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 have a harder time falling asleep than others, all children can learn to fall asleep without a parent's presence and sleep through the night.
Here's how to help your toddler sleep:
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 covers off, make sure they sleep 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 they still nurse to sleep or fall asleep with a bottle, you'll want to break that association so that when your child wakes in the night they can go back to sleep on their own.
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 3. 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, they probably need to cry before they 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 them to put themselves 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 themselves 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 their self back to sleep when they wake slightly at night.
10. Teach new sleep habits
If you've been helping your child fall asleep with nursing or rocking when they wake slightly during normal sleep cycles, they are likely to look for you because they need to be nursed or rocked again to fall back asleep.
Your goal now is to help them fall asleep in their own crib or bed at night. That means putting them into bed when they're awake so that they can get used to falling asleep there on their own.
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 they fall asleep—but don't lie down, you might fall asleep, too. Once they're used to falling asleep this way, the next phase is to touch, but not hold, your child. Eventually, they'll be able to fall asleep with you simply holding their hand, or putting your hand on their forehead.
When they can fall asleep being touched but not held, begin to sit next to them while they doze off with no touch. 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 them in a monotone that it's, "Bedtime, sleep time, lie down now please."
You probably will find that some days they backslide and need you to touch them again. That's okay, it won't sabotage your overall momentum, as long as the next day you're back to your program.
13. What if they cry?
Your little one is learning new sleep habits, and that's hard. They may cry and beg for you to do things the old way. They're showing you all their 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 them alone with the 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, they 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 they haven'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 them how proud you are when they make progress in learning to sleep on their own. They need some motivation to do what is a hard thing for most toddlers. Any other motivation you can give will also be valuable.
Some kids respond to little prizes in the morning, and if they show any interest in eventually having sleepovers, you can point out their progress. And remember to provide plenty of physical closeness and snuggles during the day, to make up for their independence at night.
This gradual program provides a sense of security while at the same time teaching your toddler to feel comfortable falling asleep without your physical proximity. Eventually, you'll find that your toddler is asleep almost as soon as their 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."