There’s one major complication when a toddler won’t sleep. When a toddler wakes up crying, they have the language and the mobility to let parents know — usually by walking into their bedroom and waking everyone else up too. And because toddlers aren’t great at understanding how to go back to sleep, it’s up to parents to navigate their insane demands and find a better way. Getting a toddler back to sleep is like negotiating with a subconscious that has taken hostages. And the stakes are high. Vicious cycles are made of this. No one disagrees.
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 getting a kid to bed in any situation is first knowing why they woke up in the first place. When parents talk about getting kids 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 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 kids 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. Kids 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. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen.