Are your toddler’s sleep habits wearing you out? Many parents have been in your shoes and know exactly how you feel. Don’t worry, this too shall pass. But the million dollar question is, when?
Even if your child was a "good" sleeper as an infant, you may find that, once they enter toddlerhood, sleep is the last thing on their mind. While there’s no simple explanation for this change, there are several methods to help your toddler love sleep.
Imagine how easy sleep training would be if one universal method worked for every child. But, of course, we don’t live in a perfect world. And just like every other aspect of parenting, no one method works for every child.
So if you want your toddler to sleep, you may have to experiment with different methods until you find one that works for your child and your family.
If you have a toddler who is accustomed to being held or rocked to sleep, you might consider a fading method that is similar to the pick up put down method of sleep training, that's best suited for babies.
Going from a lap sleeper to a bed sleeper can be a major transition, so taking away cold turkey your child’s nighttime cuddle sessions they use to fall asleep might be more than they can bear.
The fading method we describe below (there are a few variations) gives your child the cuddles and hugs they need, while allowing them to gradually adjust to falling asleep in their own.
Put your child in their crib or bed while they are awake but drowsy and exit the room, closing the door behind you. If your toddler fusses, don’t immediately re-enter the room. Wait about five minutes and only enter if the crying continues.
If you need to re-enter, soothe your toddler by rubbing their back until they calm down — and then leave the room.
If your toddler cries again, repeat the process. Continue this method until your child falls asleep.
If your toddler is already sleeping in a bed, and you enter the room to find them out of their bed, you'll need to pick them up to tuck them back in. A quick hug and cuddle in your arms can give them the reassurance they need, but finish soothing them while they are lying down in their bed. Then make a graceful exit.
Now, this might go on for a few nights, but don’t give up. The fading method teaches your toddler how to self-soothe, and they’ll eventually fall asleep with little or no fussing.
Cry it out method
The "cry it out" method is understandably not a favorite among some parents. Seriously, who wants to hear their child scream and cry for an hour or longer?
This is a great alternative to the fading method, which might not work for a determined child. Coming into your child’s room to give them hugs and reassurance might be all the attention they need to fuss throughout the night. Because in the end, they know you’re going to keep coming in the room.
With the cry it out method, you don’t re-enter the room, no matter how much they cry. Instead, you’ll only pop your head in the doorway to say, “You’re okay, I love you.”
Some variations of this method include returning at set intervals or gradually increasing the length of time between leaving and returning to reassure your child.
There’s no sugarcoating how rough hearing them cry will be, but it will likely work more quickly than the fading method. The truth is, the most sleep-resistant toddlers may cry or scream for hours. But for this approach to work you can’t give in or else they’ll learn that crying longer and harder is how to get what they want.
Camp it out method
Do you need to transition a toddler from your bed to their own bed? One approach is putting your child in their own bed, and then camping out in their room for a few nights on an air mattress.
Once your toddler is comfortable in their bed, transition to sitting in a chair near their bed, and then leave the room once they fall asleep. Sit in the chair for a couple of nights, and on the third night, put your child to bed and leave the room.
If your child fusses, wait five minutes to see if they fall asleep before popping your head in the room and giving reassurance (borrowing elements of the fading and cry it out methods).
You might be excited to transition your toddler to a big kid’s bed, but are they?
Truthfully, there’s no magic number to make this transition. It really depends on your child, but it can take place between 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 years of age.
Signs that it’s time include your child learning how to climb out of their crib, or your toddler becoming fully potty trained and needing access to the bathroom.
Just know there’s a chance that your child won’t stay in their bed the entire night. They may find their way into your room, interrupting your sleep or getting into who-knows-what type of mischief around the house.
Here are a few tips to make the transition easier on both of you:
- Keep familiar, comfortable surroundings. Position the toddler bed in the same place as the crib, and fight the urge to redecorate the room.
- Don’t overwhelm your child with too much change at once. If your child is potty training, starting preschool, or expecting a new sibling, postpone the transition and let them go through one milestone at a time.
- Use positive reinforcement. Not to be confused with bribery, you can set up a rewards system to encourage your toddler to stay in their bed. The reward can be a cheap toy, stickers, or even a cookie.
