Strategies to Put Your Toddler to Sleep That Actually Work

Toddler sleeping

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Toddlers may be notorious for temper tantrums and meal-time power struggles, but sleep concerns are a very frequent and common issue as well. Sleep is vitally important for physical, mental, and emotional well-being. You know it’s necessary, but getting your toddler to sleep isn't always easy. 

Up to half of kids will experience a sleep problem at some point during childhood. Some toddlers have sleeping troubles related to separation anxiety. Others may be missing or outgrowing their afternoon naps and are overtired, which can cause them to fight sleep.

Sleep issues in toddlers are so common that there are countless sleep experts who provide parents with advice on this very topic. Below, find expert advice from two sleep consultants and a pediatrician as well as tips from parents who've successfully managed bedtime challenges.

The Importance of Bedtime

“Sleep is something that can't be ignored,” says Jacqueline Darna, MD, a physician and medical inventor of NoMo anti-nausea products. “From their behaviors to their development, sleep has a heavy impact.” Circadian rhythms related to kids' sleep-wake cycles prompt the release of important natural growth hormones. “These hormones are so important for their growth and development,” says Dr. Darna.

Toddlers and kids need much more than the adult recommendation of seven to nine hours. “Toddlers ages 1 to 2 should be getting 11 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, including naps,” says Dyan Hes, MD, a pediatrician and Medical Director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City. “A preschooler (3-to-5 years old) should have between 10 and 13 hours of sleep.”

Just as a bedtime routine is important for babies, it’s also imperative for a toddler. A routine brings comfort and consistency, allowing for a calm, expected, and reliable night.

For some children, even just switching up the order of bath, book, and tuck-in time one night can be confusing and make it hard for them to settle down. Simplifying the routine helps keep things consistent.

“I like a bedtime routine to be 15 minutes, because once you drag it out, you might be missing real sleep cues,” says Andrea De La Torre, owner and founder of Baby Sleep Answers and a mom of three. If your child starts yawning and rubbing their eyes, the ideal time may have already passed.

Try to simplify routines so that they do not become overstimulating or overwhelming to your child. De La Torre says bedtime should include four steps: Comfort (pjs, clean teeth, a diaper change, bathroom visit); connection (books, prayers, songs); closeness (snuggling, expressions of love); and a simple goodnight.

How to Get a Toddler to Go to Bed

Getting a toddler to go to bed might be a challenge, but the right preparation and plan can make a huge difference. Anticipating issues in advance and knowing how to solve them can be the difference between a peaceful bedtime and a drawn-out process that ends with both the child and the parent in tears. Here are some expert tips on setting your child up for a peaceful slumber.

Tune in to Your Child

Really pay attention to what seems to settle and comfort your individual child. When working with families, De La Torre always first asks parents what their child is like and what calms them down.

"For example, my 2-year-old loves to have a banana in bed," says De La Torre. She had always had a rule against snacks in bed, but eventually, De La Torre learned that having that comfort food really calmed her child down and allowed him to associate that routine with sleep. “Now, if we don't have a banana for bedtime, it's like, 'Oh shoot! Let's go ask our neighbors if they have a banana!' You really have to find the things that work for you and your family.”

Involve Them in the Process

As your child gets older, they will no doubt have thoughts and opinions on what they like. Include your child in the bedtime process by picking out pajamas, sheets, and bedding together.

The kid’s clothing line Primary has quality, affordable pillows, sheets, and quilts. They come in adorable patterns like rainbow hearts, stripes, and stars that your child can appreciate for years.

Motivate Them with a Chart

De La Torre recommends making or buying a bedtime routine chart. This allows children to track their own progress of getting to sleep at a reasonable time and staying in bed.

Print out pictures of your child taking a bath, brushing their teeth, reading a book, and so on. “Laminate it and give them a marker to cross off each step as you go,” De La Torre says. “Be creative with it. Kids are so visual, especially at the pre-reading stage. Having a chart can help give her control—that’s all they really want."

Tire Them Out

When weather permits, try to get outside an hour before bedtime. A little bit of time outdoors can help set up a great sleep.

“We love to plan ahead when we can and schedule a family walk, even for 10 minutes,” says Carolynne J. Harvey, a baby sleep consultant for 4moms and founder of Dream Baby Sleep. “The fresh air really helps absorb that last burst of energy. Then we want to keep our bedtime routine calm, even if our toddles are not. Use black-out curtains and white noise to signal bedtime."

Timing Is Key

Getting bedtime right may require some math on your part. De La Torre thinks the ideal bedtime is exactly six hours after your child wakes up from a nap. So if your toddler wakes up from a nap at 2 p.m, start your bedtime routine at 7:45 p.m. and say goodnight by 8 p.m.

