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 — yet getting your toddler to sleep is not 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 she has teething pain, or maybe she missed her afternoon nap and is just overtired now at the end of the day.

If your child is regularly having problems falling asleep on his own — or he never seems able to soothe himself back to sleep when he wakes up during the night — then he may have sleep problems that you need to work on. However, if you're facing occasional bedtime or nap time meltdowns, 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 or so, your toddler is not the easy-to-swaddle-and-soothe infant you once rocked to sleep. But she's still a baby in many ways, and right now, she may need that rocking more than she did a year ago. The key is to put her at ease and keep holding her close even while she squirms.

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

Eliminate Distractions

Seeing toys, hearing a TV set, or noticing other people in the room will divide an overtired or over-stimulated toddler's attention and make it harder for her to settle down. If at all possible, take her 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 he's too old for that baby hold, but cradling him will truly help a tired child. Hold him as far up on your chest as possible. Preferably, you'll be able to reach his ear with your lips and put your cheek next to his. Don't press him tightly, but do encircle him firmly so that he'll be limited by how much he can wiggle and kick. Thus, with your arms, chest, and face, you can wrap him up just like that old swaddle blanket.

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. The rhythm will help ease him into sleep.

Stick With It

This is not the most comfortable position, and 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, though (that wouldn't be good for anyone anyway), but it will take longer than two 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 put her down 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 the rocking until baby settles down and can help you fill your mind with happy thoughts so you can weather those kicks and scratches. Music, for instance, might soothe both of you. Pop in a Baby Einstein CD 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 the Baby Down

If you’ve settled your baby down and gotten him into the yawn/eye-rub/curled-fist stage, you can put him in his crib. The crying may immediately start up again, but you've likely soothed away what was mainly bothering him and he should be able to settle himself down to sleep at this point. However, you know your baby best. Sometimes a baby is just too overtired or upset, and what he needs is to go to sleep in mommy's arms tonight.

Eventually, you're going to have to put him down, of course. When you do, try laying him on his side and keep your hands firmly on his back and front. If, when you put him down he starts whimpering again, press your hands against him for a few seconds to reassure him it's OK. When the sighs and whimpers fade in a few seconds, leave him to get his rest while you relax those arm muscles.

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