Keep in mind that once your child is in a toddler bed, they may be out and about in their room or the rest of your home, unsupervised. It's a good idea to recheck your babyproofing with that in mind.
For example, if you've been procrastinating about bolting bookshelves, dressers, and other things your child may be tempted to climb, now may be a good time to move those tasks up on your to-do list.
Your toddler is a creature of habit. And the same way adults cling to a routine, kids will do the same. Part of being consistent is having a predictable nightly routine that starts about 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
If you haven't already instituted a bedtime routine in babyhood, here are some activities you may want to add to your toddler's bedtime routine now:
- Take a nighttime bath. The warm water can calm and relax your toddler, preparing their mind and body for sleep.
- After taking a bath, put them in their pajamas and brush their teeth. If you're potty training or if they are out of diapers, have them go to the bathroom, too.
- Have quiet time. “After bath time” isn’t play time. Running around can stimulate your toddler, making it harder for them to fall asleep. Establish a wind-down period before bed with no television or electronic devices. Instead, consider doing a puzzle together, reading books, putting baby dolls or stuffed animals to bed, or another quiet activity.
- Dim the lights to stimulate melatonin production.
- Consider putting on white noise in the background, like the sound of crickets, rain, or a waterfall, if it seems to help your child sleep.
- Create a comfortable sleep environment. Close the curtains and keep the room at a comfortable temperature.
- Read a bedtime story, sing a calming song, or do another soothing activity before tucking in your toddler.
The most important things about a toddler bedtime routine are consistency and avoiding overstimulation. Only add things that you can realistic do every night, and that another caregiver can also do.
You know what happens to toddlers when they don’t get enough sleep —crankiness, tantrums, the sillies, and everything in between.
Nap times can preserve both of your sanities, but if your toddler dislikes going to sleep at night, they may also be resistant to sleeping during the day.
The above methods and routines can work anytime of the day, but here are a few bonus tips to outsmart your kid:
- Plan an energetic activity a little while before nap time. Your kid will be so tired that they'll pass out after eating lunch. Keep this routine and after-lunch naps will become second nature.
- Schedule nap times for the same time every day. Again, it's all about consistency and a predictable schedule. If your toddler naps during the week at a daycare or preschool, try to keep them on the same nap schedule during the weekend at home.
- Schedule naps earlier in the afternoon. If your toddler naps late in the afternoon, they might not be sleepy at bedtime.
Once your child starts sleeping 11 to 12 hours at night (yes, that is possible), they may no longer need the nap. Giving up your mid-day break can be hard, but the reward may be an easier evening bedtime. You can also shift nap time to quiet time, which will allow your toddler, and you, to recharge.
Still can’t get your toddler to sleep? Think about possible reasons for the resistance. In some cases, it may be as simple as having a chat with your toddler to find out what’s on their mind.
Might they be afraid of the dark? If so, keeping on a hallway light or using a nightlight may be the solution. Though most children up to age 2 don't have the language skills to articulate being afraid of shadows, you might ask your older toddler to point out anything in the room that's bothering them. Sometimes moving some items in the room to eliminate shadows can help eliminate nighttime fears.
It's also possible that you're putting your toddler to bed too early or too late. Make bedtime later by 30 minutes or an hour, when they’re more likely to be drowsy. Or if you notice tired signs before their normal bedtime, or if they've recently given up their nap, consider moving bedtime 30 minutes to an hour earlier.
Sometimes, sleep issues are too big for parents to solve. That's when you may want to talk to your child's pediatrician or seek outside help from a sleep consultant.
A specialist can address many child sleep problems, including:
- waking up too early
- transitioning from a crib to bed
- child sleep disorders
The downside is that consultations aren’t cheap, and you might spend hundreds or thousands for an overnight stay and follow-up care.
If you're considering a sleep consultant, first talk to your child's pediatrician. They may be able to offer advice or a referral. It's also a good idea to check with your health insurance provider to see if they offer benefits for child sleep consultants.
You can also ask the sleep consultant if they have a sliding pay scale or if they offer a range of services. You may only need a phone consult, which is more affordable than an overnight stay or in-home visit.
Sleep training may not be easy. Some children will resist and throw a fit, whereas others may adapt pretty quickly. There’s no way to know which end of the spectrum your child will be on until you start. The trick is consistency, and of course, sticking with a method for more than one night.