Tips On Getting Your Toddler To Sleep (Or What I Learned At A Sleep Clinic)

I’ve heard from a lot of (tired!) parents about my recent blog post on the sleep challenges you’ll face in the toddler years - many have asked for more specific advice. So I’m offering some tips I received as a parent who took my toddler to a sleep clinic (as I was befuddled by the whole thing and waved the white flag!).

You need to convince your toddler that sleep is not a punishment. This to me is the biggest hurdle. Telling a toddler that it’s time to go to sleep can get translated in their head as “It’s time to stop doing something fun.” While you won’t be able to solve this entirely, you will need to find appealing – but not overly stimulating – things to do before bedtime that will transition them to sleep. Your child loves having books read to them and love it when you tell them stories.  The trick is to establish these activities (or a combination of them) as the first stage of the bedtime ritual – and it helps even more if you pick a favorite spot in the house where this happens. Make it fun and something to look forward to and plan on around 15-20 minutes of this. AND STICK WITH IT EVERY NIGHT – NO EXCEPTIONS! You are trying to create a routine. TV and any other electronic device is not advised during this transitional time.

You could make going to bed a bit of a game. Maybe it sounds silly to you, but you could try to put a little fun into that difficult time (for some) of actually making the move to your child’s room. Use your imagination. Put a voice to a stuffed animal who coaches them into their room. The idea is to do something that kids like and will look forward to. Kids love rituals if they are fun – and you want to create a “get in bed” ritual.

You may need to get them a big kid bed. We thought it was too early, but the clinic suggested that it was time and gave guidelines about making sure it was safe. The bigger point here is that change may be a good thing for some toddlers – and a big kid bed might make them feel a little pumped up about their development (which you can then use to your advantage by pointing out that big kids go to sleep at a proper time at night – all’s fair in sleep wars!)

You need to help your toddler handle their new emotions about sleep. Expect to do a lot of soothing. Toddlers start to experience changes in their sleep cycles which make them wake up after a few hours of sleep. They may be afraid of being apart from you. They may remember bad dreams. They may be a little scared about the big kid bed you just introduced! Find a transitional object (I used to use one of my T-shirts) for your kid to cuddle with along with a stuffed animal. And then consider that …

“Graduated extinction” can be a very helpful method for toddlers with sleep issues. We all have our favorite methods. But since the assumption is that nothing is working now (remember, I was at a sleep clinic), we started from scratch following the principles of graduated extinction. Here’s how we did it. Week 1: We sat up on the bed for about 10-15 minutes and then left the room (this was with full disclosure to our daughter). If she woke up crying, we would sit on the bed for 5-7 minutes. Week 2: We sat up on the bed for 5 minutes and then sat in a chair for 5 minutes (if she woke up crying we sat on the bed for 2 minutes and in the chair for 2 minutes). Week 3. Same as week 2, except we sat in the chair for 2 minutes and then left the room (if she woke up crying we repeated the process – the point being we eventually left the room). Week 4: Realized that she preferred if we sat on the bed for 10-15 minutes (the Week 1 routine) and then left the room before she was fully asleep (the sleep clinic clinician loved this on our follow-up visit because our daughter partnered with us to let us know what she liked). We stayed with this for quite a long time and she hardly ever woke up overnight.

Reward sleep behaviors! Find a simple (and cheap!) reward system. Stickers worked really well. Every morning if we met a goal (like getting back to sleep if she woke up or sleeping through the night) our daughter would pick out a sticker to place on a fun calendar in her room. If it’s a bad night for no reason (e.g., she wasn’t sick) – no sticker.

Monitor the naps really closely. Part of the deal was to calibrate the daily nap – 1 hour every day around 2 in the afternoon. We did whatever it took to make this happen. Walked her in a stroller. Drove her in the car. Didn’t care. The point was the nap was from 2-3 every day, no matter who she was with. The sleep clinic endorsed this and wan’t concerned with how we got her to sleep (the faster the better!) as long as we woke her up after an hour. Following this routine, she was tired around 9 at night and slept until 8 the next morning nearly every night.

Be vigilant about changes in the routine. Life happens. Kids get sick. Schedules change. Holidays arrive. Visitors arrive. Whenever you get thrown off, try to get right back into the routine and be really strict about sticking with it.

So that’s it – some tips from a real life visit to a sleep clinic. Will these tips work for you? Some may and some may not. Every kid is different. Some toddlers may seem “hard-wired” to not sleep much. But the principles discussed here are really important, as is the very serious endorsement of talking to your pediatrician about visiting a pediatric sleep clinic if these tips (or others you come across) don’t work. They will come up with a plan for you, your child, and your situation. And you all will sleep much better as a result. One other tip: there may be a wait of several months or more for an appointment at a sleep clinic. So if you are thinking of doing this it’s good to get the ball rolling ASAP.

