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My Toddler Can’t Self-Soothe at Bedtime — Tips for Better Sleep

A reader named Maria wrote in about her toddler who can’t self-soothe at bedtime. She’s looking for some bedtime advice:

“My son is almost 14 months old. I never sleep trained him. His bedtime is 7:00 p.m. and he is currently napping twice a day for a total of 1.5 – 2 hours. He sleeps in the morning until about 8:00 a.m.

At 12 months, I started eliminating night nursing and we offered him milk throughout the day. I nurse him before his bedtime and one more time before I go to bed. He usually wakes around 10 or 11:00 p.m. and then again around 7:00 a.m. because that helps him to get back to sleep for another hour. He sometimes sleeps from that second feeding until the morning feed but, more often than not, he wakes up two times and needs nothing other than the pacifier or just my husband taking him in and putting him back.

He is getting his molars so we know he’s experiencing some pain. Nonetheless, we are really ready for our family to have a good night of sleep. What is a good time to train your toddler to self-soothe? He can do it during the day. All we do is just put him in his crib and he falls asleep. But something about night often times has him not able to get back to sleep.”

We’ll address:

  • Nursing to sleep
  • Returning him to bed
  • Naps
  • Consistency and more…

toddler can't self-sootheBack to Bed

If this means you’re taking him “back,” I’m gathering that means he’s in a bed. He is really young to be in a regular bed, as opposed to a crib. He may not understand “stay in his bed all night long”, as developmentally and cognitively most children don’t understand this until on average 2.5 years old.

It might take several weeks for him to learn this new skill while you are consistently returning him back to his bed. For safety, you may want to consider gating his door so that you don’t have to worry about him wandering around the house when he does wake up, or consider returning him to his crib if that’s an option.

Nursing To Sleep

I assume that you’re nursing him to sleep for all of his naps, as well, but you did not make that distinction. Because I do not have enough information about his naps, I suggest that you look at the nap information in Good Night, Sleep Tight, or review my articles on naps. Hopefully you’ll feel more prepared to create a long-term plan for his naps once you have more information.

Want more information on night-weaning?
Read: Toddler Night Weaning: How Do I Stop the Constant Night Wakings?

One or Two Naps?

At 14 months, children need on average approximately 11.25 hours of sleep at night and 2.25 – 2.5 hours over the course of two naps during the day. Usually I don’t advise parents to transition to one nap until their child is between 15 and 18 months. I definitely want him to be sleeping through the night before you have him make that transition to one nap.

Need to know more about naps?
Read: Baby Nap Basics for All Ages: Your Daytime Sleep Questions Answered

Consistency

You stated that he still has two feedings at night. Make a plan regarding his night feedings so that you can respond consistently. At this point your son is not really sure what happens when he wakes up:

Sometimes I nurse back to sleep, sometimes daddy walks me back and he helps me find my pacifier, but then sometimes I nurse back to sleep.”

It is probably quite confusing for him. You need to have a consistent approach and plan to night wakings.

Nursing to sleep may not work. Want to know why?
Read: Drowsy But Awake — The Cornerstone of Successful Sleep Training

Ask Your Doctor’s Help in Creating a Feeding Plan

Please talk to your doctor about creating a feeding plan for your son. Discuss how much he’s eating during the day and how long he can reasonably go at night without a feeding. This information is critical to making a plan that you can be consistent with your responses at night.

toddler can't self-soothe
In order for him to truly self-soothe, your goal is to stop replacing the pacifier for him.

Sleep Training When a Toddler Can’t Self-Soothe

At 14 months, he definitely has the ability to put the pacifier back in his own mouth and he will just need some gentle coaching. To do this, when he wakes, begin pointing to the pacifier in his bed. If he is in a regular bed, you could even put a little basket in a corner of the bed with the pacifiers inside. Upon waking you will point and say “There is your paci, honey. Go get your your paci.” At this point you need to stop putting it in his mouth for him and teach him to get it for himself.

Initially, you should point to it and see if he gets it. If he whines for you to get it, you can put it in his hand and let him put it in his own mouth. Eventually, you will need to direct him to get it all by himself.

In order for him to truly self-soothe, your goal is to stop replacing the pacifier for him. Otherwise, this will become the new sleep crutch: mommy and daddy find my pacifier for me and put it back in my mouth.

It’s important when you’re working on this step that you are putting him to bed drowsy but awake. Often, parents allow their babies to get too close to sleep, only to find that their child is crying for them because they really don’t understand how to fall asleep without help.

This plays perfectly into working through The Sleep Lady Shuffle, which gradually helps you and your child learn how to help him sleep independently.

Have no idea where to begin solving your child’s sleep issues?

Start with this guide.

Get this guide

Two Important Reminders

Once you start sleep coaching you want him to be awake at bedtime after a great day of naps.

When you begin sleep coaching you might need to start your day at 7:00 a.m., instead of nursing him back to sleep until 8:00 a.m. It will be much easier to rise and shine at 7:00 a.m. once you’re all sleeping through the night

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