Toddler sleep problems

Crying toddler

Toddlers have different sleep issues to babies. For a start, instead of mewling in a cot, they can climb out of their bed and appear at your bedside making unreasonable demands. So tackling toddlers' sleep problems requires a different approach.

Solving toddler sleep problems
Getting into a bedtime routine
Getting your toddler to fall asleep alone
Getting your toddler to stay asleep
Early morning waking

Generally, the two biggest challenges parents of toddlers face are getting them to go to bed without drama and getting them to sleep through the night.

Does my toddler have a sleep problem?

How you define a sleep problem depends on your expectations, your ability to cope with interrupted sleep and your 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.

The only person who can answer the question – 'does my toddler have a sleep problem?' – is you.

Solving toddler sleep problems

If you think your toddler does have a sleep problem then bear in mind that the solutions can be different for every family.

Some parents think that, if 'sleep training' involves the child getting distressed or crying a lot, they'd rather avoid it and do whatever their toddler is happiest with. Eventually, they think, she'll sleep through the night when she's ready.

This approach might mean you sleep near your toddler, either co-sleeping in the same bed or room, or having a bed or mattress on the floor of her bedroom. If you take this approach, over time (the theory goes) your toddler can eventually be encouraged to move into her own sleeping space, thus avoiding the need for 'training'.

The main advantage to this approach is that you avoid putting your child through the stress of sleep training, which may involve her getting distressed, screaming her head off. The disadvantage is that parenting 24/7 can send you loopy. Some parents would rather eat their own duvet than have a wriggling toddler kicking them in the head at ten-minute intervals through the night. These parents might want to take a different approach.

Take it slowly

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.

Choose a routine and stick to it. Every time she gets out of bed, gently but firmly replace her. Comfort her, reiterate the rules and leave the room. She'll get it eventually.

Getting into a bedtime routine

Having a bedtime routine is pretty much essential to get most toddlers to wind down after an exciting day. Keeping things calm in the hour or so before bed will make your toddler relaxed, so she's ready to fall asleep by the time she's 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 and other cues can be built into the routine, such as a special soft light, relaxation music or taped stories.

It requires 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.

Bedtime story

Getting your toddler to fall asleep alone

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:

Bribery

Sometimes employing a star chart or sticker chart, with the promise of treats when a certain target is reached, can bring 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.

“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 are persuaded by this, but do remember to check on them, otherwise they'll get very annoyed and won't believe you next time.

Gradual withdrawal

Also known as 'gradual retreat', this method 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.

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.

Controlled crying and rapid return

Controlled crying is controversial, as many Talk discussion show, 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' – returning 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 she can't escape.

Getting your toddler to stay asleep

Over the course of a night, humans sleep in cycles of lighter and deeper sleep. Like toddlers, 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 wakeful toddler is likely to scream loudly just as you are entering deep sleep, so your own sleep cycles are disrupted and you feel rubbish the next day, a phenomenon with which many parents are familiar.

Here are a few 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):

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.'

Mum and toddler sleeping

Co-sleeping

The idea of co-sleeping is that the unsettled toddler will be more settled in the parental bed, so everyone will get more sleep. Not having to get up 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 'co-sleeping lite' and have a bed available in their bedroom for night-time wanderers to crash in.

Repetitive replacement

If you want to stop your toddler getting up in the night and coming into your room, you might want to try repetitive replacement – consistently hauling yourself out of bed and putting your toddler back into her own bed.

It requires resolve, which isn't always easy to muster in the middle of the night, but it teaches your toddler that getting into your bed is not an option.

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. Most Mumsnetters agree that 'one or two weeks of being really tough is all it takes'.

I told my son three smiley faces on the chart equalled a treat and, to get one, he needed to stay in his room all night. It worked and, in the morning, he ran out calling for his sticker.

(More) bribery

If all of the above fail, you may have to resort to serious bribery.

Early morning waking

Early morning wakers make for a special type of hell. Your first approach should be to tell your toddler that it is still night-time and she should go back to sleep. But 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.

How to deal with persistent early-morning wakers

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 (e.g. a rabbit face will open its eyes) and you can instruct your toddler not to wake until this transformation has occurred.

Alternatively, you could use a standard 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). Or perhaps put a lamp on a timer and tell your toddler that, if the lamp's off, it's still night-time, and she needs to stay in bed until the lamp is on.