Sleep Solutions for Toddlers

If your child is awake when he should be snoozing, we'll help him get the rest he needs.
baby in crib with bottle

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My son, Campbell, was a great sleeper as a baby. But when he was about 18 months old, his crib became a battle zone. He tried to put off bedtime with "one more book" or "Mommy, I'm thirsty." He often woke up screaming during the night. And because he wouldn't nap, he was glassy-eyed and cranky all afternoon.

I was worried but felt a lot better when I learned Campbell's sleep revolt is par for the course. "Toddlers test the boundaries with their parents, and refusing sleep is a prime way to do that," says Nadav Traeger, M.D., director of pediatric sleep medicine at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital, in Valhalla, New York. Still, your child, and you, needs sleep, so here's how to defuse these common crib conflicts.

Bedtime Battles

Why he does it: Toddlers tend to melt down when it's time to go to sleep because they don't want the day to end, they want to spend more time with you, or they're overtired.

Winning strategy: Establish a set bedtime and maintain a nightly routine. And remind your child what's coming. Say, "After your bath, we'll brush your teeth, read a book, and then you'll go night-night." Don't let him push for extra time, even if he seems wide awake. "Lots of parents think, 'Well, he couldn't be that tired because he's running around the room like a banshee,'" says Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "But kids can become more active the more tired they are." Sticking to a schedule eases your child's transition, so that when you put him into the crib he knows it's time to sleep.

Midnight Crying

Why she does it: When your child reaches the end of a sleep cycle, she awakens enough to realize that she is alone, explains May Griebel, M.D., professor of pediatrics and neurology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, in Little Rock. She may not be able to fall back to sleep by herself if she's used to having someone stay with her.

Winning strategy: Avoid picking her up, singing to her, or offering to read a book, which will only stimulate her. Instead, say, "Everything's fine, honey," and leave the room quickly. You can also encourage your child to use a lovey, such as a blanket or a stuffed animal, to help her soothe herself back to sleep.

Nap Protest

Why he does it: Most toddlers are ready to one nap around 18 months. But it's often a rocky road. Some days your child may not be able to make it through the morning without a snooze. On others, he may resist his midday nap because he's too busy playing. But if he misses a nap altogether, he may be off the charts on the crank-o-meter by dinnertime.

Winning strategy: Try alternating one-nap days with two-nap days until he settles into a new routine. Also add more exercise to your child's morning. A trip to the park or a playdate will energize him, and then by naptime he'll be wiped out -- and less likely to resist resting.

Early Rising

Why she does it: Your toddler needs less sleep than she did as a baby. Light, noise, or conditioned hunger (when a child is used to eating at a certain time) could also be to blame for her predawn wake-ups.

Winning strategy: If she seems well rested (toddlers should get 12 to 14 hours of sleep per day, including naps), move her bedtime a little later. Otherwise, try to figure out what's disturbing her in the morning. If it's sunlight, buy a room-darkening shade. Are chirping birds waking her? Use a white-noise machine to drown them out. Avoid giving your child milk or food right away so she doesn't associate getting up with eating. You might also insist that she stay in her crib until the sun is up. "My husband would tell Mackenzie it was too early, give her the pacifier, and leave," says Kristen Wilson, of Westfield, New Jersey. "Gradually she worked her way back to waking up at 7 A.M."

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Parents magazine. Updated in October 2013.

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