Welcome to the complex world of toddler sleep routines – a battleground where exhaustion and determination collide. If you're a parent, you understand the value of a peaceful night's sleep, both for your child's development and your sanity. However, coaxing a toddler into a consistent sleep routine is often easier said than done. From bedtime battles to unexpected night awakenings, the path to achieving positive sleep habits can feel like a challenge.
In this blog, we'll dig into what a sleep routine can look like for toddlers while also addressing the common struggles parents face along the way. We aren't about pushing a certain toddler sleep training method or approach, we're just here for a no-nonsense exploration of the ups and downs in the quest for a good night's sleep – for both your toddler and yourself.
Toddler Sleep Training: Learn the Basics
The words "sleep train" can be pretty charged in the world of child-rearing. But we're here to share some lighter toddler sleep training tips.
We see toddler sleep training as nothing more than a way to help toddlers learn to fall asleep independently and on their own schedule. It involves teaching toddlers the skills they need to fall asleep without assistance from parents or caregivers. This includes learning how to soothe themselves, staying in bed until morning, and gradually building up sleep stamina. Sleep training can help toddlers become more independent sleepers and reduce bedtime struggles for parents.
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While it might involve some resistance and challenges along the way, the long-term benefits of a well-rested toddler and a more peaceful household make the time spent on improving sleep worthwhile. Whether you're navigating nap time battles or tackling nighttime wakings, understanding the fundamentals of toddler sleep training can empower you to create an environment conducive to better sleep for your child – and yourself.
Why Do Toddlers Struggle to Stay in Bed and Fall Asleep?
So why is toddler sleep training even a topic to discuss? Why do toddlers struggle to fall asleep or even stay in bed? Many parents have these questions, so let's look at what might be changing in their little bodies and environments to cause these disturbances.
Changes in Environment and Home
Toddlers thrive on familiarity and routine, so any disruptions to their environment or daily life can be potential triggers for sleep struggles. Whether it's a move to a new home, a move to their own bed, the start of a new school, or the arrival of a new sibling, changes can cause discomfort and unsettle their sense of security. These alterations often lead to resistance during bedtime, as toddlers attempt to understand and adapt to their transformed surroundings. Providing reassurance, maintaining consistent routines, and gradually introducing changes can help alleviate the sleep challenges associated with environmental shifts.
The vivid world of a toddler's imagination can both delight and derail their sleep routine. As their minds buzz with creativity and curiosity, it's not uncommon for imaginative scenarios, monsters under the bed, or fantastical dreams to keep them awake. Active minds can lead to bedtime fears and difficulty falling asleep. Balancing creativity with a sense of security is key. Incorporating night lights, comfort objects, and uplifting storybooks can help channel their imagination into more positive sleep experiences.
FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
Toddlers are curious explorers, and they're always eager to be part of the action. This Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) can manifest during bedtime, with little ones reluctant to miss out on family activities, playtime, or even conversations happening around them. The fear that something exciting is happening while they're asleep can result in bedtime resistance and nighttime wakings. Establishing clear boundaries around bedtime and offering reassurance that they're not missing out can help mitigate FOMO-related sleep struggles.
Joe and Serenity also found that the more time and attention they gave Della during the day, the more “full” she felt, and the more willing she was to separate from them to go to sleep. If you're a busy working parent and this feels impossible, know that it doesn't need to be a huge commitment. Try the “ten minutes in heaven” approach. This philosophy suggests that each parent spends at least ten minutes a day with their full attention on their child doing whatever the child wants. Put away your phone, separate from other kids and pets, and really give your child 100% of your attention.
Even the smallest worries can cast long shadows over a toddler's mind and lead to sleep disruptions. Separation anxiety, fear of the dark, or worries about something happening the next day are common sources of anxiety that can make bedtime a challenging experience. These anxieties might manifest in resistance, frequent night wakings, or bedtime rituals aimed at seeking comfort. Providing a safe and soothing sleep environment, open communication, and consistent comfort measures can help alleviate anxiety-related sleep struggles and allow toddlers to rest more peacefully.
Some tricks for this are giving your child a “magic wand”, or “monster spray” they can use to protect themselves. Prayer can also be a powerful tool to teach children in families that follow a spiritual practice.
