips for navigating toddler bedtimes when they have other ideas in mind…

1. Routine

Have a predetermined bedtime routine with clear, concise steps. This routine should ensure that all physical AND emotional needs are met before saying goodnight. That way, you account for EVERYTHING your child could “need” before even getting in bed! Getting cleaned up, going potty, and having a nice time of engagement with a caregiver to read together are common, effective parts of sleep routines.

Often times, providing the step by step routine in a brief visual form, using a chart or even a social story, allows your child to take ownership. Visuals also help children get excited! It helps tremendously to have a third-party source to reference, providing clarity and consistency.

Here is an example:

  • Take a bath.
  • Put on pajamas.
  • Brush teeth.
  • Read 2 books.
  • Go potty.
  • Goodnight hugs.
  • Lights off!

Stall tactics can appear as seemingly harmless requests but can lead to problems at the end of the day. A clear routine allows you to check off all the boxes: Your little one is clean, has time to interact with you, has an empty bladder, and has a full metaphorical cup before the night begins.

2. Choice

Incorporating choice allows for an intentional opportunity for your child to exert autonomy. Implement choice both during the day and within the bedtime routine to help make things run more smoothly. During the day, allowing your child to choose a preferred activity for one-on-one time is ideal. One-on-one time will allow your child to feel connected to you and less likely to seek attention at bedtime, which is another reason we can see these stall tactics crop up!

As bedtime nears, you can ask if your little one would prefer bubbles or no bubbles in the bath. When it’s time to dry off and get dressed, allow your child to choose between two pairs of pajamas. At reading time, offer your kiddo the chance to choose which book(s) — but not how many! (Pro tip: Keep the quantity defined in advance to avoid another famous toddler stall tactic.) After goodnight hugs, you can even ask: “Who is turning off the light today: you or Mommy?” Increasing your little one’s ability to choose doesn’t have to be time-consuming.

Age-appropriate choice is a great thing, and toddlers LOVE it! Be sure the choices are things you are okay with either option because it is not helpful to ask your child for an opinion and then negate the decision. Further, avoid overwhelm; don’t offer too many options at once.

3. Boundaries

Just as it is normal for children to try to bend boundaries, it should be normalized for parents to hold boundaries. Young children thrive with structure, routine, and clearly defined boundaries because they like to see the world in black and white! When we shift boundaries and things feel more gray, insecurity increases. When we hold boundaries, we empower our children.

You may be asking HOW to hold boundaries, particularly at bedtime, so we invite you to keep reading because toddler stall tactics give us the opportunity to do just that…

4. Language

The basis of effective communication with a toddler set on negotiating is to remove the bargaining altogether. My go-to line in communicating with toddlers (especially tired toddlers!) is “Respond with empathy, but do NOT change the boundary.” That is why #3 and #4 on our list of top strategies go hand in hand.

As a parent myself, trust me when I say — it works! Instead of ignoring your child’s requests, giving in out of exasperation, or repeatedly saying “no,” reframe when they will be appropriate. Let’s practice some of this language in relation to what you really might hear at bedtime when these toddler stall tactics set in. That way you can identify BOTH the empathy AND the boundary as it applies to your own kiddos’ requests.

Tired Toddler: “Mommy, I want one more book!”
Mom: “Mommy loves to read to you, too.” (empathy) “We have finished our 2 books for tonight, but I cannot wait to read to you again tomorrow.” (boundary)

Tired Toddler: “Daddy, I forgot to tell you about a new toy I saw that I really want to get. It is…”
Dad: “Daddy would love to hear about the cool toy you saw, and I bet you really liked it.” (empathy) “Right now, it is bedtime, so Daddy can’t come back to talk, but I’ll look forward to hearing about it when you wake up!”

Tired Toddler: “Mooooooommmmmm, I need another hug!”
Mom: “I absolutely love your hugs. You’re the best hugger!” (empathy) “We have already done our goodnight hugs, so I’ll be excited to give you a good morning hug when your clock turns on.”

Do you see how that pattern works? Be both empathetic and completely predictable in not shifting the expectations. Bedtime is bedtime. Establishing limits is not mean. The “Empathy-Boundary Dance” is a delicate line that ensures our kiddos know exactly what to expect.

Note that no one is raising voices in these conversations. There’s no anger or (visible) frustration in these interactions. CALM is key! With this clear, consistent, kind way of handling toddler stall tactics at sleep times, you never question what to say. In the same way, your toddler will never wonder if they’re going to get away with accumulating requests. Be persistent, and through repetition, your little one will learn.

Say goodnight once and for all.

Toddler stall tactics can happen to any of us, but they don’t have to become a nightly struggle. With both prep work (i.e. routines and choice) AND effective “in the moment” tools (i.e. boundaries and language), you can overcome them. We simply don’t allow repeated curtain calls to work for our little humans because we genuinely believe that protecting their sleep is worth the work!

If you need one-on-one assistance setting your children up for success and building their confidence to sleep independently, reach out. Our team can provide personalized visuals, walk you through the entire process step by step, and guide you through the challenges. Let’s eliminate the nap time negotiations and bedtime battles for good!

By Katie Pitts, Founder & CEO of Sleep Wise Consulting

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