When a toddler won’t sleep, or when a toddler wakes up too early, everyone in the home will know about it, mostly because they have the mobility and the language to make sure their concerns are heard. But while toddler might think they know what will get them back to sleep — including cuddles, juice or lights — it’s up to parents to understand how to get a toddler to sleep. And getting a toddler to sleep is less about navigating their insane demands than it is about knowing what wakes a toddler up at night in the first place.
As a sleep specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital Sleep Center, Jennifer Gingrasfield has seen her fair share of parents struggling with nights of waking toddlers. She notes that the key to understanding how to get a toddler to sleep in any situation is first knowing why they woke up in the first place. When parents talk about getting a toddler to go back to sleep, it’s important that they understand that as a long-term, broader effort. Taking a one-off nightly approach won’t work.
“Sometimes in those toddler years there can be a lot of triggers,” Gingrasfield explains, some of those triggers can be linked to developmental changes that cause them to want to test their environment. Others might be purely physical, like night accidents that cause wet pull-ups and discomfort.
When the toddler wake ups are linked to comfort or development, says Gingrasfield, they may not be every night, but might occur weekly or monthly. “In those cases, ideally, take care of the problem and tuck them back in,” she explains. “It’s not a repeat of the full bedtime routine, but a hug and a kiss, saying goodnight and walking out.”
That’s the method in its simplest form. But simple is hardly a given, especially when toddlers are exhibiting sleeplessness over a longer period of time. “Ongoing issues are much more related to an underlying problem,” says Gingrasfield. And those problems are less likely to do with the kid and more likely to do with the parents. That’s because parents can develop counterproductive habits in desperate attempts to get restless kids to sleep—like laying down beside them, or offering other comforts. “Is the child used to having their parents stay and lie with them and rub their backs?” Gingrasfield asks. “Those kids almost always wake up in the middle of the night to look for that again.”
The Four-Pronged Approach to Getting Toddlers Back to Sleep
- Help them sleep well in the first place by shortening sleep schedules as kids grow and making sure that they don’t nap so much that they’re not tired by bedtime.
- Understand why they woke up in the first place to prevent the issue from reoccurring as a long-term, broader effort.
- Avoid developing counterproductive habits like laying down beside them or offering other comforts. Create consistent conditions so they won’t feel as if something is missing.
- Keep bedtime routines simple and exit the bedroom while the kid is still awake so they can learn to put themselves to sleep.
New language skills only complicate the issue. Toddlers don’t understand that they’re likely in search of a Pavlovian sleep trigger so they demand Cheez-Its (or whatever). “A toddler may ask for a million different things,” says Gingrasfield. “So parents might start to think that there are a lot of other reasons the kid is waking up, but really it has to do with how the kid went to sleep.”
The logical conclusion? The key to keeping a kid asleep is getting them to sleep soundly in the first place–no minor feat. To accomplish this, parents need to keep an eye on regular sleep times and adjust them to shorten sleep schedules as kids grow. They also need to make sure kids are actually tired. Those three-hour naps don’t help. Running around does. Almost paradoxically, the solution is sometimes to wake kids up a bit earlier so they’re tired by bedtime.
And then there’s the bedtime ritual itself. Gingrasfield recommends simplicity. And as long as parents aren’t exclusively co-sleeping, they should go through the night time routine and exit the bedroom while the kid is still awake. That way the toddler is putting themselves to sleep and developing sleep associations that they can control if they happen to wake up.