When my daughter Marlowe turned 1, she finally started sleeping through the night. My husband and I used our newfound free evenings to get hooked on Game of Thrones. But our binge-watching didn’t last long: Two months later, Marlowe began screaming when we put her down and waking up several times a night.
After establishing your child’s sleep schedule, it’s frustrating to watch it unravel. “Some disruptions, such as protesting a nap or crying when you leave the room, are related to development, while others may be the result of a change in routine,” says Nanci Yuan, M.D., medical director for the Sleep Center at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, in Menlo Park, California. Find out how to solve these common toddler snoozing snafus.
Between 12 and 18 months, this pushback is often a sign that your kid is ready to reduce to one nap. “Toddlers can stay awake for longer periods during the day than babies,” says Parents advisor Judith Owens, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.
If your kid is already down to one nap, you can still expect occasional resistance, since toddler sleep patterns can vary from day to day. To minimize struggles, follow a consistent presleep routine. “The timing and order of meals and activities helps anchor your child’s circadian clock,” says Dr. Owens. If your child often has trouble conking out, try pushing her nap to later in the day, such as six hours after she wakes up in the morning.
What makes a child who used to fall asleep easily burst into tears when you leave his side? Separation anxiety, which peaks between 10 and 18 months, is one possible explanation. Another is an older toddler’s growing imagination, which may cause him to conjure scary creatures, says Dr. Yuan. One fix for these scenarios: “Sit near the crib and tell your toddler that you’re there, but don’t interact beyond that,” says Dr. Yuan. Stay as long as he needs you. The next night, move farther away. Once he adjusts, sit outside the room. Within a few days, you should be able to put him down with a simple “Good night.”
“Traveling with a toddler is difficult, especially when you throw in sleep deprivation,” says David Wise, a three-time X Games gold medalist. Together with his wife Alexandra, he’s taken his daughter, now 4, and son, 1, on the road regularly since they were born. The globe-trotting duo maintain their nighttime routine as closely as possible. They suggest toting along a portable crib, loveys, and bedtime books, and putting your toddler down in the darkest, quietest spot you can find. “We’ve even put the crib in the hotel closet and draped a sheet around it to keep out the light,” he says.
When your kid suddenly gets up in the wee hours, a milestone may be to blame. “If he’s learning a new skill like walking, he may be so focused on practicing that he can’t sleep,” explains Nelly Maseda, M.D., a pediatrician at the Montefiore Medical Group-Grand Concourse, in Bronx, New York. Comfort your child, but keep him in the crib. “Make it clear that he needs to go right back to sleep,” says Dr. Maseda.
If you hear whimpering or wailing but your toddler is fast asleep when you check on him, it’s likely due to “confusional arousal.” Despite the disturbing noise and movement, your child will have no memory of the experience, so let him be.