As babies move into toddlerhood, new sleep struggles may begin to show up for parents in the form of cause-and-effect. As toddlers begin to develop an awareness of their place in the world, they may test different boundaries to discover what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Toddlers look for boundaries as they provide information on social expectations helping guide their behavior. This is where sleep can become difficult as your toddler navigates their new skills of confidence, testing limitations, new curiosity, and trying to skip naps, test out where they can sleep and when they can sleep.
It is important as parents to understand that while we want our toddlers to be able to make choices in their world and have confidence in doing so, their brains are still developing and have difficulty in making decisions beyond what they may wear or eat. Even those can be a real struggle for them. That’s why it is important to establish sleep boundaries for your toddler. These are rules that provide social information to them on what they can and cannot do. As parents, we understand the importance of sleep and that we need sleep despite the fun we may be having, while toddlers, on the other hand, focus on what is happening in the here and now, and playing is so much more fun than going to sleep where no fun happens!
Here are five tips to help support you in navigating sleep with a toddler.
Start by determining 3-4 sleep boundaries that your family would like to have, such as sleeping in our own beds, no snacks after X time, no electronics after X time, no play in the room during sleep time, etc. Communicate with whoever will support your toddler to ensure you’re all on the same page on what you will respond to and how you will respond.
How to communicate with your toddler?
Is your toddler under 2-years-old? The way you will communicate to them about the family sleep boundaries is through your actions, how you respond to them.
Is your toddler around 3-years-old? Have a talk with your toddler about what the boundaries are, what they can do, and what will happen if they cross over that boundary (aka test it or ignore it). It doesn’t have to be an elaborate chat as you probably will have their attention for a good 2-minutes, so just get to the points and keep revisiting them daily.
This strategy is important to help your toddler to learn what the sleep boundary will actually look like. To begin, you can role play with toys by modeling the sleep boundary through narrating the play, model what will happen if they follow the boundary, what will happen if they don’t, and what the boundary looks like. Role-playing is a fun interactive way to teach new skills as your child sees it as fun and not realizing they are having rules being taught to them. Also, play helps your toddler process the new information and allows them to process the feelings they may have with the new sleep boundaries in a safe, supportive way.
This strategy is providing warnings prior to an upcoming change/transition.
Your toddler may need this as they struggle processing time or understanding that when play is done that it actually means it is all done. By providing a heads up in the form of a picture, timer, or verbal cue, it helps them become aware of the transition coming and help them transition through the change.
How to use priming with sleep
During the day and throughout the sleep routine, prime them of the sleep boundaries by talking about them and telling them what you will be doing. For example, “bedtime is coming, Mommy will go to sleep in her bed, and Johnny will sleep in his bed.”
4. Visual Schedules
Visuals are a great strategy to support your toddler in processing what is happening now and what is to come. As their communication skills of understanding language and expressing language are still developing, pictures are a great way to support pairing the language with what they need to do.
How to use visuals with sleep
Take a picture of your toddler performing each step of the sleep routine, print the photos, and put the pictures in order based on when they are performed in the routine. Next, use the schedule throughout the routine to help your toddler see what you need them to do and so they can see what is to come throughout the routine.
In order for your toddler to follow your sleep boundaries, you need to follow them as well. Ensuring that you follow through with them and follow them each night allows your toddler to learn them quickly and maintain them. Additionally, this will decrease potentially confusing your toddler by following through sometimes. Other times you don’t; they won’t understand when they can do it or when they can’t, so you may see an increase in behavior as a result.
Creating sleep boundaries does not lead you to be an authoritarian parent; instead, it supports your attachment with your child as a responsive parent in teaching them that boundaries exist and how to navigate those boundaries. Helping your child learn what boundaries are and the importance of boundaries will help support them in other areas of their life other than sleep. As they grow and experience other environments, boundaries will be presented, and you will have already helped them understand boundaries and how to cope through them. We want to ensure the sleep foundation you have established as a baby for them continues as they are toddlers.
Kensey is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst approaching 12 years of clinical experience. Her experience includes parent coaching, clinic-based services, and school-based consultation. After becoming a Mom 8 months ago, Kensey soon realized how challenging newborn sleep can be and wanted some support. This led to her discovering an additional passion to help other families facing the same struggle, and she completed a child sleep consultant course. Soon after, she founded Sleep Easy Clinic. Sleep Easy Clinic is home to a number of service offerings such as 1:1 consultation, guides, monthly group membership, and group services.
Note: Guest blog posts are shared for informational and educational purposes and may not reflect the official policy or position of SlumberPod (parent company, Dovetail Essentials, LLC), our employees, and/or contractors.