Toddler sleep antics are akin to playing the game of Survivor: Who can outwit, outlast, outplay? We know who usually wins! As a physician and certified pediatric sleep specialist who has helped more than 1,000 toddlers and their families sleep better, I can assure you, if you have ever been the loser in your child’s survivor games, you are not alone. The good news is, you can win with a few helpful tips — if you are patient and consistent.
1. Don’t ditch the crib too soon. Wait until at least age 3 to make the transition, if not later. By then your toddler can better understand the boundaries of the bed. If you have a crib jumper, don’t despair — but don’t bring him into your bed! First, try these techniques: Try to catch him in the act of climbing (a video monitor can help) and firmly tell him “no,” either through the monitor or in person (you may have to do this multiple times). If one side of the crib is higher, turn the crib around to put a higher obstacle in his way. Use a sleep sack. If he does climb out, be consistent about taking him back without talking or eye contact.
2. Practice consistent routines. Children thrive on predictable routines, including bedtime. Do any combination of relaxing activities in the same order every night for about 20-30 minutes: read books, make up stories, discuss the day’s activities, sing songs, etc. Over time, he will associate this routine with sleep.
3. Time it right. A well-timed bedtime can mean the difference between a peaceful bedtime and bedtime battles or night wakings. An overtired child at bedtime is one of the biggest reasons for stalling and for night wakings, because their bodies are in overdrive. Generally, bedtime should be about four-and-a-half hours after the end of a restorative one- to two-hour nap for toddlers aged 18 months to 3 years. If the nap is shorter, then move bedtime earlier using their behavior as your cue.
4. Eliminate sleep crutches. If your toddler needs you to fall asleep, then when they cycle in and out of sleep throughout the night, they will most likely need your help getting back to sleep — more rocking, more milk, and so forth. Have consistent routines to allow your toddler to fall asleep on his own.
5. Have a plan for your “jack in the box.” If your toddler decides to visit you either right after bedtime or in the middle of the night, the best technique is to take their hand and — without eye contact, emotion, or engagement — walk them straight back to bed without tucking them in or kissing them again. Make it unrewarding to curb the behavior. You may have to try more than once, but be assured he will will get the message and start sleeping through the night in no time.
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