Don't underestimate the power of a good security blanket. Sure, it will get dirty. Your child will drag it everywhere and never want you to wash it (though you may be able to get around this by having two identical blankets). But a security blanket can help your child at bedtime and in making it through the difficult transition from complete dependence to independence.
In choosing the elements of a bedtime routine for your toddler, choose activities that are quiet and calming. It makes little sense to work your child into a state of excitement right before bed. Your child is no longer a baby. She won't suddenly drop off as a defense against overstimulation. Your toddler is not going to crash out of exhaustion either. Like the Energizer bunny, your child will just want to keep going and going and going and any possibility of entertainment will keep her awake.
If you've already established a bedtime routine (a song, a story, a quiet game) in your baby's first year, you can continue with that or you might want to create a new routine.
Whatever you choose, your bedtime routine should be a period of quiet time together. Try to make sure that everything you do in the half-hour or hour before bedtime produces calm rather than excitement and smiles rather than tears.
Your child's best soother is, of course, you. So by all means rock in a rocking chair with your toddler, sing to her, hold her while you take a stroll around the room. But these routine activities should get your child calm and ready for bed. They should not actually put your baby to sleep. If you let (or continue to let) your toddler fall asleep in your arms, it will become a hard habit to break. So stick with the practice of putting your child down in her crib before she falls asleep. (If you didn't do this when your child was an infant, start doing it now.) This doesn't mean putting your baby down when she's wide awake, but rather just before she falls asleep. Choose a moment when your toddler looks drowsy.
In creating your bedtime routine, choose elements that soothe both of you, quiet activities that you both enjoy. Remember: The less complicated the routine, the better. (You won't want to have to do the macarena every night.) Simplicity also leaves open the possibility that someone else can pinch hit for you and quickly master the routine, too. Whether your toddler will welcome this substitute is, of course, another story.
Any of the following can add richness-and hopefully relief-to your bedtime routine:
- A long walk together after dinner
- A warm bath before bed
- A snack before brushing, which may help fill your toddler's stomach (try to include milk or other protein)
- Reading together, perhaps followed by letting your child "read" a book or two on her own or following along with a book on tape
- Bedtime stories (not too exciting though), which you can tell to your child: perhaps a true—or at least believable—story about you when you were a child or when she was little or a make-believe story in which your child plays the role of hero.
- A brief and gentle in-bed massage
- A game in which your toddler puts all her stuffed animals or other dolls to bed before climbing in after them (lucky child, she gets to be the last one up)
- Looking around the room and saying good night to various animals, dolls, and other objects (à la Good Night, Moon)
- Soothing music: either your singing or a lullaby tape
- Comfort items (a soft blanket, a favorite stuffed animal, anything that your child finds soothing and relaxing)
- Sucking a thumb or pacifier (though the latter may be more trouble than it's worth if your toddler constantly loses it)
Don't overlook any possibility if that's what it takes for your toddler to get herself asleep. After all, that's the whole idea, isn't it?