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Toddlers and Sleep

Do you find yourself suddenly the parent of a toddler? You think, "Where in the world did the time go? Where is that little baby that I held in my arms just moments ago?" Questions about sleep and your newly-(very)independent little one might sound something like this:

How much sleep does my toddler need?

How do I potty train and maintain my child’s healthy sleep habits?

How do I transition my toddler to a “big kid” bed?

How do I keep my toddler in his own bed when he/she comes into our room several times a night?

How do I know when my toddler is ready to give up his/her nap?

How do I know if my child needs more sleep?

Will having a new sibling be disruptive to my child’s sleep?

For many parents, these questions and more can be confusing to navigate. Add a struggle with sleep to what can already be a difficult stage. No parent wishes to make the so-called “terrible twos” even more so by shorting their child on sleep. In fact, with the appropriate approaches to these issues and your toddler’s sleep in general can make this a really joyful and happy stage in your child’s development. All in all, it’s well worth it to lay the groundwork for your child to have to most restful sleep he can during an active—both mental and physical—stage. I will answer all of the above questions in this post.

Sleep Needs at 18 months-4 years

This is a big spance of time to consider when thinking about your child. Just keep in mind that if your child is younger, they need more sleep. If they are older, they might need less. However, also consider that kids on the older end of this spectrum might also be doing more during their day—they might be in preschool or involved in activities that their younger counterparts are not yet participating in. So, with that in mind, a child at 4 years of age might still need just as much sleep as a two year old.

At this stage, kids need between 10.5 and 11.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Many sleep disruptions can occur at this age—chief among them, being overtired. Just as when your child was much younger, being overtired actually makes it more difficult to sleep. If your child is experiencing many night time wake ups and is moody during the day or lacks appetite, try offering a mid-day nap or helping your child go to bed a little earlier.

During the day, children in this age bracket need about 2-2.5 hours of sleep to keep their batteries charged. I’ll provide some guidelines below to best know when your child is ready to give up this nap.

Awake time is always important to pay attention to. Children in this age group can handle being awake for anywhere from 4-6 hours. A younger child—18 months-- might still be on the shorter end of that time frame, whereas an older child can handle closer to 6 hours.

Pay careful attention to your child’s transitions: has he recently been moved to a toddler bed? Is he learning a new skill or being potty trained? Has he been experiencing nightmares or anxiety around bedtime? Is there a new sibling in the house? Has preschool begun? All of these new things can, and most likely will, disrupt sleep. Being sensitive to even minor changes and offering chances for rest is important to your child’s ability to adapt and develop within this new transition.


Coping With Bedtime Anxiety

Nightmares, Night Terrors, and Monsters in the Closet

Common Questions for This Age Group

How do I potty train and maintain my child’s healthy sleep habits?

Potty training is a very exciting step towards independence for your child. Some kids catch on quickly and some take longer. Some regress due to various factors. Like so many other things when it comes to small children, there is no ‘normal’ when it comes to potty training. However, you can work to maintain healthy sleep while your child is learning to use the toilet. Work on daytime potty training first. Once your child is comfortably and consistently using the potty and not having accidents you can start working on nighttime and naptime potty training.

At naptime, you can help your child by having him use the potty right before the nap, put a diaper on, and use the potty immediately upon wake up. Eventually, the naptime diaper will remain dry for the nap. At this point you can try leaving underwear on for the nap.

At nights, practicing a similar routine can help whittle away at the need for night time diapers. Help your child use the potty before bed, then when you go to bed, get your child up to use the potty again. Upon waking in the morning, use the potty immediately. Try to cut down on liquids within the hour before bed. Also, you can use a diaper—like a pull-up—that helps your child feel more wet than the more common night time diapers.

Finally, like most milestones, it’s very helpful to practice during the day. When you are pretty sure your child’s bladder is filling, lie down on a bed with her and have her hold it for a few minutes to really feel the sensation of ‘having to go’ while laying down.

Little by little, nighttime and naptime potty training will fall into place, even if it is a while after daytime potty training. Moving at your child’s pace is very important.

How do I transition my toddler to a “big kid” bed?

Transitioning to a big kid bed is another milestone for your child that you don’t want to jump into too soon. It’s completely normal for a child to remain in a crib well into toddlerhood; and if they’re sleeping soundly and consistently, why not? A good rule of thumb is to wait until your child actually requests to be moved into a “big kid bed” to start considering it. At that point, you might practice a few nights on a mattress on the floor before really making the switch. It’s never a good idea to transition to a toddler bed just because the crib is going to a new sibling. If you are unable to borrow or buy another crib to use when your new arrival is ready for it, then I advise parents to transition their toddler out of the crib well before baby arrives. Toddler’s are developing a sense of “mine” vs. “yours”, and this is the only bed your child knows. To watch it go to a little invader is heartbreaking. The best option is to find another crib or basinet for your new baby until your toddler is ready to move to a kid bed.

When you do make this transition, make it very celebratory. After a few trial nights, move the crib entirely out of the room. Let your toddler help pick out sheets and blankets. Whether you choose a mattress on the floor or a bed with rails, be sure that there is no way for your child to be harmed while sleeping by falling out or sliding between a wall and the mattress. At this point, don’t even make the suggestion that he stay in his bed, even though he can get out. This might not be an issue you even have to deal with, so why even plant the seed?

How do I keep my toddler in his own bed when he/she comes into our room several times a night?

