Top Ten Tips for Toddlers and Sleep

by Dr. Laura Markham

sleeping toddler's feetToddlers don't seem to have an off switch. Often, when they're tired, they just reverberate faster, like an overwound toy, until they crash.

Reading your toddler's cues so you can ensure she gets enough sleep can be a challenge. Unfortunately, toddlers need adequate sleep to rise the 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.

The bad news is that some kids seem to be born good sleepers, and some don't. The good news is that falling asleep is a matter of habit, and all kids can learn it. It may take some time to develop that habit, but your busy toddler can learn to put himself to sleep, and to stay asleep, eventually. Some tips:

1. Start the wind-down process early in the evening. Toddlers who've been racing around the apartment can't simply switch gears and decompress when you decide it's bedtime.

2. Follow the same evening routine every night, if possible. 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 a common and effective routine. Beware of too elaborate a routine, because they have a way of expanding to take more time. Your goal is a sense of calm, safe, predictability.

3. Help your toddler set his "biological clock. Toddlers need a set time to go to bed every night. Most toddlers do better with an early bedtime (around 7pm), because it seems to fit their biological rhythm. When they stay up later, their adrenalin kicks in to keep them going, and they actually have a harder time falling asleep. Dim lights in the hour before bedtime, as well as slow, calm routines, help kids' bodies know that it's time to sleep. And watch for those yawns that signal he's ready for sleep. If he kicks into "overdrive" mode, getting him into bed will be much harder.

4. Set up a cozy bed. Your goal is to ensure that discomfort doesn't exacerbate the normal cycles of slight waking into real waking. Quiet matters -- make sure she can't hear the TV. Consider a "white noise" machine if necessary. Darkness matters -- make sure the curtains keep the streetlights out. Room-darkening shades are invaluable, especially in the summer months when your toddler will be going to sleep while it's still light out. Warmth matters -- if your toddler kicks his covers off, make sure he sleeps in warm pjs with feet. And of course, once he's out of diapers, be sure he uses the bathroom last thing.

5. Many toddlers need a bedtime snack to hold them through the night, especially during growth spurts. Warm milk, a piece of toast, something calming and predictable, not too interesting, and without sugar, usually works best. If they can eat it at a snack table in their room while you read a bedtime story, before brushing teeth, you can move efficiently through the bedtime routine.

6. Don't give up naps too early. Although every child has individual sleep needs, most kids are not ready to give up naps till age 3. Going napless before that just makes them cranky and adrenalized, making bedtime harder. And don't transition them from two naps a day to one until they're sleeping through the night.

7. Make sure they get enough fresh air and exercise during the day. Your grandmother was right: kids really do sleep more soundly when they get more outdoor play. Just not in the hour before bedtime, which re-energizes them!

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 so. Other parents resist this, 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. Many working moms, particularly, treasure this time with their kids, and love being able to go to sleep early, then get up early and rested. One downside of this habit is that if the child is not in your bed, you will need to move, which wakes you up. The other downside is that he may protest your absence when he awakens slightly in the middle of the night, during normal sleep cycles, which means that for some families this is not a sustainable habit.

9. If you aren't using the Family Bed, consciously teach your child to put herself to sleep. Your goal, of course, is to help your child sleep through the night. Kids in the family bed seem to do this automatically since they are 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, for whatever reason, your goal needs to be for your toddler to put herself back to sleep when she does wake up at night. For most babies and toddlers, that means helping her learn to fall asleep herself, so she won't miss you 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, she is likely to wake during the night looking for you, and will need to be nursed or rocked again to fall back asleep. Your goal now is to help her fall asleep in her own crib or bed, comfortably. That means putting her in her bed when she's awake, so that she can get used to falling asleep there herself. Breaking her established habit can be challenging -- it's hard for her to understand why you can't nurse her or rock her now -- so starting this in babyhood is a lot easier than in todderhood. In any case, you can expect her to need your close physical proximity to settle down to sleep.

11. Start slow. Begin (after your bedtime routine) by holding your child until he falls asleep -- not lying down, which puts you in danger of falling asleep. Use the time to meditate, if you can, or think of something delightful that you can look forward to. The next phase is to touch, but not hold, your child. Then, begin to sit next to your child while he falls asleep, without touching him. Finally, sit further and further away, until you are outside the bedroom door. Another variation on this process is to move quietly around the room, straightening up or folding laundry, while your toddler falls asleep. This provides a sense of security, without him depending on your physical proximity. Then you can leave the room for longer and longer periods, beginning by sitting right outside his door with a good book.

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones. Dr. Markham is the founding editor of www.YourParentingSolutions.com and www.AhaParenting.com, where she regularly takes on a wide range of challenging questions from parents who struggle with "the toughest, most rewarding job on earth."

On Pregnancy.org, Dr. Markham hosts a monthly chat on the third Wednesday each month. Click here to check out her Parenting Tips.

Dr. Markham is the author of the Q & A e-book series, Ask Dr. Markham, with editions for all ages from birth to teens, and of the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of Happy Moms, which lays out her relationship-based approach to raising kids who turn out great. Dr. Markham lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, 13 year-old daughter, and 17 year-old son.

Copyright © Laura Markham. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.