Whether your child was an awesome sleeper as an infant or has never slept well, many toddlers will have trouble with napping, sleeping through the night, or simply staying in bed at least sometimes. The problems that plagued your household when your itty bitty baby needed endless cuddles and round-the-clock feeds might be long behind you, but now you’ve got “bigger” problems to worry about. Maybe your toddler has learned to climb out of their crib and bedtime is now filled with frustration or fears of the dark. Regardless of what’s keeping your toddler up – we’ve got 7 surefire tips for taming toddler sleep problems.
1. Time it right
Big kids may seem like they could run for hours (and maybe they can, at least occasionally), but restorative sleep is just as (or maybe even MORE) important than ever! Around 18 months, many toddlers will transition to 1 nap and this tends to create a need for even more sleep overnight. Where some younger toddlers (under 18 months) may have been fine with less than 12 hours of sleep per night, after the nap transition many children will begin to need 12 or more hours overnight to properly charge their “batteries.”
So, the first trick to sleeping through the night and taking long naps for toddlers is keeping their bedtimes and naptimes age-appropriate. Toddlers in the 18-24 month age group may need approximately 5-5.5 hours of awake time before a nap and another 5-5.5 hours of awake time between nap and bedtime. Older 2 and 3 year olds may need slightly less sleep per day and do better with closer to 6 hours of awake time before sleep.
2. Utilize age-appropriate sleep spaces
Many parents are eager to transition their toddler to a “big” kid bed – sometimes earlier than the child can fully appreciate their new digs. We recommend waiting until at least age 2 before transitioning from a crib or cot to an open sleep space (e.g. toddler bed, Montessori bed, etc.). This is because even if the child understands they are to stay in their bed and wait for mom or dad to come to get them, many young toddlers will lack the impulse control they need to actually follow through.
What if your child is climbing out of their crib, but not quite old enough to have control of their impulses and thus be ready for an open sleep space? We’ve got tricks for keeping the crib, too!
3. Ward off hunger pangs
Toddlers are ACTIVE, which means they burn loads of calories! And, they might even be so active they sometimes forget to eat or don’t fully satisfy their hunger. This high-caloric burn and under-eating combo can pack a very heavy punch resulting in poor naps, night waking, and most commonly, waking too early in the morning. The solution?
- Keep healthy snacks on-hand and easy for your toddler to eat on-the-go.
- Offer a high-protein, high-fiber snack approximately 1 hour before your child’s bedtime.
- Start your toddler’s day off right with a well-balanced meal within 30 minutes of wake-up.
4. Talk through fears
Older toddlers (age 2 and up) may develop fears – fear of the dark, fear of monsters, fear of storms, fear of being alone, etc. and these fears can cause various sleep problems if not resolved. If you suspect your toddler is fearful of something and this has them waking often through the night or wanting a parent to stay with them as they fall asleep, it’s time to talk to your child about their fears (in the daytime). Once you’ve identified the fear, think of creative ways to help restore your child’s sense of security.
5. Set firm limits
Nothing hinders toddler sleep more than inconsistency. When deciding when, where, and how your child will sleep it is important to keep things consistent. If your child is sometimes allowed to sleep in mommy’s bed and other times they are expected to sleep in their own bed, this blurs the lines for your toddler. Toddlers crave routine and structure. While learning how things work, toddlers are constantly testing the limits in an attempt to understand cause and effect. “If I get out of my bed, will mommy let me sleep with her or will I be brought back to my room? Hmmm… let’s see!”
6. Create a stall-proof routine
Limit setting leads to our next key takeaway for taming toddler sleep problems: creating a consistent sleep routine (for both nap and bedtime) and STICKING TO IT! Toddlers are known for attempting to get out of going to sleep. To them, sleep is boring and they’d much rather stay up and play. So, they’ll say or do just about anything to buy them 10 more minutes! Here are some classic examples of toddler stall tactics:
- Requesting water
- Asking for another book
- Inquiring about another song/story/etc
- Wanting to get up and go say goodnight [possibly for the 2nd or 3rd time] to the cat/dog/other parent/sibling…
Again, this is when setting limits is important. Establish a solid nap and bedtime routine for your toddler and do not deviate from it. If your child has a tantrum [because they couldn’t read another book, for example] this is more reason not to give in to their requests. A good compromise would be agreeing to read an extra book after your child wakes up from their nap or night sleep. (Remember: If you make a promise to a toddler, it’s important to keep it! This builds trust.)
7. Encourage and praise
Toddlers love feeling useful and really look up to older kids and adults – they want to be just like you! So, lead by example, and when they do something you’ve asked, be sure to praise them. For example, if your toddler remembers to bring their lovey into bed with them, turn off the lamp after storytime, or goes to bed without complaint, let them know how proud you are of them! This sort of encouragement goes a long way with a toddler. 🙂
BONUS TIP: Many families have had great success with toddler clocks for way-too-early wakings!