Sleep Makeovers for Toddlers

Developmental changes, teething, separation anxiety, and fear of the dark can create bedtime problems for your two-year-old.  Knowing how to respond can keep your nightmares to a minimum.

mom sleeping with toddler
Photo: StanislavFridkin/

The Social Butterfly

Your 18-month-old refuses to fall asleep alone.

What's going on: Separation anxiety is normal at this age. Your toddler simply doesn't have enough life experience to know for sure that you'll be back in the morning.

Another problem is her sleep association: She's gotten used to being soothed by a human blanky and has come to rely on you.

What to do: Start each evening with snuggling. Then remove yourself from the nursery a little at a time (pull your chair a foot closer to the door each night). Once you've left, pop your head in periodically, offer soothing words, but avoid taking her out of her crib. The crying will worsen for a week before it tapers off, warns Judith Owens, M.D., director of the pediatric sleep disorders clinic at Hasbro Children?s Hospital, in Providence. A transition object, such as a stuffed animal, may help your baby learn to soothe herself.

The Dawdler

He thinks 7:59 p.m. is the ideal time to run around the house, demand more water, and empty his toy box.

What's going on: Toddlers can't tell time. To them, life is a 24/7 recess.

What to do: Find a calming bedtime routine, and stick with it. Toddlers have no clue what hour it is, but they do understand that one event predictably follows another: first dinner, then bath, books, and bed. Knowing what's coming next will help your child wind down. Christi Dixon, from Marthasville, Missouri, found that giving her toddler, Jordyn, some control over her bedtime ritual helped settle her down. After pajamas, teeth brushing, and kisses, Jordyn chooses which books to read.

The Rooster

Your tot wakes up to watch the sun rise every morning.

What's going on: Your child may be an early riser who simply fills his sleep quota by 6 a.m. and wakes up cheerfully, says Parents adviser Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Or he may be experiencing a final night waking. Telltale signs: He wakes up still tired, fusses for an early nap, or falls asleep in the car when you head out.

What to do: Make sure your toddler's room is dark and quiet in the mornings. Also, wait a few minutes before going in to get him. He may learn to play quietly on his own or doze off again. It sounds counterintuitive, but try making your toddler's bedtime earlier, says Dr. Mindell. Overtired kids tend to have more night wakings.

The Midnight Muncher

It's the dead of night, and you're jolted awake by cries for a bottle.

What's going on: Your child craves attention more than milk. A healthy 1-year-old doesn't need to eat during the night. "If she's waking up for a bottle, it's out of habit, not a nutritional need," says Barbara Burch, R.N., a pediatric nurse in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

What to do: Burch favors completely cutting off the after-hours milk supply. In addition, don't respond to her first whimper (just peek in to make sure that she's safe); she may soothe herself back to sleep.

The Nap Sacker

As your toddler transitions from two daily naps to one, he tries ditching siestas altogether.

What's going on: The average 12-month-old gets 13 to 14 hours of sleep a day, including two naps, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution. But over the next year, your child's sleep needs gradually dwindle. On some days, two naps may feel like too many, but one may not be enough.

What to do: Try skipping the morning nap, and then aiming for an earlier bedtime to compensate for lost sleep. Insist on one daily rest after lunch -- your toddler will probably take an extra-long snooze. If he resists, only to end up cranky by 4 p.m., apply your nighttime sleep routine to this nap. If he's prone to climbing out of his crib, make sure the mattress is at its lowest height, and consider installing a crib tent.

Originally published in the August 2003 issue of Parents magazine.

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