Ten Tips for Toddler Sleep Struggles
We all know how precious a good night’s sleep can be. As parents, we want our children to sleep well for their own health – as well as ours! But growing up involves a lot of physical and psychological changes, and this can affect a child’s sleep in a number of ways. Nightmares, sleep terrors, bedwetting, insomnia, and sleep apnea can all cause problems, not to mention the simple fact that sometimes kids don’t want to go to sleep because they don’t want to miss anything!
Toddlerhood can be an especially bumpy phase because your child is rapidly developing physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Every development can impact sleep in a variety of ways. For example, often when a child is learning a new skill, such as sitting, standing, walking
, or talking
, he or she has a great deal of difficulty sleeping through the night. At each of those landmarks you can expect to have your child wake up frequently during the night to “try out” what he is learning.
Here are ten tips for toddler sleep - for less struggling and more giggling and love!
1. Keep calm.
Kids play off your emotions, so if you’re going into naptime or bedtime feeling anxious or stressed, your child will reflect that. Take a deep breath and consciously relax. (Repeat as often as necessary!)
2. Stick to a bedtime.
Watch for cues from your child to establish a set bedtime. Your child should be slowing down, but not quite yet yawning or rubbing his eyes - which are indicators of being overtired. (The next phases after that are hyperactivity and then major meltdowns.) If your child seems to wind down around 7:30, that should be her typical bedtime.
3. Create routine.
Find what calms your child down best - a bath, stories, lullabies, massage - whatever works for him and is also enjoyable for you. Then, create a routine using your tactics and start it every night about thirty minutes to an hour before bedtime. Ease your child through the transition from daytime to night by talking her through each step: “After your bath, we’re going to put on pajamas and read a book...After this book, it’s time to lay down and sing a lullaby.” And so on.
4. Empower your child.
Kids at this age are learning they have some power and they want to use it. Being told what to do every step of the way is very frustrating, but having too much control can be overwhelming. Find balance by offering limited choices as much as possible. For example, announce it’s bedtime, but ask whether your child would like to wear green pajamas or yellow? Does he want to kiss mommy goodnight first or daddy? Letting your child make small decisions gives her ownership in the process - making bedtime much more appealing and the process much more amicable.
5. Transition through the transitions.
It’s wise to have a schedule and routines, but anticipate some setbacks and roll with them. It’s not at all unusual to have a child who is sleeping through the night without any problem, and then, when he learns a new skill, your nights of blissful rest are over. This scenario occurs with the acquisition of any new skill, but is most pronounced when a child is learning to walk — you hear your child crying, so you get up to check on the problem only to find that Junior is standing up in the crib holding on for dear life and screaming in what seems to be complete terror. Your immediate response is to grab your bundle of joy and comfort him.
In reality what may be going on is that Junior is so excited about pulling to standing that he doesn’t sleep as soundly as normal. When Junior does wake up, naturally he wants to work on putting this most exciting of new skills into practice. Once on his feet, the way back down looks very scary! Junior’s instinctual response is to scream for help. At this point, the thing Junior needs most is to be gently helped back into his favorite sleeping position and soothed back to sleep
. You may need to do this several times a night during the phase when your child is learning a new skill. When Junior has mastered the new skill, he will resume sleeping through the night (if in the meantime he hasn’t come to depend on rocking or feeding).
6. Adjust naps.
Speaking generally, the total amount of sleep
a child gets is more important than how they schedule that sleep. The typical 2-year-old averages about 12-13 hours of sleep
over 24 hours, but an hour or so more or less than that can be normal. The average 2-year-old gets about 90 minutes of the total during the day as one or more naps — but again more or less than that can be fine. Some individual children do fine with no nap at all at that age. Others seem to really benefit from a nap. When it comes to this, parents’ intuition tends to be accurate about what their children need.
7. Lay your child down before he falls asleep.
Your child needs to learn to put himself to sleep or he won’t know what to do during natural nighttime wakings. (Toddlers - and even adults - naturally wake-up two to six times a night.) If she’s sick or having an especially difficult night, feel free to rock your child to sleep or lie down right next to her - just don’t make it a habit.
8. Find the right tools.
There are amazing products available these days to help promote sleep. If your child is sensitive to sounds, try using a fan or white-noise machine in his room. If fear of the dark is an issue, there’s a stunning variety of nightlights to choose from, but choose one without the blue wavelength of light that might make it harder to sleep. Maybe a “magic” blanket or stuffed animal will do the trick. The only tool I don’t recommend is milk or juice. Children should not go to sleep using food or beverages.
9. Make some midnight plans.
Be prepared for nighttime wakings so you can quickly help your child back to sleep. During toilet training, you may need to get up with your child and take him to the bathroom. During periods with frequent nightmares, a special soft lullaby or stuffed animal may help. During illnesses, a wet washcloth or chest rub might be called for. Whatever the situation, if you have your “tools” easily accessible and a plan in mind, soothing your child back to sleep will be much easier.
10. Establish good communications.
Whether it’s bedtime or daytime, many of the emotional meltdowns children experience between about 9 and 30 months
old bubble up from the frustration of not being able to communicate. Their ideas far outstrip their language skills. The "terrible twos"
are less terrible the more children learn how to get across their intense and conflicting thoughts. Use my free e-guide
to help you become a “toddler whisperer” and ease the stress of this developmental phase for both you and your child.
Good sleep is vital to healthy growth and development, and general well-being. Follow these ten tips to help your toddler - and your whole family - sleep better!