Toddler sleep problems
Toddlers have different sleep issues to babies. For a start, instead of mewling in a cot, they're able to get out of bed and appear at your bedside making unreasonable demands at regular intervals. So tackling toddlers' sleep problems requires a different approach.
Generally, the two main issues parents would like to 'fix' as far as toddler sleep issues go are getting them to accept they have to go to sleep without high drama and getting them to sleep through the night.
Solving toddler sleep problems | Getting into a bedtime routine | Letting them cry | Getting them to fall asleep alone | Controlled crying | Getting your toddler to stay asleep | Early morning waking | Wake-to-sleep
Does my toddler have a sleep problem?
The definition of a sleep problem depends on your expectations, ability to cope with interrupted sleep and family dynamics.
Some parents are happy to spend 12 hours lolling with their children in a giant bed. Others play musical beds throughout the night. And some parents require 12 hours of children being neither seen nor heard. So whether you consider your toddler has a sleep problem will depend where you are on this spectrum.
Likewise, as far as going to sleep is concerned, some parents are happy to sit on the sofa with their little ones until they drop off, while others want the children in bed at 7pm so they can watch the news/soaps or swing from the chandeliers without being pestered.
So the only person who can answer the question 'does my toddler have a sleep problem?' is you.
Similarly, the question of whether or not you want to resolve your toddler's sleep problems has a different answer for every family. Some parents think it's OK not to intervene, but just to wait and see how things turn out.
Some parents think that if 'sleep training' involves the child getting distressed or crying a lot, then they'd rather avoid it (aka the Path of Least Resistance). They choose to go with the flow and do whatever their toddler is happiest with, feeling that, eventually, when he or she is ready, they'll sleep through the night.
This approach might mean being physically near the child who's waking during the night, either by co-sleeping in the same bed or room, or having a bed or mattress on the floor of the child's bedroom. If you take this approach, over time (the theory goes) your toddler can eventually be encouraged to move into his own sleeping space, thus avoiding the need for 'training'.
The main advantage is that you avoid putting your child through the stress of sleep training, which may involve them getting distressed ie screaming their head off.
The disadvantage is some parents go completely loopy if they have to parent 24/7, and would rather eat their own duvet than have a wriggling toddler's legs kicking them in the head at ten-minute intervals throughout the night. These parents might want to take a different approach.
Take things slowly and try to tackle one thing at a time. If your toddler has no bedtime routine, wakes in the night, takes off her pyjamas and screams for a bottle of milk, there's no point trying to deal with everything at once. Start by resolving one thing at a time.
Before you start any sort of sleep training, sit down with your toddler and discuss the situation. Of course, the first words you probably utter each morning are 'Whhhyyy did you wake last night agaaain?' as you slam the Rice Krispies on the table, but actually talking about this with your toddler is essential.
She might be able to clarify what she's feeling, and articulate her night-time needs. And 'I want a cuddle!' or 'I'm cold!' are different needs altogether. Resolve what you can.
Although some parents hate the idea of routine, as far as bedtime is concerned a routine is pretty much essential to get most toddlers to wind down after an exciting day.
Keeping things calm and restful in the hour or so before bedtime will make your toddler more peaceful than if she is galumphing around the lounge wrestling with Granny at 8pm.
The main point of a bedtime routine, repeated each night, is to get your toddler into a relaxed state, so they're ready to fall asleep by the time they're tucked up in bed.
A typical routine would be something like: tea, bath, pyjamas, stories, milk, cuddle and sleep. There are lots of variations on this theme.
Other cues can be built into the routine, such as a special soft light, relaxation music or taped stories.
It does require a certain amount of discipline to maintain a bedtime routine day after day, but most parents think the pay-off of calmer evenings is worth the monotony.
When you're dealing with your toddler's sleep patterns and trying to adjust them, there's likely to be a not-inconsiderable amount of noisy objection to your plans. The sound of your child crying is horrid, and your urge to comfort him strong.
However, by this stage in your child's life, you probably know whether he is crying because he is angry and tantrummy, or because he is in pain or scared.
In films, parents put their children to bed, kiss them on the head, and leave them to fall asleep by themselves while mummy and daddy get on with their grown-up evening.
In real life, lots of children want their parents in the room with them, cuddling them or sitting them with, while they fall asleep. If you're quite happy sitting with your toddler while he drops off, then feel free to do so.
And if you have an iPad and a pair of headphones you can watch telly while being a present and caring parent at the same time. Everybody wins.
But if you want your toddler to fall asleep on their own, without you hovering at the end of their bed watching the clock and sighing, then you might want to try some (or all) of the following techniques.
- Method one: bribery
Sometimes employing a star chart or a sticker chart, with the promise of treats when a certain target is reached, can have some success. A typical example might be to give one star for going to bed nicely and one star for staying in their own bed all night
But others are not particularly interested in the promise of a dinosaur sticker in the morning. So if bribery fails, you might need to think of another strategy.
- Method two: "I'll be back in two minutes"
The old trick of 'I'll come and check on you in X minutes' works for some toddlers. Say something along the lines of: "I'll just be in my bedroom and I'll come and check on you in two minutes if you're quiet, otherwise I'll go downstairs." Some toddlers can be persuaded by this, but do remember to check on them, otherwise they'll get very annoyed and won't believe you next time.
"Our son has a frog-shaped timer that often helps him get back to sleep. We put it on and say he can call for us again if he's still awake when it goes off. He goes to sleep and we sneak in and switch it off." Snowleopard
- Method three: gradual withdrawal
'Gradual withdrawal' or 'gradual retreat' does what it says on the tin, and involves you moving further and further away from your toddler each night (without causing them distress) until you're eventually so far away you're skipping downstairs where your glass of Rioja and the telly awaits. Gradual withdrawal is a good technique for more anxious and tearful children, who are bleating "Don't leave me, Mummy".