Image of little girl not ready to go to bed via


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  1. by Lily schey

    On January 18, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Another bad picture on parents magazine’s site! What a surprise!

    That mattress should be moved to a lower setting. If a child can bend over the top of the rail, they have outgrown that mattress setting a long time ago!! If it can’t be moved, then it’s probably a assigned, not a true crib, in which case the child should be moved out of the bassinet when they start pulling themselves up, even if to sitting position.

    Good grief. I was so angry at this, I haven’t even read the article!!!

  2. by Rachel Humphrey

    On January 18, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    My method is to stick to what we have done. From Birth I have done the same thing at bedtime. We’ve eaten dinner, taken a bath, went to the room to put closes on, sit down for 2 books, lay down and turn light off (with no night lite) and leave room. I think changing things at this time is a bad thing. The child wants to know what to expect, not wonder what your going to do next. I don’t read books anywhere but in the bed next to (or with the child on my lap) I don’t want to have to walk past all the things they might want on my way to laying down. (it only gives reasons fight) I have always said “Don’t start something you don’t want to do for ever” I don’t turn on fans, I don’t us pacifiers, I don’t use night lights. If I make a choice to change things I try to do it when nothing crazy is going on and I don’t explain myself or anything I just do it and not stop. My husband once convinced me my son needed a sippy cup at bedtime. When I decided he was wrong I just took it away. I took two days for him to get over not having it but I wasn’t turning back. Next when you lay them down and they get up, don’t get mad. Whatever they do to draw attention. (play, run, scream, throw themselves down) ignore it all. Pick them up (or hold their hand if you can) and walk them back to bed, lay them down cover them up (with feet down or not) and leave room. (don’t turn the light on in the room, use the wall light or bathroom) Do that 30000 times if need be. Don’t yell. Now if you realize it’s a game to them, you walk out and they follow or get RIGHT up when you leave. Swat ONE time on the back of the leg. It works EVERY time. than lay them down. That WILL make them mad, they will throw themselves around. IGNORE it. Do as always. Good luck!

  3. by Sally

    On January 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    We love the BabyZoo sleep trainer. It is an adorable monkey alarm clock. It can be set so that the monkey’s eyes closed means stay in bed and when the monkey opens his eyes, it is time to get up. Our little one won’t go to sleep unless the monkey’s eyes are closed and knows to stay in bed until he opens his eyes. It took a little bit of training to get her to understand, but now that she does, it works very well.

  4. by Renee

    On January 18, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    We are so different. Although I have been lucky in that we were able to keep my son home for the first few years we always followed his natural sleep rhythm. So for a while when he was 2 he was still awake at 11 pm and slept until 10 am. When we knew we had to change that we did it gradually, 15 minutes a week until we got him to the reasonable time for us of 8:30pm. He gave up naps at age 3 no matter what we did LOL. Although now he will go have quiet time in the afternoon and watch a movie or read or play quietly in his room as that’s the daycare schedule so we try to keep it. Moving to the big bed was the biggest help. Most people don’t realize how much a child moves around at night and rolling into crib frames or side rails wakes them up. Having all that room stopped most of the night time wake ups. Every child is different though and you have to find what works.

  5. by Jennifer Tippetts

    On January 18, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    @ Lily Schey- It’s a prop!!!! Not actually used to sleep in! It looks good, and it’s fun. Good grief woman, get over it. You can even see the backdrop behind her.
    I have the same crib in green for my son (IKEA, only $80), and it says, PRINTED ON THE TOP OT THE SIDE WHERE ALL BUT A MORON CAN SEE, “Do not use as a crib for children over 18 months, or if child can bend over top. Please convert to toddler bed.” I’m sure the photographer saw that, and since someone was within feet of the child at all times, it should be a non issue.
    And now that I vented, I loved the article. I’m going to try some of these tonight

  6. by JG

    On February 2, 2012 at 8:07 am

    putting the toddler to sleep indeed can be challenging. very helpful article.

  7. by Leanne

    On October 26, 2012 at 12:27 am

    This is a great resource for parents. Please visit my website
    for more great sleep tips!

  8. by automatic vacation fish feeders

    On February 5, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    It’s awesome to go to see this web site and reading the views of all friends about this paragraph, while I am also zealous of getting know-how.

  9. [...] to get some professional support if you feel like you need it. Sleep is a complex phenomenon, and sleep clinics offer much expertise that can help you set a routine that will work for your child. Don’t be shy about exploring that [...]