How to Get a Toddler to Sleep
Is your child awake when he should be snoozing? Get the solutions to common toddler bedtime issues with this handy sleep training guide.
After establishing a toddler bedtime routine, it’s frustrating to watch it unravel. Your little one may suddenly start crying out for Mom, expressing a newfound fear of the dark, or begging you for just one more sip of water. What gives?
“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.
Toddlers may also act out to express their independence. "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—need a certain amount of shut-eye every night. Here are a some strategies for combatting toddler sleep issues.
She has tantrums about going to sleep.
Solution: Establish a set bedtime and maintain a nightly routine. Always 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.
She cries out for you.
Reason: Your child doesn't want to be alone.
Sleep Solution: When your child is crying at night, or calling out for you to return to his bedroom, try setting a schedule of timed visits to the child's room rather than responding to every request. By following a schedule, whether it's every five minutes or another amount of time, your child will still have her needs met. In Sleep Solutions: Quiet Nights for You and Your Child from Birth to Five Years, author Rachel Waddilove recommends that parents begin with 5-minute increments and then extend the time to 7 minutes, and then 10. As long as nothing is wrong (such as illness or a wet diaper), a child will eventually self-soothe and fall asleep.
She keeps getting out of bed.
Reason: She doesn't want to go to sleep or she has separation anxiety.
Solution: Wondering how to keep a toddler in bed? If your child is having difficulty staying put, try an hour of quiet time before saying good night. Reading, snuggling, giving her a relaxing bath, or listening to lullabies can help her get a good night's sleep.
You can also use a meditation app, such as Stop, Breathe & Think Kids (free; App Store). Designed for those ages 5-10, this app encourages users to check in with their emotions through emojis. They can also complete a series of mindful activities that calm the mind, decrease negative feelings, and improve sleep.
If your child continues the behavior, give her a "bedtime pass," suggests Greg Hanley, M.D., director of the Children's Sleep Program at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts. Allow her to leave the bedroom, but only once a night, to ask for whatever is needed. It can take months to modify a behavior, so remember that consistency is key. For some children, the pass can replace the crying and calling out while still giving them a feeling of control.
She’s taking too long to fall asleep.
Reason: A lack of a consistent sleep routine or frequent late naps could be to blame.
Solution: Toddler won't sleep? A sudden change in your child's schedule, such as a late-afternoon nap or a night of staying up too late, can affect her toddler bedtime routine. Sleep deprivation can also enhance nighttime issues.
For toddlers who still take two naps, experts recommend a morning nap of about 45 minutes at around 10 a.m. Schedule the afternoon nap for around 1 p.m., for up to 2 hours. For toddlers who have adjusted to one nap, try filling the morning with activities and set naptime for after lunch, around 1:30 p.m., for up to two hours.
She has fears and nightmares.
Reason: While a child's imagination is developing, she can invent faces in the dark and monsters under the bed.
Sleep Solution: Nightmares are common between the ages of 2 and 3. If a child is prone to these fears, avoid books or movies with scary themes close to bedtime. Make her bedtime routine as cheerful as possible, says psychologist Linda Blair in The Happy Child.
Resist the temptation to tell your child that the fear doesn't exist. "If she is having a bad dream, tell her that it's 'gone' now. Don't, however, tell her the dream wasn't real, because to many preschoolers dreams do seem completely real," Blair says. Instead, "tell her there's no need to worry...Don't embellish with long explanations or distractions. Simply soothe and reassure, and as soon as she relaxes, say good night."
She wakes at midnight.
Reason: 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.
Solution: Your child may not be able to fall back to sleep by herself if she's used to having someone stay with her. A new milestone may also 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.
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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 soothe herself. “Make it clear that he needs to go right back to sleep,” says Dr. Maseda.
She gets up too early in the morning.
Reason: As toddlers grow, some wake up as soon as it's light, or even earlier, and they don't want to spend time alone. Also, your toddler needs less sleep than she did as a baby.
Solution: 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.
"What time you get your toddler up will depend on what you need to do during the day. If you are at home with him and he isn't in a nursery early, he doesn't need to get up until 7 or 7:30 a.m.," Waddilove says. If a child begins waking early, explain to him that it is not time to get up yet. Some toddlers will go back to sleep; others may stay awake and play on their own before relaxing and falling asleep again.
Each day, try to establish a sleep schedule that works for your family and optimize your child's room for alone time. For example, if your child wants to be awake, give him a few stuffed animals or a favorite picture book to look over in his own bed, and tell him you'll let him know when it's time to get up.
She refuses to nap.
Reason: 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.
Solution: Cutting down to one nap is 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. Try alternating one-nap days with two-nap days until he settles into a new routine.
If your kid is already down to one nap, you can still expect occasional resistance. Minimize struggles by following a consistent pre-sleep 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.
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