Help Your Child Sleep Better With Rough & Tumble Play

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
December 19, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

How many times have you heard the stomping, stamping, and giggling of your child and your partner upstairs right before bedtime and thought to yourself, “Great, now she’s never going to go to sleep”?

What if I told you that this playful roughhousing before bed *might* actually allow your child to have a more restful night’s sleep? Keep reading to see how this can happen effectively!

You’re probably wondering how it could possibly make sense to get your child all worked up before bedtime.

Honestly, I had the same reservations before I understood the benefits of rough and tumble play before bed. It seemed counterintuitive to encourage my child to be active and excited right before settling down in bed, where she needed to be calm and relaxed.

What I learned is that rough and tumble play has several benefits for children’s sleep. This blog will explain the benefits of rough play before bedtime, and offer specific examples of rough and tumble play that can promote better sleep for kids.

3 Benefits of Rough & Tumble Play to Help Children’s Sleep

1. Sensory Input Benefits

For many children, especially those who are sensory-seeking (think of those who are very active and need to move their bodies often), this type of activity before bed can actually help them get the sensory input they need before they go to sleep. Some children need that extra bit of movement, touch, and connection to fully relax and get a good night’s sleep. 

Examples of rough and tumble play for sensory input:

  • Pull your child on the ground using a blanket.
  • Hold your child in a blanket, and swing them back and forth.
  • Hold your child upside down on your lap or over your shoulder. 
  • Hold your child’s legs like a wheelbarrow while they use their arms to walk around.
  • Have your child jump from a mini trampoline into a pile of pillows and cushions.

Related Post: How Your Child’s Sensory Needs Affect Their Bedtime Routine

2. Stress Relief Benefits

Rough and tumble play before bedtime not only provides children with sensory input, but can also act as a stress reliever. 

For many families, no matter what they do, the bedtime routine always seems to end in tears. For many children, these tears are coming out because they have stress that has built up during the day. Rough and tumble play provides them with an opportunity to have some fun and be silly, which can help to let off some steam and ease any tension from the day.

Examples of rough and tumble play for stress relief: 

  • Set up a pillow tower and let your little one tear it down.
  • Lay stuffies on a blanket, lift them inside the blanket, and “parachute” them in the air.
  • Set up a basket and invite your child to throw stuffies into it from a few feet away
  • Play fighting with siblings (with clear boundaries; e.g. “stop” means we stop!)

This type of rough play before bedtime is so beneficial because it can release physical tension or pent-up emotions that might interfere with sleep. Instead of ruminating on any stressors, children can use rough play to help them alleviate tension, making it possible to rest. 

Related Post: 3 Life Situations that Make Sleep Tricky for Kids

3. Relationship-Boosting Benefits

Another reason rough and tumble play helps children have better sleep is because it provides a period of connection time with their caregiver. 

We might see tears during the bedtime routine because our children don’t feel like they have enough connection time with us during the day. Rough and tumble play can provide them with this extra special time with us. 

Examples of rough and tumble play for relationship-boosting: 

  • Offer a piggyback ride where you unexpectedly turn into different animals. 
  • Have your child sit and bounce on your legs while you hold onto their hands; unexpectedly “drop” them between your legs.
  • Pretend to be an animal and chase your little one making silly animal noises. 

Rough play where your child is physically close to you, or being pursued by you, is great for boosting connection and nurturing the relationship, which can help children sleep.

Related Post: Why Won’t My Child Let Me Leave at Bedtime? Here Are 3 Common Reasons.

Use our FREE checklist to help identify why your child struggles with sleep!

4 Guidelines for Rough and Tumble Play Before Bed

1. Have a Clear Goal of the Play

Instead of having a free-for-all “fight,” it is better to ensure the play has a clear start and finish. This will help your child transition out of play into the rest of their routine. You might play: climb on top of a pile of pillows, try to climb the tower (pretending your bed is the tower), use a twisted sheet for a game of tug-a-war, and so on. If you’re playing games like chase or giving your child a horseback ride around the room, it can help to set a visual timer as a way of maintaining this goal.

2. Prioritize Connection

One thing that roughhousing with your children before bed does is boost connection with you. When a child feels close to their trusted caregiver and feels like they have spent quality time together, it can help reduce separation struggles at bedtime. Put away your phone or other distractions and make this special time with your child really about being together and playing. This will help the rest of your bedtime routine. 

Some parents want to connect with their kids but struggle to participate in the rough play, often because they’re “touched” out or tired – that’s okay! Instead of begrudgingly participating in rough play (because our kids can sense when we don’t actually want to play with them), consider the examples of rough play in the “stress relief benefits” section. You can facilitate rough play by setting up the activity or acting as a referee in a play fight. 

3. Add Playfulness to the Beginning of the Bedtime Routine

Introduce rough and tumble play into your child’s bedtime routine at the beginning of the routine – at least 40 minutes before bed. Starting and ending early will give your child a chance to calm down as they continue with the rest of their routine: brush their teeth, put on their pyjamas, etc. If you have a child who has a hard time calming down after they are worked up, I would suggest setting a timer. This could be a timer on your phone, a kitchen timer, or even a sand timer. You can let them know that they will have this special time for 5 minutes, and when the timer goes off, it’s going to be time to brush their teeth and continue with the rest of the bedtime routine. 

If your little one typically has a difficult time with transitions and you are worried about how they are going to transition between rough and tumble play and the rest of their bedtime routine, it can be helpful to also plan ahead. Talk to your child about what the bedtime routine is going to look like:

“Hey buddy, I noticed bedtime has been hard lately. I thought tonight we could try to switch up our routine. Maybe we can go outside and play a game of chase or hide-and-seek before we go for a bath, and then we’ll brush your teeth and read a story. What do you think?”

4. Tune In With Your Child 

Rough play before bedtime can be beneficial for sleep, but it’s important to tune into your unique child’s preferences and needs when determining types of play and timing. For some children building in this rough and tumble play and connection time at the start of the bedtime routine can be absolutely life-changing (in a good way)! However, for children who are sensory-avoiders or children who may have sensory processing disorders, it can take their nervous system a very long time to calm back down. You are the expert on your child and know what will be most helpful to them!

Your Guide to Better Sleep

If you’re struggling at bedtime and want resources to expand your parenting toolbox, we have the perfect course for you. Our Solving Bedtime Battles course will help you determine the amount of sleep pressure your child needs, confidently respond to big feelings or pushback at bedtime, and create a connected bedtime routine to support separation anxiety. And, we added a “Sensory Seekers and Avoiders” bonus guide as an added resource and sleep support for parents.

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Key Takeaways

  1. Rough and tumble play before bed can help sensory-seeking children achieve a more restful night’s sleep by providing necessary sensory input.
  2. This type of active play can serve as a stress reliever, helping children release tension from the day and focus on fun before bed.
  3. Rough and tumble play can enhance connection time between a child and their caregiver, contributing to a smoother bedtime routine.
  4. Create clear goals and boundaries for this playtime, ensuring it has a definitive start and end to ease the transition to other bedtime activities.
  5. Prioritizing connection during this playtime can help reduce separation struggles at bedtime.
  6. It is recommended to introduce this active play at the start of the bedtime routine, ideally 40 minutes before bed, to allow time for children to calm down afterwards.
  7. This method might not suit all children, particularly those who are sensory-avoiders, and they should adjust the approach based on their child’s needs.

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.