Parents often seem surprised when their babies suddenly morph into little people right around the 2-year mark, complete with ideas of their own, opinions, and lots of attempts at gaining control. It’s a fun age, I promise, but I’ve found that 2 years can also be a time of sleep challenges, especially if you have recently had any major changes, such as moving to a big bed (which I do not generally recommend until age 3, but it happens), a new sibling, starting potty training, and becoming more verbal (and more opinionated).
As parents we often have to pick our battles, and sleep is one battle that we need to ensure has definite boundaries. A good night’s sleep (and consistent naps) is key to a happy toddler, which will make day-to-day challenges and developmental changes much easier. Although they are growing fast, toddlers are still, at their core, dependent upon their parents for guidance. They need structure and boundaries, especially when it comes to sleep. If given half a chance, many parents find that their 2-year-old will go to all ends to resist naps, and may even delay nighttime sleep.
This sudden sleep resistance may simply be caused by all of this growth. Additionally, many toddlers also begin to experience bad dreams, imagining monsters in the closet or under the bed, and some even have a resurgence of separation anxiety. This period may be viewed as another sleep regression, but more than that, it’s a fundamental change in the way that your child processes the world around him. How can you help to normalize sleep and ensure that you give your toddler the best chance at restful sleep, even with his resistance to bedtime (and naptime, and sometimes snack time, too!)?
Understand Your 2-Year-Old’s Sleep Needs
As your child grows, the amount of sleep they need changes, both for nighttime and naps. Your 2 year old needs an average of 12 hours of sleep, with 10 ½ -11 hours being at night, and between a 1 ½ to 2 hour long afternoon nap. I have spoken to families on all ends of the sleep spectrum, and I’ve found that many are surprised by this number. Some parents have assumed their toddler needed less sleep, and some that thought 12 hours wasn’t enough. Aim for a combined (day and night) average of 12 hours every day; you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you suddenly have a more compliant, happy toddler.
Be Prepared for Nighttime Sleep Resistance
Your toddler is learning and growing at such a fast rate during these years. Testing boundaries and rules is frustrating, but completely normal, and unfortunately, naptimes and bedtimes are one of those hot spots for toddler testing. In fact, you may not realize that your 2-year-old is testing you. Testing may appear to be as innocent as just one more story, one more kiss, just 5 more minutes. Pretty soon bedtime is a full hour late. As parents, we must maintain a constant and reliable routine, which means not allowing bedtime to creep backward on the clock.
If you find that your toddler is constantly asking for ‘just one more’ of something, consider modifying her bedtime routine to include an extra five minutes so that everyone wins. That’s right, give in to just one request, the catch is moving the bedtime routine 5 minutes earlier so that bedtime stays at a time that guarantees quality sleep for your child. Make sure that you are firm with additional requests, and that you don’t get caught in a loop of later bedtimes that may become a new sleep crutch.
A note from The Sleep Lady: Many parents assume that because their toddler is a little older, bedtime can get pushed back, and this is definitely not the case. If anything, due to her rapid growth and development, a toddler needs an earlier bedtime, so that she can awake refreshed in the morning and avoid becoming overtired. If you are finding that bedtime is a fight, try moving your routine forward. Most parents find that their toddler’s natural bedtime falls sometime between 7 and 7:30 p.m.
Naptime Resistance is Normal
Frustrating? Definitely, but this resistance is a completely normal behavior. Now, not every parent has to deal with naptime resistance. Most parents do, though. Toddlers feel the need to exert their independence (and desperation not to miss anything) by refusing to go to sleep during naptime. Rest assured that this is just a phase (and often why people refer to a 2-year sleep regression), and stick with a steady naptime schedule and routine.
If you find that your toddler is particularly resistance, to help keep your naptime routine, have him spend at least 45 minutes in his crib, even if he is just playing quietly. You can’t force him to sleep, but you can provide him with a friendly sleep environment.
A note from The Sleep Lady: Stick with your nap routine and have your toddler spend at least 45mins in his crib, even if he is just quietly playing. You can’t MAKE him sleep. As the parent, you can only provide him with a sleep friendly environment.
You may want to consider adjusting the start of the nap based on your child’s sleepy cues if you find that her naptime resistance is not waning after a few weeks. Remember that most sleep regressions last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Any period of time longer than that, and you’ve developed a whole new routine; and this is not a routine that you’ll want to keep, since (most) toddlers don’t stop napping until around 3 years old.
Dealing with Separation Anxiety and Nighttime Fears
While not all toddlers find separation particularly traumatic, those that do also tend to have a hard time with sleep. Add to this a vivid imagination, and you may experience some sleep resistance, especially if your child has decided that there may be monsters under the bed. Here are a few things that you can do to help your toddler understand that sleep is a safe place, and that it’s nothing to fear:
• Encourage attachment to a lovey if your child doesn’t already have one.
It’s never too late to introduce your toddler to a security object, in fact, having a security blanket (or rabbit, or cloth diaper), will help to remind your toddler that she is safe, loved, and, most importantly, that it’s okay to sleep.
• Utilize a nightlight or toddler flashlight.
If your child is scared of the unknown, take them to pick out a special nightlight that they can use at bedtimes and naptimes. Make turning it on right before bed a part of your routine.
• Introduce “Dream Cards” or use visualization.
In line with their growth, most toddlers’ imaginations go a little wild at first, but you may be able to use this to your advantage. Toddler’s imaginations are amazing, and you can help guide them to peaceful and relaxing visualization, such as a summer picnic, finding seashells at the beach, or building a snowman. These practices may help your toddler feel more in control of her dreams and his sleep.
I created my Dream Cards specifically to help to parents guide toddlers through soothing (and sleep inducing) visualization.
• Try some relaxation exercises.
For those toddlers who have trouble calming down for bed (even after a relaxing bedtime routine), you can help them by providing guided relaxation. Have her relax her toes, her feet, her ankles, shins, knees, and so forth, all the way up her body. If you don’t want to do this yourself, you can play a relaxation CD. If you use my Dream Cards, there is a progressive relaxation exercise that works extremely well.
If you have any questions about your 2 year old’s sleep, be sure to check out my Sleep Lady Facebook Page, where we have Gentle Sleep Coaches available to answer your questions every day!
photo credit: Madilyn Peiper via photopin cc