Diet can also play a role in sleep quality. Excessive sugar or refined carbohydrates can disrupt the body's ability to fall asleep. A balanced, satiating meal or snack about an hour before bedtime is ideal for aiding in falling and staying asleep. Including a combination of protein, fat, and healthy carbohydrates can help promote restful sleep for your little one. Our pouches work really well as a bedtime snack as they include healthy fat and protein, plus whole food based carbohydrates. Plus, they are quick, convenient, and mess free.
Blue light near bedtime can make it hard for the body to know it’s time to sleep - this is true for both toddlers and adults! Screens like phones, iPads, and TV are especially disruptive and ideally should be avoided at least an hour before bedtime. Traditional lighting can also contribute to this, so if needed consider switching to red lights an hour before bed, and use dim, red lights as a nightlight. We find salt lamps are especially good for this. Also, ensure your little one’s room is completely dark with blackout curtains, as even small amounts of light can disrupt the body's sleep cycles.
Beginner’s Guide: Teaching Your Toddler How to Sleep
Toddlers can struggle to sleep for a number of reasons, but the good news is that some simple tips can help you ease your toddler into a peaceful sleep.
Establish a consistent bedtime routine
A consistent bedtime routine helps get your toddler in the mindset that bedtime is approaching. It can help to wind down both their bodies and their minds. Steps to include in your child's bedtime routine may include reading books, listening to music, singing a song, and brushing teeth.
Note that many parents like to include a bath as part of a bedtime routine. While baths can be a good way to relax a young child, it might be stressful for some. You know your child best, so use your judgement as to whether a bath would support or detract from their bedtime routine. And if you feel like you need to include a bath daily to clean your child, know that it is actually not hygienically necessary for a young child to bathe every day, so do what works best for you and your family.
Finding the sweet spot for when to start your toddler bedtime routine might take some trial and error. Too much time, and your toddler might not be fully tired. Too little time, and they might feel rushed or become overtired (hello, meltdown). Toddlers need 10-12 hours of sleep a night, so aim to have them in bed based on when they usually wake up, or need to wake up, to get at least that much sleep
Create a sleep-conducive environment
Creating a sleep space that sets the stage for quality sleep is important. Make the toddler's room as dark as possible with blackout curtains, and keep it at an ambient temperature (the Sleep Foundation recommends around 65 degrees, and a few degrees warmer for infants). Try to use a red light if a night light is needed, and when winding down at night.
Limit screen time before bed
Screens like iPads and television can be stimulating to the brain, so limit use before bedtime (even if it feels like a good way to wind down).
Encourage daytime activity
Encouraging both physical and mental stimulation during the day can help. Rough play before bedtime is also a great way to engage with your little one while also encouraging movement. Contrary to what it may seem, play doesn’t “wind them up” it actually helps to wear them out.
Be attentive to nap needs
Nap time sleep (or lack thereof) can affect night time sleep. It might seem counterintuitive, but when kids are overtired, they can experience more trouble falling asleep. Balancing total nap time and night time sleep can take some trial and error, and needs can shift over time, so play with what works best for your little one.
Be firm and set boundaries
When they get out of bed, give them no extra attention. Say something quick and simple like, “it’s time to be in bed, I love you, good night”, and calmly put them back in bed. Do this over and over again in the exact same way as many times as necessary. When they learn that they aren’t going to get anything more from you by continuing to get up, they will eventually stop doing it (although this can take some time).
Consider treating the room as a large crib
If your toddler isn't contained in a crib and instead has free reign of the room, make sure the space is safe. You may also consider putting a door knob guard on the door to discourage them from leaving the room frequently. Just be sure to have a way to keep an eye or ear on them by video or audio monitor.
Use a toddler clock
A toddler clock or "OK-to-wake" clock can help your little one learn when it is ok to leave the room. It also helps put the burden off of you as a parent for setting a boundary. We like the Hatch Rest since it also includes a white noise component and can be easily controlled through an app on your phone.
Try the fading sleep method
If it is taking a long time for your toddler to fall asleep, try the fading sleep method to help shift bedtime earlier. Every few nights, put your toddler to bed 15 minutes earlier. If needed, pause while your child adjusts, and then shift another 15 minutes until you reach the optimal bedtime for falling asleep.
Be patient, calm, and grounded
Your child feeds off of your energy, and they look to you for a reaction. The calmer you are throughout the process, the calmer they will be. One of our favorite phrases to remember is "an escalated parent cannot deescalate an escalated child (thanks to Big Little Feelings for this!). So take a deep breath and remind yourself that you can do this.
