Sleeping through the night is possible. With a bit of work and discipline, your tired toddler will put in six, seven, eight consecutive hours and give sleep-deprived parents a much-needed break. But how to get there? We talked to the experts about how to get kids to sleep, what steps parents should take, and what to expect along the way.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Sleep
Sleep Training Usually Happens Twice
Some time between your infant’s fourth and sixth month, most parents initiate the process of sleep training. It will be emotionally charged and a little draining, but after about two weeks, baby is likely to be sleeping fairly well on her own. So it may come as a surprise to discover a year-and-a-half later, your toddler seems to have forgotten those hard-earned skills. “There is a massive amount of development happening for two-year-olds as they sleep,” says pediatric sleep specialist Rebecca Kempton, M.D., founder of Baby Sleep Pro. “Their brains are growing rapidly, they’re learning new ways to move their bodies, expanding their vocabulary — and a lot of the practice for this occurs during sleep.” For that reason, they will occasionally awaken themselves by accident. Give them time to self-soothe and try to return to sleep on their own. “Parents have a tendency to overreact,” says Dr. Kempton. “You can unwittingly create more problems for your child if every awakening is treated like a major catastrophe.”
Learn to Spot Sleep Regressions
When the awakenings are not caused by development-related disturbances, they may be caused by what experts refer to as “sleep regression” — a change in your child’s normal sleep routine, whether it’s moving into a bed and room of his own, or a family relocating to a new house — that causes him to temporarily “forget” how to sleep through the night. Tempting as it may be, do not alter your bedtime routine by staying longer in your child’s room or letting him sleep in yours. “Setting limits is one of the best things you can do to encourage kids this age to sleep through the night,” says Dr. Kempton. “That applies not just to bedtime routines, but to daily activities as well.” Toddlers are testing you and discovering their own boundaries, and those who do best with nighttime sleep are usually those who live in a house where there is a consistent message about which behaviors are OK, and which are not.
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Talk About It
This is especially important for nervous or emotionally sensitive kids. The more your child knows about your expectations for sleeping through the night, the easier it will be for him to follow suit, says Dr. Kempton. Explain in easy terms how it’s going to go down. Dad’s going to tuck you in, then he’ll tell you a short story, then you’ll say goodnight. You’ll be right next door if your child needs anything, but you won’t be able to play together until morning, because nighttime is for sleeping. It sounds simple, says Dr. Kempton, but for many kids, it’s the reassurance they need.
Revisit the Checking Method
Just as you may have done when your baby was first sleep trained, you may want to employ this common approach to help a toddler get comfortable with sleeping through the night in his own bed and room. The checking method is basically what it sounds like: After you say goodnight to your child, wait five minutes, then stick your head through the door to check on him. If he is sleeping, good. If not, offer soft, gentle words about how good he’ll feel in the morning after a night of peaceful sleep. Then leave. After 10 more minutes, return. Repeat soft words if your child is still awake. Leave, 15 minutes later… you get the drill. Yes, it’s going to require a few sleepless nights, but eventually, you’ll be able to spread to check-ins far enough apart that you can catch some legit zzz’s of your own.
Learn When Not to Engage
You put them to bed, they pop into your room 30 minutes later. You return them to bed, they return to your room. Back and forth and back and forth — it’s probably poor consolation, but you are far from the only parent dealing with the pitter-patter of little feet down the hallway, now that your toddler is no longer confined to a crib. Your best solution: Return them quietly to their room, without engaging them in conversation, says Dr. Kempton. “Gently let them know that if they leave their room during the night, you’ll have to bring them back, because at nighttime everybody needs to sleep in their own beds,” she says. You may have to do this multiple times for several nights in a row, but your toddler will eventually tire of the boring parent and remain in his own space.
Set Kids Up For Success
Not surprisingly, the best sleepers are usually those who are mentally and physically tired at the end of the day. “Getting kids outdoors and exercising definitely helps,” says Dr. Kempton. Healthy meals are key, and so are regular nap times. “If your young child doesn’t sleep at all during the day, you can expect a meltdown come 6 PM,” she adds. “Kids who don’t rest and become overtired get flooded with cortisol, which causes the hyperactivity to kick in.”
Other ways to increase the odds of success: In the hour before bedtime, play white noise softly in the background, dim the lights, and monitor the room temperature. “Cool rooms, darkness, and white noise are the three keys to creating a restful bedroom environment,” she says.
And finally, don’t be afraid to alter course if your approach clearly isn’t working. While consistency still reigns as the number one sleep-training rule, it’s also true that different kids respond to different methods, and the only way you’ll know for sure is through trial and error. See each method through for at least one to two weeks. But if the results aren’t coming, time to try something new.