Thought you’d be done with sleep challenges by the time you hit toddlerhood? We feel you. But turns out creating healthy sleep habits is actually a lifelong process. The good news is it’s never too late to help your child to get better sleep. Find our following tips on how to solve toddler sleep problems and challenges.
Your Rockin’ Blinks Crib Sheet:
- Your toddler may experience sleep challenges at this stage even if they didn’t as a baby. Now is a good time to address these challenges and build healthy sleep habits.
- Small changes during your toddler’s bedtime routine and creating a consistent sleep environment throughout the night can address many toddler sleep issues.
- There are several strategies to help your toddler fall asleep independently. Every child and parent is different, so choose the method that works best for your family.
- Separation anxiety is common at this stage. Validate their feelings and offer them a special stuffie or toy.
- Avoid an early crib to bed transition if possible. Creating a safe environment and returning them to their crib is likely a better solution than replacing their crib altogether.
Toddler sleep is a whole new ball game. The 12-36 month period is a time of huge growth and development, and with those changes come new sleep challenges, even for parents who never faced sleep problems with their baby.
However, resolving those issues now is more important than ever, since sleep plays such an important role in helping your toddler grow. Don’t worry, you still have ample opportunity to establish healthy sleep habits that your toddler will maintain for life.
So how do you know there’s a sleep problem? You may notice these warning signs with your toddler:
- Your toddler is resisting bedtime and having trouble falling asleep once in bed. At this stage, your toddler should be able to fall asleep in 15-20 minutes.
- They seem tired during the day. This may be a sign of not enough, or poor quality, night sleep.
- They wake at night. While it’s normal for toddlers to wake several times during the night, persistent night waking without being able to self-soothe back to sleep is problematic. This habit is connected to poorer daytime functioning and moodiness in toddlers (and their parents!), as well as behavior problems in toddlers and overall family stress.
- Your toddler has an irregular sleep schedule. Both children and adults benefit from consistent bedtime and wake time each day.
- You notice snoring or pauses in breathing while your toddler is asleep. These are signs of a potentially serious problem that needs to be discussed with your child’s doctor.
Here’s how to resolve 6 of the top toddler sleep problems.
Challenge #1: I’m overwhelmed and don’t know where to start!
Resolution: Implement small changes and stick to them.
These changes should include:
1. Have a bedtime routine. We all need a ritual before going to bed that can help us relax and let the day go. The repetition of these steps signals our brains that sleep is coming. In experimental studies, having parents implement a brief, consistent routine before bed resulted in the child falling asleep faster, waking less often, and waking for a shorter period of time. Parents also reported that their own mood improved. While this will not solve the night waking problem on it’s own, it provides powerful evidence that your toddler wants you to help them know what to anticipate at bedtime. When they can anticipate what comes next, it provides a sense of security.
2. Have an appropriate bedtime. For most toddlers, this will be between 7-8pm, although the timing differs based on whether your child is still napping or not. Bedtimes of 9pm or later are consistently associated with shorter night sleep, increased difficulty falling asleep, increased night waking, greater likelihood of attention and behavioral problems in early childhood, and even a greater risk of weight problems. Bedtime should also take place at the time when your child can easily fall asleep: parents are likely to encounter unnecessary resistance if they try to put a child before the child is capable of falling asleep. Watch for consistently timed sleep signs and find the sweet spot, ideally before 8pm.
3. Have an appropriate sleep environment. The bedroom should be cool, quiet, and as dark as possible. There should not be a television in your child’s room or any electronic use (phones/tablets/computer) in the hour before bed.
Challenge #2: My toddler keeps waking at night.
Resolution: Keep your toddler’s sleep environment consistent all night.
The ability to sleep for longer stretches of time develops early on in infants. By 6 months babies are capable of sleeping through the night without a night feeding. However, as many as 50% of children are still waking at night at 12 months of age. By far the most common reason why toddlers continue to wake at night has to do with how they fall asleep at bedtime.
