How to tackle double bedtime when you’re alone with a toddler and a baby

Two kids vs. one parent: You’re going to need some double bedtime strategies for when you’re outnumbered.

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One of the most daunting moments in my four-plus years of parenting thus far was the first time I had to tackle bedtime alone, with both kids. I was lucky—my husband was almost always home before 7 pm to help with our three-year-old, while I was frequently stuck on the couch nursing our newborn. But eventually, one of you wants to go out at night, and you can’t find a sitter. Or someone has to work late unexpectedly. I needed to be able to manage double bedtime on my own.

I knew how to deal with the witching hours, how to diffuse a raging threenager’s tantrums, and how to function (albeit just barely) at 6 am after a typical night of broken sleep, feeding an infant every two hours. And yet, I STILL couldn’t figure out double bedtime. The baby usually needed to eat exactly when I should have been making dinner. Or I’d leave him napping peacefully in his Rock ‘n Play, then hustle upstairs to put the three-year-old to bed, and inevitably the baby would start wailing in the middle of bedtime stories, interrupting us exactly when I wanted to give my older son some one-on-one attention. My attempts always seemed to end in meltdowns: two crying, tired kids and a teary, frustrated mom.

A family of four smiling How do you know you're ready for a second baby?Logically, I knew this must be doable. Single parents do it. Moms whose partners work night shifts do it all the time. Why couldn’t I figure it out? So I started trying a few different methods, and canvassed my parent friends for suggestions.

First of all, I learned that it really depends on how old your youngest is, and what the age gap is—the level of difficulty of double bedtime waxes and wanes. It will get easier, and it’ll also get harder. Then it will get easier again. For example, a cluster-feeding newborn who wants to nurse all evening, straight through your three-year-old’s dinner, bath and bedtime routine, is really rough. But a sleepy infant who will happily snooze in a stretchy wrap on your chest while you do bath and stories with your toddler is easy-peasy. (I mean, you’ll still feel exhausted and touched-out with multiple children taking up lap space, but you’ll survive!) Once your baby can sit up, and you can safely do bath and stories with both kids at the same time (if schedules allow), the whole evening routine gets a lot more predictable and less likely to go off the rails. In the meantime:

1. Baby-wearing and bouncer seats are your friends

If your baby isn’t overtired yet, and is happy enough to just watch the bedtime proceedings, drag a bouncer chair or Exersaucer into the bathroom and bedroom while you do the toddler’s bath and bedtime. (Or wear the baby in a carrier or wrap, as mentioned above.) Also, I’m sure many a mom of two or more kids has nursed their newborn while sitting on the toilet, supervising their older kid’s bath. Multi-tasking at its finest! (You may need a bouncer chair or a safe, clean place to put the baby down when it’s time to rinse shampoo and haul your eldest out of the tub—that’s a two-handed job.)

Personally, I was still in the habit of snuggling with my eldest until he fell asleep, so we often had to arrive at a compromise after the stories were done: instead of cuddles, I’d pull an armchair up to his bedside and nurse the baby in the dark. This kept the baby quiet (ish) until my eldest drifted off, and then I’d sneak out of the room with the baby.

2. Staggered bedtimes

For the first few months, my youngest didn’t really “go to bed” or have an actual bedtime. Like many newborns, he just nursed and napped in 90-minute intervals all evening, and then came upstairs with me around 9:30 or 10 pm, and slept in a bedside bassinet. But eventually, around six months, we found more of a nap rhythm, moved him into his own room and crib, and his bedtime naturally shifted to be earlier. (Translation: he started losing his sh*t consistently between 6:30 and 7 pm. Hence, we knew he needed an earlier, more scheduled bedtime.) This helped a ton because I could nurse the baby at 6, feed them both dinner at 6:30, then rush the baby into his crib at 7ish (no bath), before running my eldest’s bath at 7:30 and then doing bedtime at 8. (If this sounds exhausting, I won’t lie—it is. But it’s getting better.)

3. Sleep train the baby

This brings me to an obvious (but sometimes controversial) strategy: sleep training the baby to fall asleep independently in his crib. When nursing to sleep stopped working—somewhere around five months old—and no one had slept well in weeks, I knew he had to get used to going into his bassinet or crib tired but awake. I couldn’t rock him to sleep in a quiet, dark room while ALSO supervising a three-year-old. (He’d wake up every time I attempted a transfer anyhow, so I really had no choice.) Sleep training was hard, but worth it—and better for the whole family in the end. We started out by paying close attention to his wake windows, then helped him fall asleep in his bassinet by stroking his forehead and patting his tummy while he sucked on a soother and listened to a white noise machine. Once he’d mastered falling asleep in the bassinet with our help, we moved him to his crib (but kept the white noise and soother) and let him drift off on his own—no staying in the room. We did a quick check-in every five minutes. (Lullaby and back rubs, but no picking up.)  Now he knows that this consistent sequence signals bedtime: PJs, sleep sack, two books, and then we wave “night night” to the backyard before I lower the blackout blind, turn on the noise machine, and I sing the same bedtime/naptime lullaby before putting him into the crib awake. He might cry for a few minutes as he rolls around and settles, but it’s usually for less than five minutes. (And it’s never been for more than 20 minutes.) Then I’m totally freed up to focus on my older son.

4. Special screen time for the oldest child

If I really need to deal with the baby, but I want to be sure my older son is safe and not getting into trouble, I’ve decided it’s OK to let the TV play babysitter for 30 minutes. I don’t love using screen time for this, but since it doesn’t happen every night, I’m cool with it. I prefer to Google Chromecast a Netflix show to our living room TV, because I can control it with my phone from another room, and I know he’ll be glued to whatever episode he’s watching for at least 23 minutes. (If the baby’s not asleep yet, I can authorize a second episode to buy myself another 23 minutes! Or 11 minutes—Floogals is great for their shorter episodes, pro tip!) You could also set up your toddler in his bedroom with an iPad or laptop, if you want him to be upstairs and closer to wherever you are with the baby. Just be sure to disable the autoplay function or he’ll end up watching TV waaaaaay too late, and a screen time-related tantrum is inevitable.

5. If all else fails, everybody climbs into one bed

As a last resort, the three of us would cozy up in “the big bed” in my bedroom. My toddler thought it was fun and special, the baby would fall asleep in my arms after nursing, and I made sure I had my earbuds and phone or laptop, so I could watch something in the dark while the kids slept. When my husband got home, he’d carry our eldest back to his own room. It wasn’t the best bedtime routine, but it wasn’t the worst, either. It stopped working, however, once the baby got older and more alert. He now finds his big brother endlessly fascinating and hilarious, and there’s no way he can fall asleep in a family bed with all of us anymore. But it was nice while it lasted.

What did I miss, fellow parents of two (or more)? What are your tips for getting a toddler and a baby to go to sleep when there’s only one of you on bedtime duty?

Read more:
Is it really so bad to nurse a baby to sleep?
How to survive the four-month sleep regression

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