Bedtime Routine Chart
my custom-designed chart for Emilia – in purple, naturally

Hallelujah, we’re sleeping again. I say we but really, I mean Emilia. After a months-long sleep battle saga, she is finally falling asleep on her own again without any drama or tears. We didn’t want to force the matter since we were transitioning from a crib to a “big girl bed” (a mattress on the floor) and also considering we’re expecting another baby in late spring, but this was a much needed development and I have one thing to thank: the bedtime routine chart.

But before I get into this saving grace, let me rewind and fill you in on the sleep struggle. A few months before E turned 2, she started to absolutely wail when we put her down awake in her crib at nap and bedtime. Now she’d been put down awake for months and sleeping soundly from 7-7 every day, so this was worrisome. I turned to friends and family and mom groups on Facebook for insight and heard from nearly everyone that this was totally normal as we approached age two and might be a cue to start the transition to a toddler bed.

If I’m being honest, we weren’t keen on this since the crib is such a comfort that she’s safe while she sleeps and we didn’t want her to feel ousted from her sleeping space once her baby sister arrives on the scene this summer. But then she started to throw her leg up over the side and the decision was made.

At first, the excitement of the bed helped her and we were able to rock her to sleep to the Moana soundtrack and then snuggle, sit with, or hold her until she fell asleep in the bed, and that worked OK for a few weeks. But then came the resistance and the requests to be rocked to sleep in her glider. The bedtime routine used to take 15 minutes tops and we’d have her down by 7 PM but for months in late winter, she wasn’t even remotely looking sleepy until about 8 PM and then we’d spend an hour to an hour and a half negotiating with her to lay in her bed. Often this required my husband to lay silently in her bed until she stopped yelling at him to get up and hold her, when she’d give up and snuggle up next to him and conk out after about 15-20 minutes of tossing and turning and flailing.

It was rough times to say the least.

After a lot of reading and research, the chart came into play along with a few environmental and behavioral changes I eased Emilia into thanks to a 2-week, daily sleep course I took through a fellow mom and sleep specialist. Environmental factors include things like: taking into consideration the sleep space — is it dark, cool, etc as well as things like making sure I’m feeding her sleep-inducing foods leading up to nap and bedtime. And behavioral ones — like ensuring we have had quality one-on-one time prior to sleep and utilizing comforting phrases and strategies to reassure her if she seems panicky about where we’re disappearing to once we leave the room.

First, I made sure her naps weren’t extending too late into the afternoon since this affects what’s called “sleep pressure.” I couldn’t expect her to be sleepy at 7 PM if she’s waking from a two hour nap at 4 0r 4:30 PM! Duh. It seems so obvious now. So keep in mind that you want your toddler to be awake for increasingly longer and longer chunks of the day as you approach bedtime.

We’re still working towards getting her back to our ideal schedule, which would be a 7PM-7AM schedule, but we’re making progress. The biggest hurdle was cutting out the nightly dance routine in which we’d throw the Moana soundtrack on the iPod and she’d “dance” with both my husband and I for a few songs and then be put down to sleep drowsy or actually already asleep. The bedtime routine chart helped SO much with this.

I also have Daniel Tiger to thank in part for the “grown-ups come back” song. I probably sing that song 4-5 times a day depending on what we have scheduled. I try to get to the gym a few times a week and bring Emilia with me to the play center so she gets some time to socialize with other kids her age and I can squeeze a workout in — or just get a break for an hour if pregnancy is totally wearing me out, which has been often as I’ve progressed through my third trimester. But I’ve found that in doing my drop-off, whispering to her “I’ll ALWAYS come back” and always requesting the same hug and kiss and then quickly exiting with a see you later has caused her to become the model drop off at my gym. There are no tears, no throwing herself against the glass door as she cries for me. It’s very respectful. I think that acknowledging that kids at this age do have fears about separation anxiety and reminding them regularly that you will come back, and then again, once you do come back that you did what you said you’d do is enormously reassuring for them. I’ve read so many articles about routine and the benefits of predictability with toddlers and can only speak from my own experience and I’ve found that it really does do wonders as far as easing the usual toddler tantrums we’ve come to expect from “the terrible twos.”

So the strategy we used to get E to start to fall asleep on her own again involved really paying attention to the environment and behavioral changes I mentioned earlier for about a week or so, and then presenting her with a laminated routine chart that we refer to at nap and bedtime for week two. I didn’t create a separate chart for nap time, we just point her to the last two sections since we abbreviate the routine for daytime, and so far have had no issue.

Once she’s progressed through all the elements of the routine, which I prompt her through using a “one, two, three” and a finger snap if I find she’s dilly-dallying (usually during toy cleanup, when she rediscovers her favorites and wants to play) but it’s been a breeze to keep her focused just by continuing to refocus her attention on what’s next on the chart.

In true toddler fashion, she tries to negotiate at every step, but especially once we get to the story time piece. Since we keep a massive book library accessible in her room, this was a very quick fix.  Instead of continuing to negotiate back with her, I just removed all the books from the shelf and left the two we are loving right now — and that’s that. I’ll cycle through a few different ones but right now she is loving Waiting for Baby and Everywhere Babies, which — well, for obvious reasons, we want to encourage her with since we’re trying to prepare her to be a big sister soon.

But as far as her negotiating with us for other things, I just completely ignore the requests. If she mentions Moana, I refer to the chart. If it’s not on the chart, it’s not happening. Simple. By not even speaking to Moana, I think we’re eliminating any confusion over who is in charge, which we’d not realized months ago. The problem was, my husband and I both really liked the soundtrack and singing and dancing with our daughter before bed was such a sweet way to unwind. It wasn’t a problem until it was essentially. Any by then, Emilia was calling the shots and we were just too exhausted to put up a fight.

Another big one I still get is for me to snuggle with her once I put her down into her bed. It kills me not to dive in next to her because, I mean… she’s adorable and there’s nothing like having her hook her little arm around my neck and pull me in, nose-to-nose and feel her breath on my face, but I just remind myself that this is a skill she has to learn and it’s not helping her for me to be weak in this one moment. So I stick to the script and give her a kiss and a hug, tuck her blanket snuggly around her, remind her that “I’ll ALWAYS come back” and then finish with, “I’ll come back and check on you.” Plus, we get in plenty of daytime snuggles. Then the key in the beginning was to not wait for her to cry out, “MAMA COME BACK” before I burst back in the room to assess how she’s doing and give her another kiss, hug and repeat my sleep phrase — “I’ll always come back.” The next round is usually daddy and then we are done!

In the beginning, we’d listen at the door in between intervals (we’d do more than the two I described above) but we’d kill ourselves laughing at her faux-crying, “Mama, come baaaack.” It was 100% protesting and every time I went in, I’d confirm with chagrin that there were, in fact, no tears at all on her face. We was totally playing us.

I do think that there is something to be said for knowing your child though. If I didn’t know Emilia and have a very good handle on her temperament and what she requires as far as autonomy versus support and care, I might not feel as comfortable with this interval strategy.

All this to say (knock on wood) that I think we are out of the woods as far as the sleep drama and I have the sleep chart largely to thank. I’m going to share the one I created for Emilia for free on Pinterest, but am thinking of offering some customized ones on my Etsy shop as well if interested.

Let me know if you have had luck implementing a bedtime routine chart, I’d love to hear success stories.


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