Helping Your Toddler Sleep and Stay in Bed

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  • January 04, 2012

toddler stay in bedAs toddlers grow, their bodies and minds need to adjust to the shift of weaning themselves off of naps and appreciating the benefits of a longer night’s sleep. Between the ages of two and three, average toddler sleep needs drop to about ten and a half hours a night, plus an hour and a half afternoon nap. Four year olds need eleven and a half hours at night, and most no longer nap daily although they do need about forty-five minutes of quiet time each afternoon and possibly an occasional nap. Five year olds sleep about eleven hours a night and afternoon quiet time can still be quite beneficial for both of you!

As you can see, toddlers still need quite a lot of sleep; however, we all seem to experience a strange phenomenon at bedtime as these crafty creatures devise countless reasons for not doing what they need to do – sleep! They stall and evade with amazing ingenuity; they engage in philosophical discussions; and they voice enough curiosity to rival a little Einstein. Of course, none of these thoughts and questions crosses their minds at 4:00 in the afternoon when they are busy playing, but become an all-consuming need to know as soon as they hear the word pajamas. I worked with one couple that dubbed their oldest daughter “Captain Loophole” for her brilliance in delaying bedtime!


Your Best Defense


Your best defense against “Captian Loopholes” is a sensible bedtime (ex. asleep between 8-8:30pm), a good routine, and the ability to gently disengage when they start to pepper you with all sorts of questions and requests. If your child wants you to tuck him in three hundred times, try to do it just once or twice. Tell him what you expect, when “last time” will be. Then stick to it. You can come back to his doorway in a few minutes to quickly praise him for understanding and following the bedtime directions. Once you’ve given him that dollop of praise and reassurance, leave before he starts trying to engage you all over again. Skip this step if it makes matters worse. Use your judgment. Put up a gate if he insists on coming out of bed a zillion times; he’ll get the message. You can even tell him that if he stays in bed you’ll be back in a few minutes to take down the gate.


Separation Anxiety


Children this age are brilliant procrastinators, and any separation anxiety or nighttime fears only hone their skills. As parents, we need to inject some discipline into bedtime but still keep it warm and cozy. We need to help them with those bouts of the scaries that can make bedtime difficult even when they aren’t turning stalling into a competitive sport. We need to sincerely address the monsters under their bed as real threats, and help them look there and in closets as assurance before they turn off the lights. We need to make sure they are fed well before bedtime and have gone to the bathroom before tuck-in to evade those stall tactics. A sip of water after brushing their teeth should do the trick for the night. At nighttime (and anytime!) your best defense is a good offense!

If your toddler needs you to lay down with them, rub their back to sleep or sing them to sleep (to name a few) then you will have to create change from many angles! Here are a few suggestions (the details are outlined in the 2.5 to 5 year old chapter in my book “Good Night, Sleep Tight“):


Have A Family Meeting Before You Start


Explain to your child that you have learned that they need to learn how to put themselves to sleep “without Mommy and Daddy laying down with you” (for example) and that you are going to stay with them as they learn. Encourage your child to brainstorm about how she can participate, maybe by deciding what she can take into her bed to touch, hug, or twirl, or what extra game she will get to play in the morning if she uses her “good sleep manners” at night. You want her to have a stake in success. You may be surprised at how sensitive children already are to sleep issues, and how quickly they pick up the lingo. Many children are relieved when parents bring this up. They know that something is wrong, that Mom and Dad are frustrated and want them to sleep differently. They are happy to know you are going to stay with them as they learn.


Clearly Explain the Upcoming Changes so Your Child Knows What to Expect


Warn her about an earlier or more structured bedtime, or a new routine. “Daddy is not going to lie down with you anymore, but Daddy will stay with you until you fall asleep.” Or “If you come to our bed at night, we are going to tell you we love you and give you a big hug and take you back into your bed where you can snuggle with your teddy bear.” Adapt the script to the appropriate sleep challenge, but you don’t have to give a lot more detail.


Use a Sleep Manners Sticker Chart


How elaborate your sticker scheme is depends on your child’s age and temperament. Kids love stickers, stamps, and stars, and they worktoddler stay in bed great for this age. As an extra incentive, you can let them choose their own stickers. To make a weekly chart, turn the paper horizontally, put the days of the week along the top, and the manners across the left, or short, side. You can even leave a little space to jot down a simple log: what time he went to bed, how long he slept, etc. Choose three to four manners that best apply to your child. Phrase the manners in positive terms-“do’s,” not “don’ts.” In other words, say “Lie quietly in bed,” instead of “Don’t make noise in bed.” Here are a few examples:

     “Put yourself to sleep without twirling Mommy’s hair.”
     “Stay in your own bed all night long.”
     “Sleep until 6:00 a.m.” (or whatever realistic time you choose as long as it’s not  before 6:00 a.m.).
     “Stay in bed quietly until the wakeup music comes on.”  (check out the Good Nite Lite that is perfect for this!….see ad on right)
     “Take a nap or quiet time.”

Give the chart some good focused attention every night at bedtime, even if your child appears to be ignoring you. You can talk about it during the day too, emphasizing her successes, gently reminding her of expectations but not dwelling on failures. But the nighttime review is essential. In the morning, give out the rewards promptly, not just the stickers themselves but praise and hugs, which mean even more to her than those cherished stickers. Try not to make her feel that she is bad if she failed, just tell her that she can try again that night and that you know she can do it. If she’s done a really good sleep job, you can give her an extra sticker for her jacket or her hand so she can show it to her grandmother, babysitter, preschool teacher, or the bank teller. By sharing in her success, you are sharing your own successes with yourself and the rest of your family as well! Try positive reinforcement before taking away a privilege like TV in the morning.


Use The Sleep Lady Shuffle to Help Your Toddler Sleep


This means you can sit up next to your toddler while they go to sleep at bedtime. Here is the part where you get less sleep in the short run; each time they wake up during the night calmly return them to bed and sit by their bedside until they are asleep. Move your chair further away every 3 nights. If you are consistent your toddler should be sleeping through the night within 2-3 weeks (it takes longer the older they get and the more inconsistent you have been in the past!).


Make Sure Your Child is Well-Napped


If you child is younger than 3.5 or 4 years old, make sure they are not nap deprived during this process. Nap deprivation will increase the struggle at bedtime and cause more night wakenings and early rising!

Remember to stay consistent for the best sleep success!

Gentle Sleep Solutions

photo credit: abbybatcheldersecondtree via photopin cc

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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