If you're already cuddling your child to sleep, then try one night just holding his hand, perhaps the next night sitting on his bed, and so on. The idea is your child is still comforted but you move further away each night.
- Method four: controlled crying and rapid return
Controlled crying is controversial (search for it in Talk to find out just how controversial) because it involves letting the child cry and not comforting them.
With this technique, you follow your usual bedtime routine, then put the child to bed and leave (like in the films). Unlike in films, of course, your toddler's then likely to start crying. With controlled crying, you do not go back to comfort them. Instead, you return to check on them after (for example) five minutes. Then you increase the amount of time in between each 'checking' – for example, you might leave it six minutes, or ten minutes, or 15 minutes.
Whether this approach is right for you and your child is up to you. If you've reached the uncontrolled crying stage (yourself, that is) it might be worth a try. It's worth reading up about controlled crying before you try it and, of course, it's important to talk to your toddler about what will happen beforehand, otherwise your odd behaviour might freak them out.
Unlike babies, toddlers are able to get out of bed, so when you are using crying techniques on toddlers you need to employ 'rapid return' ie return the child rapidly to her bed.
Some parents don't actually bother with the 'returning' part – and just set up a baby gate on the toddler's bedroom door so he can't escape.
Over the course of a night, humans sleep in cycles of lighter and deeper sleep. Like toddlers, we adults also sleep in cycles, but when we get to the ‘wakeful' stage of light sleep, we tend to turn over and go back to sleep, rather than screaming for mummy at the top of our voices.
Annoyingly, because your toddler's sleep cycles are not the same as your own, your own wakeful toddler is likely to scream loudly just as you are entering deep sleep, so your own sleep cycles are totally disrupted, and you feel rubbish the next day, a phenomenon with which many parents are wearisomely familiar.
There are a few different approaches you can try to get your toddler to sleep through till morning (which in toddler terms is still usually hours before the rest of the human race surfaces).
- Method one: be boring
The first rule of dealing with night-time waking is to be very, very dull. If you give in to your toddler's demands for warm bottles of milk, stories or CBeebies, then your toddler will learn that making a fuss yields positive results.
If you're just a very boring person who stumbles in, places them back in bed and tells them to 'shhhh', then, as one mum advises: 'Eventually, they'll realise they are getting all they are going to get, and will hopefully settle better.'
- Method two: co-sleeping
Some parents choose to co-sleep as a way of dealing with the night wakings. If this is what your child wants, then you might already have filed co-sleeping in the 'doing nothing' box, but for some parents co-sleeping can be a solution for surviving night-time perambulations.
The idea of co-sleeping is that the unsettled and wriggly toddler will be more settled in the parental bed, and so everyone will get more sleep. Not having to get out of bed to deal with night-time shouting can be more restful, and toddlers often stop waking fully in the night when they find mummy or daddy next to them already.
Some parents operate a sort of 'co-sleeping lite', and have a bed available in their bedroom for night-time wanderers to crash in.
- Method three: repetitive replacement
Waking in the night to creep (or most likely stomp) into the parental bed is very common, and if this is something you want to stop you'll need to practise 'repetitive replacement' - ie consistently hauling yourself out of bed and replacing your toddler in his own bed.
This method takes quite a bit of middle-of-the-night resolve, which is not always the easiest thing to come by, but eventually your toddler will realise that getting into your bed is not an option.
- Method four: staying by their side
This method is really a variation on repetitive replacement. Some toddlers - the type to race after you or rampage around the house - can't really be left to it, so lots of parents find the best thing to do is to stay with them during night-time waking.
Any approach will take a while to get used to, but you need to keep at it if you want to stop the night-time wanderings. But most Mumsnetters agree that 'one or two weeks of being really tough is all it takes'.
- Method five: (more) bribery
If all of the above fail, you may have to resort to serious bribery.
Early morning wakers are a special type of hell, perhaps unmatched by anything else toddlerhood has to offer. Of course, your first approach should be to tell your toddler that it is still night-time and she should go back to sleep. And for most parents, doing absolutely anything to get them back to sleep at this time of the morning is perfectly acceptable, whether that means cuddling them or bringing them into your bed.
One technique some Mumsnetters recommend trying is called 'wake-to-sleep'.
The theory is that if you rouse your toddler slightly from their deep sleep an hour before their usual waking-up time and then leave them to resettle, you might disrupt their sleep pattern so they won't wake at the usual time.
So if they normally wake at 5am, you'll need to set your alarm for 4am (yes, we know it's horrific) and then go in and rouse them – just enough so they're nearly awake but will settle back to sleep again.
After three days you can let them sleep through and see if they will naturally wake at a more respectable hour. If not, you can try it for five or six days in a row (what fun!) and then let them sleep through.
Teach older toddlers when it's morning
For older toddlers, it might be worth investing in a 'morning clock', which is specifically marketed at parents trying to tackle this problem. The clock will change at a specified hour (eg a rabbit face will open its eyes) and you can instruct your toddler not to wake until this transformation has occurred.
Other things to try
- Use a digital clock and tell your toddler not to get up until the first number is seven, or whatever (this does rely on them being able to read numbers in the correct order).
- Put a lamp on a timer and tell your toddler that if the lamp's off it's still night-time, and he needs to stay in bed until the lamp is on.
- Chat to other parents about toddler sleep problems
- Potty training - essential tips
- Toddlers homepage
Last updated: 10 months ago