This is a common problem, but it’s fixable.
First, make sure your daughter isn’t sleeping too long
during the day. By age 2½ or 3, most toddlers begin to need less daytime sleep. If children snooze the afternoon away, they may not be tired enough to fall asleep at bedtime. If your daughter is taking a long afternoon nap, dial it down to under two hours.
The second step is to make sure her bedtime is right for her. Toddlers should generally go to bed between 6 and 8 p.m., but every child is different. If it’s too early or too late, she’ll have trouble dozing off. If she acts hyper, silly or wired, she may be overtired and need to hit the sack earlier.
On the other hand, if she seems happy and spends a long time talking to herself or playing with her toys before falling asleep, she may not be tired enough and need a later bedtime. Experiment by moving it earlier or later by up to 30 minutes until you find the sweet spot: the time she falls asleep with the least resistance and sleeps well through the night.
Next comes the learning curve: Your child needs to learn to fall asleep without you in the doorway. To accomplish this, put a digital clock in her bedroom (so you can see it in the dark while you’re standing at the door). The first two nights, stand there like you always do, until she is deeply asleep—look for deep, even breathing and slack limbs. Check the clock to see how long the entire process took. On the third night, stand there just as before, but trim two minutes off the time you stand there. Each night, continue to leave her room just a minute or two earlier than the night before. If she wakes and asks for you, return her to bed with as little fuss as possible, and repeat the process: Stand in her doorway for your predetermined length of time, then quietly leave.
I recommend tracking this process with a digital clock because it’s easy to lose track of time while in a dark room (and five minutes can seem like an eternity), and the clock can help make a frustrating process measurable—and manageable.
How long does it take to establish a bedtime routine?
It takes three weeks to build a new habit, so stick with it, and your new routine will be second nature soon enough.
For babies and toddlers, it’s especially important to consistently do the exact same things (take a bath, brush teeth and read) in exactly the same order each night. This sequence is scientifically proven to trigger sleep in both humans and animals.
For preschoolers and older kids, consistency is important, too, but it’s also vital to be calm. If you always read a story next to your son’s bed and he’s balking at leaving the living room, simply read the story to his empty bedroom. If he refuses to put on his pajamas, let him sleep in his clothes. By refusing to turn the routine into a power struggle, you greatly increase the chances that your child will play along.