Overview: Toddler sleep
It’s rather usual that children at this age (1-4 years) have difficulties at bedtime and/or keep sleeping through the night, often insisting on their parents’ presence. However, toddler sleep problems can be prevented and/or treated in various ways. It’s a myth that bedtime and night-time waking problems are an inevitable phase.
Once toddlers have moved into a bed, they realize they can get out of it. Settling and night waking problems are the main sleep problems in children under the age of 4. Sometimes such problems persist longer. In most western society families, problems arise if the child cannot go to sleep at bedtime, and/or he cannot get back to sleep after waking during the night without associations (toy, soft blanket, a pacifier, etc) or parents’ presence and comforting attention.
Consistent evening routine remains important beyond babyhood. Establishing clear daytime and evening wind-down and bedtime routines help to fall asleep throughout the toddler and school years. Problems at bedtime may also relate to excessive, sparce and/or too-near-to-bedtime daytime napping.
Many parents are familiar with very creative bedtime delaying tactics in which their child asks for drinks, more stories, excessive fears (imaginative monsters lurking in every corner), hunger, etc. Commonly, this problem is maintained or made worse if parents are unable or unwilling to establish and consistently enforce rules for going bed. These limits do provide stability, predictability and safety for the kids. However, the problem is likely made worse if parents or other carers (babysitters) lose their temper and/or threaten or punish the child. Consequently, children might then start to associate bedtime with fears and battles.
Advice for toddler sleep (and preschool kids)
Guidance for ‘rapid return’ technique by professor Tanya Byron:
1. Wait outside the door and walk them back to their bed every time they get up, then walk out again.
2. Prepare yourself for this because it can be exhausting (holiday). Some children need to be returned even 200 hundred times – literally!
3. Be low key, don’t make eye contact, shout or even talk.
4. Don’t let your child take a (long) nap after 2 pm.
The good news is that one night of ‘rapid return’ technique can be enough.
Guidance for promoting self-soothing by Dr Gregory Stores:
After a short bedtime routine, put your child in his/her cot, say good night and leave the room. Do not go back unless you fear that he/she is ill or in danger. If he/she wakes and cries out for you in the night, go back briefly and check all is well but do not interact and/or cuddle.
Although this method can be effective after only a matter of a few days, parents may feel too upset to use it or that other siblings may be upset by the noise which can intensify matters before they improve. In this case there are less determined ways of ignoring the crying by gradually reducing the contact with your child as described in our babies section.
Rewarding child for a good behaviour is often an effective additional measure (e.g. a star chart).
It may well be necessary to try different methods to find the one that suits you and your child best. However, the possible value of each method should first be carefully explored and implemented before giving up half-way through. Please visit your doctor/healthcare provider if problems persist.