Bedtime Meltdowns and Getting Your Toddler to Sleep

Little girl squirming in bed

foto by Chandler Chou / Getty Images

It's a simple fact: Sleep is essential for keeping your little one healthy. But getting your toddler to sleep isn't always easy. Even "good" sleepers can have times when they can't fall asleep, or they may wake up and not be able to settle themselves back down during the night. Maybe your child is in a sleep-resistance phase, maybe they have teething pain, or maybe they missed their afternoon nap and are just overtired at the end of the day.

Sleep Problems vs. Occasional Meltdowns

If your child is regularly having problems falling asleep on their own—or they never seem able to soothe themselves back to sleep after waking up during the night—then your child may have sleep problems that you need to work on (perhaps with the aid of your pediatrician or a sleep specialist).

If you're facing only occasional bedtime or nap time meltdowns, however, what your toddler might need is some old-fashioned soothing and cuddles. That's easier said than done, though, when you have a screaming, thrashing child who doesn't seem to want to be calmed down.

At 20 to 30 pounds, toddlers are not the easy-to-swaddle-and-soothe infants you once rocked to sleep. But they are still babies in many ways, and right now, they may need that rocking more than they did a year ago. The key is to put them at ease and keep holding them close even while they squirm.

Here are a few tips that can help calm and comfort your little one. 

Eliminate Distractions

Seeing toys, hearing the TV, or noticing other people in the room will divide an overtired or over-stimulated toddler's attention and make it harder for them to settle down. If at all possible, take your toddler into a dark room with no noise, or use soft music or white noise to create a calm environment.

Try a Cradle Position 

Your toddler may think they're too old for the baby hold, but cradling will help a tired child. Hold your child as far up on your chest as possible. Preferably, you'll be able to reach your child's ear with your lips and put your cheek next to theirs. Don't press them tightly, but do encircle them firmly so that they'll be limited by how much they can wiggle and kick. In this position, you can wrap your toddler up with your arms, chest, and face just like that old swaddle blanket used to.

Sway and Rock Rhythmically

Different babies may like different moves; for instance, one child may like a fairly strong bounce while another may prefer a gentle, steady sway. Either way, the rhythm will help ease them into sleep.

Stick With It

Cradling is not the most comfortable position, especially if your toddler is heavy. As your child continues to wail and wiggle, it's very easy to give up after a minute or two. You certainly aren't expected to do this all night (that wouldn't be good for anyone anyway), but it will take longer than a few minutes. It may even take longer than 20 minutes depending on how upset your child is. If in your head you're focusing on when you can stop, it'll become a frustrating experience very quickly—and that means it's likely not to work.

Using something other than a clock to help you pass and measure time can help you stick with rocking until baby settles down. Music, for instance, might soothe both of you. Pop in a CD or soothing playlist, or sing your own favorite song. Have at least three or four regular tunes at the ready and be prepared to rock and soothe for at least however long it takes to sing all of them. 

Know When to Put Baby Down

If you’ve gotten to the yawn/eye-rub/curled-fist stage, it's time for the crib. The crying may immediately start up again, but you've likely soothed away what was mainly bothering them. Your toddler should be able to settle to sleep at this point. However, you know your baby best. Sometimes a toddler is just too overtired or upset and needs more time in Mommy's or Daddy's arms.

Eventually, you're going to have to put them down, of course. When you do, try laying them on their side and keeping your hands firmly on your child's back and front. If they start whimpering again, press your hands against them for a few seconds to reassure them it's OK. When the sighs and whimpers fade in a few seconds, leave your child to rest while you relax those arm muscles.

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