Has Your Toddler's Sleep Come Undone?
Was your baby a great sleeper, and suddenly isn't anymore now that they've entered toddlerhood?
- You thought your sleepless nights were behind you, and now you feel like you have a newborn again!
- The bedtime battles, frequent night wake-ups, and nap strikes make you feel like you'll lose your mind!
- You keep thinking things will get better with your toddler's sleep because they USED to sleep well, and instead, things continue to get worse night after night.
One of the most frustrating scenarios I come across as a sleep consultant is when parents have done the hard work of teaching their baby to sleep well, and then suddenly, that baby becomes a toddler, and their sleep is terrible again.
Your baby isn't a baby anymore. They walk, talk, and test boundaries in many areas of their life. Boundary testing is normal, but when it starts to affect the quality and quantity of sleep for everyone in the family, it becomes a problem.
Most toddlers have learned negotiating tactics, and many have STRONG personalities. These personalities will serve them well in life, no doubt! But, these strong personalities do present some issues for parents when it comes to setting boundaries.
Boundaries around sleep are where we, as parents, let the toddler negotiations go on and on. I've found over the years that toddlers thrive with clear, consistent boundaries around sleep. It creates a sense of security for them.
Your toddler tests their behaviors and actions to see if they get what they want. When a behavior or action works, they use it repeatedly to get what they're after.
Toddlers are notorious for stalling bedtime, and some use all of their negotiating skills to delay it as much as possible. They're thirsty, hungry, have to go potty, need another book, and so on, until they finally relent and fall asleep, probably with you lying next to them.
Then, the real fun begins because if you can sneak out of their room without waking them, you know it'll only be a matter of time before the first wake-up of the night happens. At that time, you'll either let them sleep in your bed, sacrificing your comfort and sleep quality, or take them back to their room 15 times a night!
I just had a client whose toddler came into her room 15 times a night! YIKES!
Suppose bedtime and overnights have gotten out of hand. In that case, it's time to stop negotiating with your toddler and set some boundaries around sleep.
Poor sleep wreaks havoc on your toddler's daily life. You’re making everything more challenging by adding fatigue to their already intense emotions.
Your toddler will thank you for getting their sleep back on track. Toddlers are old enough to know how much better they feel when well-rested. I see this happen all the time!
When a toddler starts to sleep well, so many things in their lives improve.
Where do you start?
Here are some tips for getting your toddler's sleep back on track.
1. How much total sleep does your child need?
Children ages 2-6 need about 11-12 hours of sleep in 24 hours. So, let's ensure we're not having a 3-hour nap and expecting them to sleep 12 hours a night.
Your child doesn't need that much sleep. Too much daytime sleep is where a lot of the bedtime battles begin!
The best sleep your child can get is consolidated nighttime sleep, so although a 3-hour nap would be delightful, it's just not needed.
One of the mistakes I see parents making is letting their toddlers sleep for too long during the day. A toddler will make up for poor nighttime sleep with an ultra-long nap, which can be a vicious cycle. Too much daytime sleep can directly impact bedtime and overnight wake-ups.
Consider limiting daytime sleep to 1.5 hours max, and if your child is between the ages of 3-4, consider giving up the nap altogether if bedtime and overnights have become challenging.
A child will naturally drop a nap sometime between 3-4 years old. Now, I know many daycares and preschools nap children for up to 2 hours up to age 5!
If your toddler is napping for a long time during the day, you'll need to push your bedtime later.
2. Is your timing right?
Let's talk about sleep pressure for a minute. Sleep pressure is your brain's need for sleep that increases with the increasing time we spend awake.
Does your child have enough sleep pressure to fall asleep at bedtime?
If your toddler is still napping, they need 5.5-6 hours of awake time to build up enough sleep pressure to fall asleep quickly at bedtime. If you give your child less time from the end of their nap to bedtime, this is one of the issues.
