How to Help Toddlers
Get a Better Night’s Sleep
Toddlers are rumbling, tumbling balls of energy that seem to never slow down. For many 1-3 year-olds, the longer they stay awake, the more energy they seem to have. However, the first few years of life are also critical phases in physical growth and brain development, both of which are fueled by sleep.
Sleep habits are not all learned or taught. Some are simply innate. Just as some adults sleep better and easier than others, some children naturally self-soothe and easily sleep through the night. Others need help and guidance in order to find balance between their desire for movement and close contact and their need to sleep. Eventually, all children learn to sleep better, or at least sleep in their own rooms, as they age and mature. For now, parents of toddlers can follow these steps from Pottery Barn Kids to at least help their toddlers sleep better. With some patience, consistency and a long-term outlook, getting more sleep is possible.
Step 1: Formulate a plan
Before you start trying to sleep train a toddler, it is important to sit down and figure out what you want to accomplish, and how. Each adult responsible for the child’s care needs to be on the same page and agree to a system that they will both follow. Otherwise, the process won’t work. If, for example, one parent is against a “cry it out” approach and gives in to the child’s cries, any attempts by the other parent to implement this system will likely be hard, if not impossible.
Also, when making a plan for your toddler’s sleep, it is important to keep in mind that there is no right or wrong approach. If you are comfortable with a family bed or happy to lay down with your toddler each evening until he falls asleep, then that’s okay. If you believe that children should sleep alone, in their own bed only, then that’s okay, too. The goal should be to find a plan that affords the most people the most sleep, and that will be specific to your family and its needs.
Step 2: Set the stage
The setting, both physical and emotional, is important if you want to have a successful bedtime experience. This means implementing a routine that starts well before the desired bedtime, generally 60-90 minutes. While it is okay, and even beneficial, to vary this routine somewhat, having the same few elements, such as a bath, reading time, snuggles and soft music, as well as a comfortable bed, is a good way to subconsciously signal to the child that sleep time is here while also allowing her to physically unwind in a soothing environment.
Setting the stage is not limited to bedtime itself, however. It also takes place throughout the day as you ensure that your toddler gets enough physical exercise and fresh air to sufficiently tire him out. In addition, despite their resistance to it, most children need to nap until at least age 3. Though it seems counterintuitive, being overtired actually leads most toddlers to get less sleep, not more.
Step 3: Be realistic
Sleep training takes time. You are forming a new habit for both you and your child, which means retraining your bodies and brains as well as breaking old habits. Start slow, hold your child, sit near her, hold her hand, whatever you need to do to try to facilitate sleep. Once one phase is mastered, move on to the next. Give yourself time and make sure that you don’t start sleep training at a period in your life when you anticipate disruptions such as travel or a change in work or daycare schedule.
Step 4: Be honest
By the age of a year and certainly beyond, toddlers are able to understand a lot more than they can express themselves. Take time to explain to your child what is happening and why. Use simple vocabulary such as, “Sleep is important because it helps you grow” and “Mommy wants to help you learn how to sleep by yourself since you are becoming such a big boy/girl.” These types of conversations help to reassure the child that you are here to help him and that you love him. Extra hugs and snuggles during the daytime are also important.
Also, make sure to check in with your child and discuss the progress of your sleep training throughout the journey. Acknowledge his victories and praise him for being brave, pointing out specific improvements such as staying in bed all night. This shows that you notice the effort it takes for your child to learn, as well as provides him with motivation to continue to progress.