So you do have a jack-in-the-box toddler! This phenomenon occurs when your child discovers that he’s no longer trapped in a crib and is ‘free’ to roam around his room or the house. Keep the video monitor handy during this transition! These tots pop up and out of bed almost as soon as you think you’ve gotten them back to sleep. It is a very quick route to exhausted parents resorting to just pulling their toddler into their own bed so that everyone can finally get some rest. Guess what? That is exactly why your sweet one keeps getting up! She’s relying on you finally giving in, and when you do you are reinforcing the behavior, making every night just as long, or longer, than the last. Do you want to instead set the stage to encourage and empower your little one to stay in her own bed all night? It can be a process, but one thing that might really turn things around is the ‘extra boring return’. As many times as it takes, you walk your child back to her room where, if possible, she gets into bed without your help, pulls the covers up on her own, and with as little fanfare as possible, you go back to your own bed. Just a warning, the first few nights can be really taxing and you might have to return your child an insane amount of times. BUT if every return-to-bed is boring and reward-free (another song, another book, mom lays down in bed with me, I get a glass of water, I get special attention at night), children will soon realize that getting up and out of bed isn’t as fun as it once was. They are then more likely to link their sleep cycles together without interrupting them to go wandering.

How do I know when my toddler is ready to give up his/her nap?

Some adults I know aren’t yet ready to give up their nap…myself included…and that’s okay!! Stigmatizing napping as a weakness is uniquely American. Napping means you aren’t being productive, you are slacking, you are being lazy and shoveling the work off onto other people.

Let’s change the attitude around naps and let our little ones take naps as long as they want to into their childhood, or even pre-teen and teen years. So many kids come home from daycare or school and barely slog through the evening before it’s bedtime, when they magically become wired and wild due to so many conflicting hormones flying around their little bodies.

Most children absolutely need a nap through their third year. Many will still need a nap into their 4th or 5th, as preschool and kindergarten begin and the physical and mental demands go up considerably. Offering your child a nap is rarely a bad idea.

Still, there are many kids who simply refuse to take one. If you’ve tweaked the time of the nap (moved it earlier for a few days and then later for a few days) to see if you can rediscover that sweet spot and your child is still not napping, you can attempt to give up the nap on most days. For a few weeks while your child adjusts, you need to do two things: (1) Tack an extra hour or 90 minutes onto nighttime; this means an extra early bedtime. (2) Instead of a nap, deem the old naptime “Quiet Time”. This means that your child is doing something that is calm and quiet for 60-90 minutes each afternoon. These two things will help your toddler transition. If you notice that your child’s night time sleep has become disrupted or he’s having more nightmares or anxiety than usual, he may be low on sleep. Bringing back the nap or going for an even earlier bedtime for a little while can be a huge help.

Finally, even though your child might no longer be consistently napping, pay close attention. There will absolutely be days when your child needs to nap. Just like there are days when you need a nap. Help your child get there as best you can. Even 30-60 minutes of rest after a busy day can reap remarkable rewards.


All is Calm: The Venefits of Quiet Time for Babies and Children

How do I know if my child needs more sleep?

Children’s actions and behaviors rarely lie. If your child is up several times in the night, is difficult to put to bed, is suddenly experiencing anxiety or nightmares, has lost his appetite, is getting ill more often than usual, is unable to focus or is moody, try your best to first get him some more sleep before jumping to other conclusions. So often things we don’t realize are related to a child’s sleep really do affect it. Don’t get angry or frustrated with your child; instead, gently guide her towards getting more rest.

Will having a new sibling be disruptive to my child’s sleep?

Yep. In fact, any transition in the family structure can be disruptive to a child’s sleep: a move, a change of bedrooms, a divorce, the death of a loved one, or the arrival of a new sibling. Being ready for a sleep disruption is key to being able to handle it with a steady, consistent response. Remember that everything your child experiences—especially feelings—are new and raw. Your toddler may have never felt jealousy before and this new feeling is scary and anxiety producing. “Now I have to share mom and dad in a big way,” really rocks your toddler’s boat. Be sensitive to this and expect a few rocky nights as your toddler adjusts. Talk about feelings in a way your toddler can understand, spend one-on-one time with her when the baby is sleeping or with someone else. Go out of your way to show your toddler that you are still ‘mom and dad’.

When it comes to sleep, keep the routine and timing exactly the same. Do not take this tender time to transition your toddler to a new bedroom or a new bed; she needs reassurance that everything is going to be normal, even though this new little being is getting some of the spotlight.

This phase can be extra exhausting for mom, who is most likely up feeding the new baby several times a night. A good idea in the months before baby arrives is to have Dad (or the non-breastfeeding partner) tend to night-time discomforts with the toddler. Even transitioning to dad being the one to put your toddler to bed, if possible, can gently tweak a routine so that if mom is unavailable at bedtime when the baby arrives, nothing has changed for the toddler—Dad is still front and center, reading books in silly voices and singing favorite bedtime songs.

Toddlers are so much fun. They talk, sing, dance, and ask questions. They are insanely creative and energetic. They are also very tender and sensitive, and while they may say, “I can do it myself!” a hundred times a day, they still need you to guide them towards healthy patterns and choices. They take an unbelievable amount of patience and if you are not sleeping, you will not have that patience. In this way, your toddler’s great sleep is actually your great sleep, too. Adjusting to this new stage of development is not as scary—or terrible—as some make it out to be, especially when everyone feels their very best.

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