Nourish them wisely
For sleep quality and so many other reasons, offer your little one nutrient dense foods while limiting sugars, refined carbs, and inflammatory foods, especially near bedtime. Try to have dinner finished at least an hour before bedtime so that your child can digest their meal and limit digestive discomfort (or multiple pre-bed potty trips) when they lay down.
We know you have questions, so we've got answers.
Is sleep training safe for toddlers?
Sleep training can be a controversial topic, so you might be wondering if sleep training is safe for your toddler. For otherwise healthy toddlers, establishing a consistent routine and good sleep habits is perfectly safe.
It might feel uncomfortable for all of you at first to introduce changes as you sleep train your toddler. Remember that change will take time, but always follow your intuition and do what feels best for you.
Is it possible to sleep train 2-year-olds?
Since sleep training is a common topic of conversation at much younger ages, you might question whether it is possible to sleep train your older toddler.
It is never too late to introduce your child or family to new healthy habits. One bonus in sleep training an older toddler is that unlike a baby or young toddler, you can talk with an older toddler about the process. You can share verbally what will change and you can reassure them that they are safe. This can help everybody manage expectations and can help the process go a bit more smoothly.
Can I use sleep training methods for both nap time and bedtime?
Many of the sleep training techniques or methods we suggest can be useful for when your toddler falls asleep for both nap time and bedtime. However, if either nap time or bedtime is consistently a battle, despite your best efforts, it might be time to consider dropping the nap. Many parents hesitate to drop the nap since they value the reset time in their own days, so rather than dropping the nap entirely, we suggest transitioning toddler naps to a quiet time. During this time, your child can spend quiet time engaging in independent play so that everyone still gets a period of rest during the day.
What's the best way to transition a toddler from a crib to a bed?
Just because you are making changes to a sleep routine doesn't mean you need to transition your toddler from a crib to a toddler bed. There is no need to rush this! Unless they are attempting to climb out of the crib and in danger of falling out. If they are ready to transition, start talking about it a week or two before you make the transition. Frame it as an exciting step and involve them in the process of choosing their bed or sheets. Discuss ground rules up front and be firm but positive.
Is it okay to let your toddler cry it out?
To be clear, we aren't suggesting that you need to let your toddler cry it out in order to sleep train. That said, some parents might find that allowing their toddler to fuss a bit can ultimately help them learn to self-soothe. Trust your instincts and do what works best for your family.
When Should I Seek Professional Help?
While it is completely normal for your toddler to experience some occasional sleep issues, seeking professional guidance can be beneficial if your toddler is experiencing persistent sleep difficulties that are not improving, even with your best efforts. If your toddler's sleep challenges are impacting their overall well-being, your family's quality of life, or if you're finding it difficult to manage on your own, it's a good idea to consult a pediatrician, a pediatric sleep specialist, or a child psychologist with expertise in sleep.
Signs that it might be time to seek professional help include:
- Consistent Sleep Disruptions: If your toddler consistently struggles to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wakes up multiple times during the night, despite your best efforts to establish a sleep routine.
- Nightmares or Night Terrors: If your toddler experiences severe nightmares or night terrors that are causing distress, and they're unable to settle back to sleep independently.
- Excessive Daytime Sleepiness: If your toddler is chronically tired during the day, leading to mood swings, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
- Persistent Behavioral Issues: If sleep troubles are leading to significant behavioral changes, such as increased aggression, hyperactivity, or emotional meltdowns.
- Long-Term Sleep Regression: If your toddler experiences a sleep regression that lasts longer than expected (beyond a few weeks), it might indicate an underlying issue that requires professional assessment.
- Health Concerns: If you suspect a medical issue or sleep disorder could be contributing to your toddler's sleep problems, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome.
A professional can help identify any underlying issues, offer tailored guidance and strategies, and provide reassurance and support. Remember that every child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. If you're ever uncertain or struggling to manage your toddler's sleep difficulties, seeking expert advice can be a proactive step toward finding effective solutions.
A peaceful night's sleep is invaluable for both parents and kids, but getting there can feel a bit daunting. We hope these tips empower you to have successful sleep training methods and tackle your toddler's sleep routine so that you can enjoy a good night's sleep and wake up ready to take on the day!