When your child was a baby, you expected sleepless nights. At the time, everyone told you it would get easier when they got older, that they’d play hard all day long, and by 7:30 at night, they’d be ready for a solid eight hours of sleep. Guess what? Everyone lied.
When compared to toddlers, getting a baby to sleep is easy. Feed them a bottle, burp them, and pat them gently on the back until their long eyelashes flutter closed. Then you lay them ever so gently in their crib and bedtime is done.
Toddlers are a whole different ballgame, and the home team loses every time. Once they’ve transitioned into a big kid’s bed, they are free to wander out of their bedrooms whenever they so desire. Parents begin to play a nightly game called “It’s Your Turn to Put the Kid Back to Bed.” No one sleeps, least of all the child, and everyone is cranky in the morning, most of all, the child.
It’s time to train your toddler to sleep. It can’t be done overnight, and it does take patience and willpower, but before you know it, your entire house will be getting a full night’s sleep, and you’ll awaken ready to greet the morning with a smile.
The first step is to establish a bedtime routine. This can be something as simple as dinner, bath, then bed, or something as complex as a certain story you read every night, a particular cartoon you watch, and then a special snack. The most important thing is that it happens every single night, at the exact same time in the exact same way, and that it is always followed by bedtime. Toddlers are creatures of habit who respond strongly to routine.
Next, you should take a good look at your toddler’s sleeping area. Is there something that could be keeping them awake at bedtime, or startling them awake in the middle of the night? Simple things such as a streetlight shining in through a bedroom window or a barking dog next door could be the only thing between your toddler and a good night’s sleep. Also, make sure to remove any source of stimulation from the area. While it may be tempting to allow your child to watch TV or listen to their favorite radio station while falling asleep, the added stimulation may be preventing your child from sleeping at all. A white noise machine can be useful if your child has trouble falling asleep in dead silence, and a nightlight is a must for dark rooms.
Do not allow your child to sleep anywhere but in their bed. Although it is much easier to let a toddler sleep wherever they will sleep, allowing them to lay down in your bed, with a sibling, or on the couch only creates a habit that will be very hard to break. If the child falls asleep while playing elsewhere in the house, make sure to always put them in their own bed.
You’ve done all you can to ensure that your toddler is comfortable. They’ve been fed, changed, watered, bathed, read to, sang to, and have had their special bedtime granola bar. Now it’s time to put them to bed and make them stay there. This is not enjoyable for you or your child. Expect tears, heart wrenching sobs, and even a few tantrums. (The child may be understandably upset, as well).
Lay your child in their bed, cover them up tight, give them a hug and a kiss, and leave the room. If the child follows you out, take them by the hand and lead them back. Tuck them back in, give them a brief cuddle, then leave again. Each subsequent time they get out of bed, simply put them back in. No cuddles, no interactions, no eye contact. Eventually, the child will fall asleep out of sheer exhaustion. Repeat, night after night. The goal is to train your toddler that bedtime is non-negotiable.
If this seems too harsh or too repetitive for your tastes, another way to sleep train is the gradual reduction method. On the night you begin their sleep training, sit on the side of their bed, stroking their hair or their back until they fall asleep. The next night, sit on the floor, holding their hand. Each night after, sit further and further away from their bed, reassuring them with your presence but not engaging in any dialogue. When you get all the way across the room and to the door, your child is finally ready to fall asleep on their own.
Sleep training is difficult, but the rewards for hard work are peace in the evening after your child is put to bed, a good night’s sleep for everyone in the household, and a happy toddler in the morning.