Toddlers don't seem to have an off switch. Often, when they're tired, they just reverberate faster, like an overwound toy, until they crash.
Toddlers need adequate sleep to rise to the developmental challenges that fill their lives, from controlling their temper on the playground to staying on top of their own bodily functions. Even the stress of saying goodbye to Mom and Dad when the babysitter comes can be handled more resourcefully by a rested toddler than a tired one.
Some of our ability to sleep easily seems to be innate, and some kids just seem to be born better sleepers, while some aren't.
This is complicated by the fact that young humans seem designed to sleep with other humans. You may get a better night's sleep with your toddler in another room, but your toddler instinctively feels safer in your presence.
The good news is that falling asleep is a habit, and all kids can learn it. While some kids have a harder time falling asleep than others, all children can learn to fall asleep without a parent's presence, then sleep through the night.
1. Start the wind down process early in the evening
Toddlers who've been racing around all day can't simply switch gears and decompress when you decide it's bedtime. The last few hours before bed should be calm and quiet.
2. Follow the same evening routine every night, if possible
Your goal is a sense of calm, safe, inevitability. Dinner, then a bath, then stories, then kissing and tucking in all the stuffed animals who share the toddler's bed, then prayers or blessings then lights out while you sing to your little one, is an example of a common and effective routine.
3. Help your toddler set his biological clock
Toddlers need a set time to go to bed every night—their body begins to expect sleep. Most toddlers do better with an early bedtime, between 6:30 and 8 pm. You'd think a later bedtime would help them fall asleep more easily, but when they stay up later, they get overtired, and stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol kick in to keep them going. Then, they actually have a harder time falling asleep, wake up more during the night, and often wake early in the morning.
4. Make a cozy bed
All children go through normal sleep cycles in which they wake just slightly and then settle into deep sleep again. Your goal is to ensure that discomfort doesn't wake your child during those periods of slight waking.
Blackout shades or curtains can be invaluable, especially in the summer months when your toddler will be going to sleep while it's still light out. And warmth matters—if your toddler kicks his covers off, make sure he sleeps in warm PJs with feet.
5. Many toddlers need a bedtime snack to hold them through the night
Warm milk, a piece of toast, something calming and predictable, not too interesting, and without sugar, works best. If she still nurses to sleep or falls asleep with a bottle, you'll want to break that association, so that when your child wakes in the night she can put herself back to sleep.
6. Don't give up naps too early
Although every child has individual sleep needs, most kids are not ready to give up naps until age three. Going napless before that just makes them cranky and adrenalized, making bedtime much more challenging.
7. Make sure they get enough fresh air, sunshine, and exercise during the day
Kids really do sleep more soundly when they get more outdoor play. Laughter is also essential because it transforms the body chemistry to reduce the stress hormones.
Often, kids who have a hard time settling at bedtime have a full emotional backpack and the laughter helps them fall asleep and stay asleep. If laughter isn't enough, your child will show you, with oppositional behavior, that he needs more help to empty all that stress. In that case, he probably needs to cry before he can settle down to sleep.
8. Decide for or against the family bed for your family
Most toddlers fall asleep easily if you lie down with them, and many parents do this. Other parents resist, because they too often fall asleep themselves, and lose their evenings.
This is an individual call, and there is no shame in waiting till your child is a little older before expecting her to put herself to sleep—it does get easier for kids as they get older.
9. If you aren't using the family bed, consciously teach your child to put herself to sleep
Kids in the family bed often do this automatically since they're reassured by their parents' presence, and since sleeping with the mother is certainly a natural state biologically for toddlers. If you don't want a family bed, your goal is for your toddler to put herself back to sleep when she does wake slightly at night.
10. Teach new sleep habits
If you've been helping your child fall asleep with nursing or rocking, then when he wakes slightly during normal sleep cycles, he is likely to look for you, because he needs to be nursed or rocked again to fall back asleep.
Your goal now is to help him fall asleep in his own crib or bed at night. That means putting him into bed when he's awake so that he can get used to falling asleep there himself.
11. Explain to your child what's going to happen
Tell your child, "You like to be rocked, but you can learn to settle down and sleep without rocking....we need to be in the bed...I am right here with you...you can cry as much as you want...I will hold you...You can learn this." Stay calm and loving and insist that it's time for sleeping.
12. Start slow
After your bedtime routine, begin by holding your child until he falls asleep—but don’t lie down, you might fall asleep, too. Once he's used to falling asleep this way, the next phase is to touch, but not hold, your child. Eventually, he will be able to fall asleep with you simply holding his hand, or putting your hand on his forehead.
When he can fall asleep being touched but not held, begin to sit next to your child while he falls asleep, without actually touching him. Finally, begin sitting further and further away, until you are outside the bedroom door. If your child tries to sit up in bed, just remind him in a monotone that it's "Bedtime, sleep time, lie down now please."
You probably will find that some days he backslides and needs you to touch him again. That's ok, it won't sabotage your overall momentum, as long as the next day you're back to your program.
13. What if he cries?
Your little one is learning new sleep habits, and that's hard for him. He may well cry and beg for you to do things the old way. He's showing you all his fear of being without you. Your job is to listen and acknowledge, "I hear that you're worried...I will be very close by...I will always come if you call....I know you can fall asleep without me."
When young children get a chance to cry in our loving presence, they experience those fears they've been fending off, and they are able to fall asleep more easily. This is not the same as leaving a child to cry it out, which leaves him alone with his fears. Your goal is to avoid trauma, which is best done by moving very slowly through this learning process.
14. Night wakings
These usually diminish as kids learn to put themselves to sleep, because when they wake slightly at night they aren't looking around for mom or dad. While your child is still needing you to fall asleep, however, she will probably keep waking up at night. For that interim period, many parents find it easier to just let their toddler climb in bed with them, particularly because she hasn't yet learned to fall asleep without being held and thus could wake repeatedly at night.
Special note for moms who are nursing toddlers: It's fine to nurse your toddler at night if you're up for it. However, many toddlers who nurse at night wake up all night asking for milk. So it is also fine to night-wean your toddler, and it should not impact your nursing relationship if you make sure that your little one has plenty of cozy nursing opportunities during waking hours.
15. Acknowledge your child's courage and loss
Tell him how proud you are when he makes progress in learning to sleep by himself. He needs some motivation to do what is a hard thing for most toddlers. Any other motivation you can give him will also be valuable.
Some kids respond to little prizes in the morning, and if he shows any interest in eventually having sleepovers, you can point out his progress toward them. And remember to provide plenty of physical closeness and snuggles during the day, to make up for his independence at night.
This gradual program provides a sense of security while at the same time teaches your toddler to feel comfortable falling asleep without your physical proximity. Eventually, you’ll find that your toddler is asleep almost as soon as his head settles on the pillow—and you’ll be amazed to find that you actually have an evening!
If you are interested in an exploring this topic more thoroughly, the original article can be found here on Aha! Parenting. You can also click here to watch Dr. Laura's video "When Your Three-Year-Old Takes Over An Hour To Fall Asleep."