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!