A child should fall asleep in 5-15 minutes. Without proper awake time and sleep pressure, they lie there. Trying to fall asleep and being unable to will almost always result in bedtime battles because they CANNOT fall asleep.
Be sure you have the same amount of awake time before and after a nap. It would be best if you had enough sleep pressure for both things.
For most toddlers I work with, I use this schedule:
- 6:30/7 am Wake up
- 12:30-2:00 pm Nap
- 7:30 pm Bedtime
3. What's your bedtime routine look like?
Routine is crucial to a toddler. Making sure the bedtime routine moves along and doesn't last longer than 30 minutes is essential. A LOOOOONG, drawn-out bedtime routine is exhausting for everyone and not necessary.
Here’s a good bedtime routine for a toddler:
- Bath: Set a timer for 10 minutes so that the pressure is off you to end the bath; the timer does the work. When you consistently get them out of the bath when the timer goes off, they'll quickly get the message that the bath ends when it dings.
- Brush teeth/go potty
- Read two stories - only TWO. Not ten books, and we don't read them 50 times.
- Into bed & lights out
That should be it! Keep it short and sweet; no negotiating. Below is the bedtime routine chart I share with my clients. It keeps a toddler moving forward when they get a sticker for each activity they accomplish in their routine.
4. How we fall asleep is how we stay asleep
If your child has gotten dependent on you lying in bed with them to fall asleep and won't stay asleep all night long, it's because of what's happening at bedtime. You've become their "sleep prop."
We all cycle through sleep from light to deep to light again. Your child cycles through sleep, and when in a lighter stage of sleep, they realize that you're no longer there; they'll need their "sleep prop" to get back to sleep because how we fall asleep is how we stay asleep.
Getting your child to fall asleep without you there is the key to them sleeping through the night again.
Let's start by sitting in a chair in their room instead of lying in their bed and then work your way closer to the door and out of their room.
5. Light it up
Most toddlers, at some point, will articulate a fear of the dark. A good investment in an Ok-to-Wake clock or The Hatch would be wise. These can be great tools in helping a child understand when it's time to be in their bed and when it's okay to get out of bed in the morning.
Set the clock to red as a night light throughout the night. Red-based night lights are the best because they don't interfere with melatonin production. Then have it turn green when it's okay for them to get out of bed in the morning. Use the red night light as a visual cue if they wake up at night. Please remind your child that the clock is red; when it's red, we stay in our beds and sleep. When it's green, we start the day.
6. Empower them
One of the things I love most about working with toddlers is that you can reason with them to a certain extent. When you put a clear, consistent plan in place that is specifically for your child, it empowers them with their sleep skills. Toddlers get so excited about learning how to sleep!
It's incredible to watch bedtime battles end. Parents should be able to do a bedtime routine, tuck their little one in, walk away, and know that their child will fall asleep quickly, sleep through the night, AND get the best rest they can get.
You may have to try different approaches to determine what works for your child. What isn't optional is consistency.
Once you find something that works, you must stick to your guns. Your toddler can spot an empty threat a mile away.
Bedtime and overnights should be non-negotiable.
If you're looking for a solution to end the bedtime battles with your toddler for good, let's have a quick chat.
I offer a complimentary 15-minute discovery call to learn more about your child's specific sleep issues and share exactly how I can help your family.
Here's the link to book a call with me:
Be patient, be calm, but be firm and predictable and remember your child WAS a good sleeper and can be again!
Certified Sleep Consultant
JoAnna Inks is a certified sleep consultant who's been working with families to teach their children to sleep well for 14 years. She's the mom of two precious boys who continue to be her "why" in helping as many families as she can get the rest they need. She believes that every child can learn to sleep well with a clear, consistent plan that is tailored to the child and the family as a whole. She prides herself on creating gentle sleep plans that work and supporting the family every step of the way as the plan progresses. When she's not working on all things sleep she likes hiking, cooking, and spending time with her awesome husband, her boys, and her two fur babies.