“When toddlers are overtired and we miss their ideal bedtime, the sleep hormone melatonin converts to a stimulant cortisol,” adds Harvey. “It’s like giving a toddler a cup of coffee at bedtime and it takes about 75 to 90 minutes for them to crash.”

Harvey recommends bedtime to be no later than 7:30 p.m. “An age-appropriate bedtime is the key to sleep success,” says Harvey. “The primary cause of bedtime battles and night waking is an overtired toddler because bedtime is too late.”

However, one size doesn’t fit all. If you are a parent who works late, an early bedtime might not be the best option. “The perfect bedtime is what works for a family,” says Dr. Hes. “For a working parent who does not arrive home until 7 p.m., bedtime may be later so the parent can spend time with the children."

Keep Trusted Baby Sleep Tools

Comforting tools you relied on with a newborn can still be used to your advantage when you have a toddler. White noise or soothing lullabies are recommended as a sleep signal, and sleep sacks can be helpful as well.

“I’m not a fan of blankets for toddlers,” says Harvey. “Toddlers will often wake crying for their blanket to be adjusted just right. We recommend sleep sacks, which have sizes up to 5T."

Dealing with Specific Sleep Challenges

One frustrating thing about being a parent is that it seems like as soon as you’ve got everything figured out, things change. “Every day is something new—it may be fighting sleep or wetting the bed," says Dr. Darna. "Every child is different and their sleep struggles will come from different sources."

Whether your issue is your toddler trying to climb out of their crib, wanting to leave their room, constantly calling for a parent, or waking up way too early, there are solutions.

Early Wake-Ups

“The biggest toddler sleep struggle we get asked about is how to fix the dreaded early rising,” says Harvey.

A main culprit of this could be a nap that is too long or too late in the afternoon. In some cases, counterintuitively, a too-late bedtime can lead to a too-early wake-up. Experiment with putting your toddler to bed a little earlier, before overtiredness sets in and sabotages sleep.

Naptime Complications

“Toddlers should drop down to one nap between the ages of 14 and 19 months,” says Harvey. “Key indicators they’re ready are bedtime battles, new night wakings, and early risings.”

Harvey and her fellow Dream Baby Sleep coaches recommend that toddlers keep one daily nap until age 3 or older. “We never suggest dropping the nap before 2 years old,” says Harvey. “They may fight it, but they really need it, and it’s a common mistake to drop the nap too early.” This can lead to overtired kids, and a vicious circle of rough bedtimes.

“At minimum, we want to continue to offer quiet time until 3 years old,” says Harvey. “Toddlers really need that time to decompress.”

Bedtime 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 sleep environment.

“I do not encourage wild games, electronics, or jumping around before bed,” adds Dr. Hes.

Make sure your child has everything they need in the room. A water bottle, for example, will prevent a child from leaving their room to get a drink in the kitchen. “Kids know how to test parents, so the trick is to be consistent with messaging," says Dr. Hes. "If you keep indulging a child with milk, water, bathroom break, or a book, they will just prolong going to sleep."

Falling Asleep With Your Child

Although it may seem like second nature to want to comfort your child until they fall asleep, this can be a slippery slope. “It is not wise to have your child fall asleep in your arms or next to you,” says Dr. Hes.

Like when a newborn wakes up with a loosened swaddle, going to sleep with you and waking up without you can be disarming for a young child. “This causes problems because most toddlers wake up three to four times a night naturally,” says Dr. Hes. “If they wake up and do not see a parent, they often scream and cry because to them, you were just there."

Much like how sleep training, including methods like cry it out, can be challenging, the reward of making a clean break at bedtime may be worth it in the long run. “It may be a hard habit to break, but the sooner this habit is broken the better because it is a hard habit to extinguish,” says Dr. Hes.

Transitioning To A Toddler Bed

There is no rush to switch your toddler from a crib to a toddler bed. In fact, many experts recommend waiting as long as possible. “Toddlers lack impulse control and moving to a toddler bed too early is a mistake,” says Harvey. “We want to wait until 3 years old, if possible. Making the transition when they’re mature enough to handle it is key."

Parents agree. “Keep them in their crib so they can’t escape,” jokes Jen Turrone, a teacher and mom of two in New Jersey. “It took a long time for my daughter to transition, so we are keeping my son in his crib for as long as possible."

When your child does transition to a toddler bed, make sure their room is childproofed. “I am a fan of using a safety gate to keep your child in the bedroom,” says Dr. Hes.

A Word From Verywell

Getting a toddler to go to sleep can be a challenge. Setting up a consistent nighttime routine and involving your child with the process can help. Keep the routine on track, watch for tired cues, and with time, your toddler will go to sleep without a fight. Speak to your pediatrician or a sleep consultant if you have more questions.

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2 Sources
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