Toddler meltdowns are tough, even more so when they kick off just before you start the bedtime routine. Remember, as fragile and upset they look in the midst of losing it they are actually self-healing geniuses. Step back and give them space, these meltdowns should be gauged for what they are before responding, they often need this outlet.
Lets take a typical 18 month old toddlers brain for example. The prefrontal cortex (the part responsible for regulating emotion) is still underdeveloped as it plays an important developmental role in the acquisition of language. The lack of simple cognitive and emotional intelligence is part of the natural pattern and the preftontal cortex is left underdeveloped so language comes first, because how can one be understood if he has no words to convey his emotions. Makes sense right?
So until they are able to express themselves there are likely to be a few meltdowns. Things that are pain simple to us are somewhat confusing and scary to a toddler sending them off on one! This feeling of heightened arousal causes their bodies to release cortisol increasing blood pressure, speeding up breathing, leading to confused or unclear thinking and if that isn't enough, sleep issues.
Some tantrums can however be due to immediate discomforts like over tiredness or hunger, but they could also be due to a backlog of internalized feelings. As a sleep therapist and child development specialist sleep I see this this often. In most cases over stimulation and lack of sleep play a huge part in toddler meltdowns. At this age its very important to modify daily routines when needed including nutrition and revisiting your boundaries, because boundaries and fact only become part of their internalization later on, around age 3.5 years.
A few things to remember
1) Don't fall into the sadness trap when comforting a toddler in the middle of a tantrum as it reinforces the behavior.
2) Acknowledge, "I understand you're upset, when you calm down, I'll give you a hug and we can talk about what happened.” This way, you offer support and sympathy while still showing your tot how to regulate his emotions.
3) One of the most important jobs we have as parents is making sure our children feel secure physically and emotionally. A big part of that feeling of emotional security comes from knowing that YOU the parent are the one who's calling the shots.