Sleep is a time when we become highly vulnerable. We have to let our guard down in order to sleep. There is a limited amount of vigilance built into the nature of sleep though: we all wake 4-6 times every night. These brief awakenings allow us to take note of what’s going on around us. As long as nothing in our environment suggests a reason to be concerned, we quickly return to sleep, often without even being aware that we were momentarily awake. These awakenings are like a security system woven into our sleep.
However, imagine falling asleep with your blinds down, then waking to find them up and the window wide open. This would probably cause you to be concerned about your sleep environment. Is it safe? Or picture falling asleep with your partner next to you, but waking every night to find they were gone. You would start to become suspicious over why your partner would vanish. If you couldn’t communicate your concern or learn why this was happening, you might become anxious at bedtime, resisting falling asleep because you knew that once you did, you’d wake to find that person missing again.
The same principle is true for your toddler. Whatever is important to your toddler at bedtime is something they expect to stay the same all night long. This provides your todder a sense of security, and helps them understand that it’s safe to go to sleep.
To help your toddler sleep well all night, the way your toddler falls asleep at night needs to stay the same all night long.
Challenge #3: My toddler doesn’t want to fall asleep independently.
Resolution: Change your toddler’s sleep cues.
There are a number of ways you can help your child to fall asleep independently, and they all require changing habits, or sleep cues, at a pace that seems right for you and your child. It may be difficult at first!. Validate how this feels to your toddler, while also staying firm to your boundaries. Continue to communicate your process honestly to help build your toddler’s trust in you.
Gradual learning: Camping Out
Start by placing a mattress on the floor in your toddler’s room, near where they sleep. After your bedtime routine, place your toddler in their crib or bed, say goodnight, and lie down on your own mattress. Keep all other interactions minimal. If your toddler gets out of bed, return them to bed without any discussion. Refrain from conversation. Your goal is simply to be passively present. Any time your toddler wakes during the night, maintain the same procedure.
Continue the same steps each night until your child is comfortable falling asleep and staying asleep without any interaction from you. For children who were used to being actively helped to fall asleep (such as breastfeeding or rocking), the first night is usually the most difficult. Subsequent nights quickly improve as your child learns that your passive presence is consistent and unchanging.
To continue guiding your child’s independent sleep process, choose one of the next levels of learning.
Intermediate learning: Check and Console
After completing your bedtime routine, guide your toddler to bed. Let them know that you will return to check on them, say goodnight, and leave. After a time, return to your child to briefly remind them that you are still there and that it’s okay to rest. Continue to periodically check on your toddler until they fall asleep. Repeat the same process anytime they wake during the night.
Variations on this style of learning include the “Ferber Method” which recommends that parents slowly increase the length of the intervals between checking on their child. The “Sleep Wave” suggests that the time between checks remains constant at 5 minutes. There is no evidence to support that the length of time between checks makes a difference; whether you increase the time between checks or keep it constant, either way will work.
Rapid learning: No Intervention
For some toddlers and their parents, it’s reassuring for the parent to check in while their toddler is learning to fall asleep independently. For others, checking on the toddler only increases the volume and intensity of their crying. If you can’t be consistent with a simple, brief, verbal reassurance when checking on your toddler, it’s more compassionate to avoid mixed messages during the learning process and not check in at all.
Here’s how it works: at bedtime, tuck your toddler into their bed or crib, say goodnight, and leave the room. A toddler who is used to having a parent present while falling asleep will understandably protest the change. No one likes change! Think of what it’s like when your usual grocery store rearranges all the aisles. You used to be able to go through the store almost on auto-pilot, but now everything takes a great deal of effort… until you get used to the new layout. The same is true for your child. In addition your child is tired, possibly adding to their discomfort We promise, your toddler will fall asleep eventually, and the new routine will become familiar.
