Did you know that toddler sleep is just as important as infant sleep? It is. You’re still setting the foundation for your child’s lifelong sleep habits. Whenever I think about sleep and how important it is, and maybe this is a little extreme, but I like to think about how sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Your body absolutely needs sleep just as much as it needs oxygen and water. Without it you won’t thrive and you definitely won’t survive. What does that mean for your child? Start making sleep a priority now so that it will be easy for them to have that recovery that’s needed throughout their developmental stages and adult life.
Toddler Sleep – Yes, it’s still important.
First let’s talk about what age a toddler is. My sleep authority is Dr. Mark Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child. Weissbluth determines toddler age between 13 and 36 months. Here are a few of the biggest toddler sleep problems as well as some solutions to help.
Transitioning from two naps to one afternoon nap.
I’m not going to lie, I hate nap transitions more than any other developmental sleep stage. I’m not sure why though. I think some of it is because as a parent you get so used to the routine of a morning nap and afternoon nap that you almost depend on that down time. Plus, even when your child is exhibiting signs of needing to drop the morning nap, they’re still adjusting their sleep patterns to accommodate that which means you may have a cranky toddler on your hands.
The change from two naps to one typically occurs between the ages of 13 to 15 months. Here are some signs that your child is ready:
- Morning nap becomes briefer or it takes your toddler longer to settle down and fall asleep.
- Nighttime sleep is uninterrupted and at least 12 hours.
- The morning nap becomes the longest nap and your toddler isn’t ready to nap until later in the afternoon.
At this age your child needs to start mimicking the daily pattern of an adult so breakfast, lunch, dinner and then bedtime. They still need more sleep than an adult so that’s why the afternoon nap is still needed and must occur between 1pm and 2pm. Without the afternoon nap your toddler would need to go to bed by 5pm to make up the hours needed for development. Think about it, most of us getting a little sleepy during which part of the day? The afternoon, right? There’s a natural, biological rhythm that takes places in your body where an afternoon nap occurs. You want for your child to transition out of the morning nap so that the afternoon nap can happen easily and bedtime will take place at a normal time of 7:30pm or 8pm.
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Tips for transitioning:
- Move the bedtime earlier remember, sleep begets sleep. It sounds counterproductive but trust me it works. The more sleep your toddler gets the longer he or she will sleep.
- Keeping the morning nap brief – one hour – and starting it earlier.
- Plan an outing after the morning nap so that your toddler is stimulated and will be sleepy around noon.
- Move the afternoon nap up a little bit. For example, if nap time was 1:30pm try moving it up to 1pm or 12:30pm.
- Have one or two days that are morning nap days. I did this when my daughter was transitioning from her morning nap to one afternoon nap because we had activities on Monday and Wednesday mornings so those were our no morning nap days.
- Be flexible and watch your child’s cues!
- Whatever you do stick to your afternoon nap routine. Don’t stray from it unless it’s an absolute special occasion and cannot be avoided.
By the time your toddler is between the age of 16 to 21 months the morning nap will have disappeared. I think it’s always important to keep in mind that this can be a long transition. It’s not going to happen overnight so don’t force it.
The active imagination your toddler uses to play and interpret the world around him is affecting him even at night. Nightmares typically happen during the second part of the night when your toddler reaches REM (rapid eye movement). The key to handling nightmares and the fears that are associated with them before bedtime is to allow ample time for soothing. Don’t let your toddler cry it out at night if they are afraid. Your job is to comfort them as well as to help them learn how to self soothe. If you’re having a difficult time leaving after you’ve soothed your toddler, Weissbluth suggests setting a timer so that when the alarm goes off they understand that it’s time for them to sleep. This simply puts a time limit so you aren’t stuck in their bedroom forever. Other tips you can try:
- Reading stories about dreams and sleeping
- Staying away from any children’s programming that your child may think is scary, especially at nighttime.
- Stick with a calming bedtime routine.
Transitioning to a regular bed because a new sibling is on the way.
In his book, Weissbluth suggests allowing a child to stay in the crib until they ask for a big kid bed. As long as the crib is large enough and the toddler isn’t climbing out of it there isn’t a need to switch. If you’re expecting a sibling and need to use the toddler’s crib there are a few ways to make the transition easier. With my two oldest we transitioned into a big kid bed roughly six to eight weeks before I was due because I usually delivered before my due date. If you have the baby with you in your room or you co-sleep then Weissbluth says to wait until your newborn is four months before moving them into a crib. The reason why is because four months tends to be a magical age of predictability for an infant. This sense of schedule and routine for your toddler is needed when you’re going to be making another transition.
Tips for switching to a big kid bed
- Flexibility is key. If you rush through this without allowing for set backs it adds undue stress on your family and especially your toddler.
- Leave the crib up and empty for a bit before moving baby into the crib. This sends the message to your toddler that she’s not being kicked out of her bed. Plus, flexibility.
- Make hard and fast rules about getting out of bed at night. This is all about what you’re comfortable with; we placed a childproof lock on my son’s door when we switched him to a big kid bed because I could totally see him finding his way out onto the highway in the middle of the night because you know, he can get out of his bed and there are cars with lights out in the street. No thank you. I’d rather contain him.
- Do not become “social candy” to your toddler. Weissbluth says on page 317 in Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child,
“A habit may slowly develop in which your child learns to expect you to spend more time with her, putting her to sleep or returning her to sleep. Imagine what would occur if a baby-sitter gave your two-year-old candy every day instead of a real lunch. Once you discovered this, you would immediately stop the candy for meals. Your child might protest and cry, but would you give in and let her have the candy? No. If you are spending too much time at night with your child when she should be sleeping, consider you are doing to be ‘social candy’ – not needed and not healthy for the child. Be firm in your resolve to ignore the expected protest from your child when you change your behavior.
Take it from me, my husband and I have become “social candy” at night for one of our children. It’s exhausting. Stop it now if you notice a habit or you’ll be like us, spending two hours laying in your kid’s bedroom while they go to sleep.
Jack-in-the-Box Syndrome – In and Out of the Bed All Night Long
The switch to a new bed brings about a sense of independence. Let’s be honest, bedtime is boring and parents are fun. Remember, your job as a parent is to help raise a capable adult who will contribute positively to society. Following rules and obeying authority is part of that.
Suggestions for stopping Jack-in-the-Box Syndrome
- Keep a chart for the nights that your toddler stayed in bed all night long (bathroom visits are obviously necessary and you shouldn’t force your child to ignore nature when it calls) then rewards your child when they stay in bed a certain number of nights. I like to encourage rewards that aren’t food based because I want for my kids to learn that food is fuel and not to use it for emotional needs but that’s not to say we don’t do a trip to the local Dairy Queen or Culver’s. Offer a number of options, going to the library for example can be a great reward, or letting them pick out a movie for movie night, that one is particularly motivating if you have more than one child.
- Stay nearby and whenever your toddler gets out of bed, quietly and gently enter the room and place her back into bed. No talking, no singing, no stimulation. This isn’t party time; it’s bedtime. Be boring.
- In the morning make a huge deal when your toddler stays in bed all night long. Shower him with praise first thing, as soon as you see him.
Of course there are always exceptions to the rules but for the most part, the main problematic areas for toddler sleep are getting rid of the morning nap, handling fears and nightmares, moving from a crib to big kid bed and curing Jack-in-the-Box Syndrome (in and out of bed all night long). Hopefully you found some ways to work through these areas so that your toddler continues to grow and develop with enough sleep to feel well rested. Remember, be flexible!