How to Get Child to Sleep in Their Own Bed: calming bedtime activities for toddler and preschool-aged children

For children who refuse to go to bed, get scared or display other challenging behaviors when bedtime approaches.
Photo by Simon Matzinger on

“Is your child too worried to sleep? Twenty to thirty percent of school-aged children struggle to get to sleep and stay asleep all night, and anxiety is a common culprit. When kids don’t sleep, parents don’t sleep, and your whole household becomes an overtired, cranky mess”

Children’s MD

Calming Bedtime Activities to do with your Child: Toddlers and Preschoolers

Imagine you are forced to sleep at a motel in a very dangerous neighborhood. You are on the ground floor and keep hearing noises. You are paranoid, worried, and likely not sleeping. I know I wouldn’t be able to get into a deep sleep unless I had reassurance that I was going to be safe all night. This is how young children feel when they start sleeping alone in their own bed. It is a new sleeping environment without the comfort and security of sleeping in the same room as your parents.

Going to bed alone can cause anxiety and fear in young children. Being along in the dark for a long period of time can lead them to worrying and longing to be with you or others. They also will be wondering what you are up to and how long it will be until it is time to get up. Doing a special bedtime activity with your child can help calm their mind and prepare them for going to bed before it is actually time to get into bed. Here are some ideas for calm nighttime activities to do with toddler and preschool-aged children:


1. Reading Together

This is an obvious activity, but provides a great bonding experience. Allow your child to pick out one or two books for you to read with them. If your child has a hard time deciding, give them two options of books and let them decide on one. Giving them choices allows them to feel like they have power and independence. Try to talk in a quiet or soothing voice. You can also rub their head or back to add in an additional calming factor.

We recommend reading books with calm plots, preferably about nighttime or going to sleep. Here is a list of a few we love (click to see more about each book):

Keep reading to learn more ways about incorporating books into other calming activities.

2. Bedtime Spa

Spa days are relaxing for us as adults, but they are also very calming for children. Having a special spa time for your child before bed can help build a stronger emotional bond and also instill calmness for both you and your child.

Sample bedtime spa: Start with a bath. Warm baths are calming and can be a great way to introduce the “bedtime spa”. Many parents and caregivers have had great results putting essential oils in their child’s bath, especially lavender oil. After the bath you can put their cozy jammies on and head to bed.

You can help build up the anticipation and excitement for bedtime by making bath bombs, DIY face masks or other fun bath time goodies. Letting kids create their own bedtime items helps give them a more positive outlook on bedtime and makes it more enjoyable for them.

Bring some child-safe lotion and begin give them a relaxing massage while they are paying down. Make sure to choose areas that are not ticklish (this will cause them to become energized). We recommend massaging their hands and arms with lotion; feel free to add more lavender oil, and then massaging their head (without lotion) . If your child wants to give you a massage, allow them to, it will still be a calm bonding activity.

Massages have been showed to have various benefits for children, including:

  • Increased dopamine (the hormone that makes you happy)
  • Decreased cortisol (the hormone which leads to feelings of stress)
  • Improved quality of sleep
  • Increased concentration
  • Improved quality of sleep
  • Building relationships

You can also use this time as an everyday learning moment: talk about the benefits of massage… improved blood circulation, reducing stress, muscle tension and building relationships. These may seem like big words for little kids, but children can take in more than you would expect.

You can also tell or read stories to your child while they are getting a relaxing massage (or while they are giving you one). The more books and words your child hears in the first 5-years of their life, the stronger vocabulary and academic success they will have in the future. There are always little moments to incorporate reading or language development. 

IMPORTANT!! Making spa time ONLY part of a bedtime routine helps make bedtime more positive and special. If your child asks to do it during the day, talk to them about how it’s a special bedtime activity and try not to cave. Being consistent with when you do certain activities and having a concrete routine will help your child tremendously.

3. Yoga and Stretching

You do not have to be an experienced Yogi to do yoga with your child. Basic stretching and yoga with young children has been shown to:

  • Increase body and mind awareness
  • Encourages healthy habits
  • Improves focus
  • Instills calmness
  • Supports positive mental health
  • Can help alleviate ADHD symptoms

If you do not know where to start with yoga for children, we recommend these child-friendly yoga poses.   Click here.

During each pose make sure you are having your child focus on their breathing and how their body feels.

You can also incorporate reading into the bedtime yoga:

Have your child hold each pose for a certain amount of time while you are reading to them. For example, have your child do one yoga pose per page (or multiple pages if there are not a lot of words on each page). Before you turn the page have them take three deep breaths while holding their pose and then move on to the next page and pose. Encourage them to close their eyes and imagine the story in their head as well.

4. Have a CONSISTENT Routine

I cannot emphasize this enough. Routines are boring for adults, but they are essential for children. Benefits for having a consistent daily routine at home include:

  • Increased autonomy/ independence. When children are confident about what is going to happen during the day, they are able to regulate their emotions better and focus on learning new skills rather than worrying about where they will be going in the next five minutes.
  • Lowered anxiety. Again, similar to increased independence… when kids know how each day is going to play out, their minds won’t worry and wonder as much.
  • Less tantrums and challenging behaviors.

If you don’t use your routine and plan consistently, you won’t see a lot of change in your child’s behavior. You need to be intention with your planning and think about how certain activities and events will impact your child’s daily routine and sleep schedule. Obviously plans change so it is okay to occasionally change it for a day if needed, but try to go back to your regular routine as so as possible.

Sand timers are one of my favorite tools to use with children in early childhood. They allow you to set clear and consistent expectations with your child.

Since young children have a hard time conceptualizing how much time has passed, you can use sand timers so that your children have a nice visual and can track time. Here are some examples of how to use sand timers to help with your bedtime routine at home:

  • Before heading up to start getting ready for bed and doing your special activities, set out a 5 minute timer so that your child has a few moments to have closure with whatever they were doing before and mentally prepare themselves to move onto the next part of their routine.
  • There are sand timers that run for 5, 10, and 30 minutes (and others). Using a 20-minute timer for your bedtime activity is a great way to prepare your child for when you are leaving the room. If your child is having a more challenging evening, you can get out a 5 minute one to give them a little extra time.

5. Help Your Child Feel Less Lonely and Anxious with Long Distance Hugs and Kisses

Photo by Kelly Rabie on

Letting your child know you are close by and thinking of them can help slow his or hers mind down and allow them to feel more secure being alone in their room. This is. One way you can do a “Long Distance Kiss” is by using essential oils. Again, we recommend lavender but you can do whichever oil you like. Place a drop of oil on the inside of your child’s wrist or elbow and place a drop on yourself in the same spot. Explain to them that this helps you to be connected when you are not in the same room together. All they have to do is smell the oil and it will help them feel connected to you, especially knowing that you have it too.

There are kid-safe lavender oils that are easy to apply! (Consult with your doctor before trying any essential oils).

You can also use this strategy for other times that your child is feeling anxious, such as when they go to school or are with a babysitter.

Final Thoughts

Make sure to do these special activities at bedtime or during other times that your child displays challenging behaviors. Overusing them will make them less special and impactful. Knowing that they get to partake in these special moments with you in bed can help them look forward to it and encourage positive bedtime behaviors.

If you want help from one of our behavior specialists on making an individualized plan for your specific child’s needs, email us at to schedule a consultation. Or fill out the forum below and one of our Behavior Experts with get back to you shortly.

Enter your email below to get more information on the importance of routines in early childhood and learn how to create a routine that works best for your kid.

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