The key to any change is to stay as consistent as possible and give it time. Surveys of parents who have used this “No Intervention” strategy have shown that the most rapid change happens in the first three days, with crying significantly reduced by the end of the first week. But it’s important to stay consistent for a few weeks before trying something different. We all need time to adjust to change.
Challenge #4: My child is used to eating during the night and wakes wanting to be fed.
Resolution: For most children, night feedings aren’t necessary after 12 months, so you should feel confident phasing out this routine. (Always check with your health care provider regarding feeding concerns.)
Although most babies no longer require night feedings beyond the age of 6 months, many parents continue to offer feedings as a relatively quick way to help their baby return to sleep or as a way of comforting their child. Some breastfeeding mothers may prefer to keep a night feeding throughout the first year, as a way to keep up their milk supply.
However, night feedings are unnecessary after 12 months of age in healthy children, and are the result of habit, not need.
To wean off night feedings, change the order of your bedtime routine. If your toddler is still breastfeeding or taking a bottle before bed, make sure that this is the first thing in your bedtime routine rather than the last. Once you place your toddler into the crib or bed, use one of the methods listed above to guide them into falling asleep without the feeding. Repeat the same method when your child wakes during the night. After a few nights, your child will no longer associate feeding with falling asleep, and the night wakings will cease.
Challenge #5: My toddler is experiencing separation anxiety at night.
Resolution: Validate and accept their feelings and let them pass.
When your toddler cries as you try to leave the room, it’s understandable to want to soothe them. What your child needs though, more than for you to calm their tears, is to be able to learn what to do with those distressing emotions in the first place.
Validate how your toddler feels. “You feel sad because mommy or daddy has to go. It’s okay to feel sad. We all do sometimes.” Even if your toddler’s verbal skills are still minimal, they often understand much more than they are able to communicate.
Instead of distracting or appeasing your toddler’s emotions, allow them and accept them. You don’t need to solve these feelings. By giving them opportunities to see that it’s okay to feel sad, they can begin to see that they are able to work through feelings of loss.
Give your child opportunities to experiment these feelings in other moments of the day. Your child may cry when you simply go to the bathroom and close the door or even when you leave for a quick run to the store. Show him that you know that it’s hard for him to say goodbye but you always come back to him after a moment.
Offering a special stuffed animal or favorite blanket at bedtime is one way your toddler can learn how to navigate through their own feelings. You can even use that stuffed animal to act out their bedtime routine and show them how to validate their stuffed animal’s feelings. “Teddy Bear feels sad when mommy has to go. Do you ever feel that way? Do you think you could help Teddy Bear feel better?” By giving your toddler a responsibility to care for their stuffed animal, it allows them to project their feelings. It also gives them a sense of empathy and capability to help someone else to feel better.
Challenge #6: My toddler is climbing out of the crib.
Resolution: As long as your toddler isn’t hurting themself, return them to the crib. Try to wait on the crib-to-bed transition if possible
Switching from a crib to a bed is a big change for a young child. It requires the child to be able to understand invisible boundaries, and to be able to regulate their own desires (“I want to see mommy and daddy!”) with their own needs (“I feel sleepy.”) For this reason, it’s best to wait until at least age 3 before moving your toddler out of the crib, if at all possible.
If a toddler is climbing out of the crib but isn’t getting hurt, teach them that they need to stay in the crib during rest time. Every time they get out, return them to the crib with minimal interaction. Your persuasive words will not convince your child to stay in the crib! Once they learn that during rest time you are not available to play or talk and that you set clear boundaries about him staying in the crib, your escapee will quickly stop trying to do it at bedtime.
If your toddler is climbing out of their crib and getting hurt, then it’s time to move them to a toddler bed. Ensure that the room is fully childproofed, with heavy furniture secured to the walls and potential hazards like electrical cords moved out of reach. Distracting toys need to be put away. If your child comes out of the bedroom, your response should be the same as it was when they were climbing out of the crib: return your child to bed without talking. With consistency your child will learn to stay in bed.
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