You’re well past the stage where you feel that heartwarming tug when your child calls out in the middle of the night, asking you to come running to the rescue. Now, it’s becoming a nightly struggle to get your toddler into bed period — let alone keep them there. If it’s any consolation, it’s not personal and you’re not alone: Sleep training a toddler is one of the more challenging moments in parenting. Here’s how to get a toddler to sleep.
Set Clear Bedtime Rules
Kids this age are playing with ideas about power and control, says Jennifer Waldburger, co-creator of The Sleepy Planet and co-author of The Sleepeasy Solution. “They need to know where the limits are, or they will keep pushing until they cross that line,” she says. One way to establish boundaries: Create a defined block of time that constitutes a pre-bed routine. “It can be jarring when one minute everyone is hanging out on the couch having family time, and the next minutes it’s like, ‘OK kiddo, off to bed!’” she says. Avoid this scenario by starting quiet time in your child’s room 20 to 30 minutes before lights out.
Focus on Low-Stimulation Activities
During the day, your goal as a parent is to engage your child in as many mind-expanding, physically-exerting activities as possible. Before sleep time, however, you’ll want to do the exact opposite. “Skip the electronics or dramatic bedtime stories,” says Waldburger. “Focus on quiet activities that feel unrushed and create a legitimate bonding moment with your child.” That might be snuggling with stuffed animals, drawing pictures together, or looking through a photo album of family memories.
Leave Before Sleep Hits
It’s a mistake for parents to remain in a child’s room until the toddler is out cold, says Waldburger. “Kids this age will periodically cycle out of sleep, and when they wake up a realize things aren’t exactly how they remember them — i.e., you’re no longer there — they will become upset,” she says. Instead, slowly slip out the door as you see your child’s eyes begin to droop.
For kids who feel especially worried when parents leave the room at night, try this approach: Place a chair or stool near his pillow for the first night, then move it to the foot of the bed the next night, then just in front of the door the following, and right outside in the hall the night after that.
When a little one tries to engage you as you ease out the bedroom door, or wants you to tell a story when they wake in the middle of the night, it’s tempting to do whatever they ask in hopes it will send them back to dreamland quickly. But the more you engage with your child during these hours, the more they will come to rely on you for soothing. Once bedtime hits, “tell them you’ll there if they need you, but now is not the time for talking,” says Waldburger. “You’ll share all the stories they want in the morning, but right now is sleep time.” By being present without engaging, you’ll provide comfort without stimulation.
Talk It Through
Toddlers are too young to understand everything, but they may pick up on more than you’re giving them credit for. And sometimes, it’s easier to follow sleep rules when they know why it matters to Mom and Dad. “For kids who are especially nervous, explain to them in advance what will happen,” suggests Waldburger. Keep it simple, along the lines of: It’s really important for Johnny to sleep because sleep makes his body strong and healthy. When Johnny doesn’t sleep, he feels bad the next day. Dad and Mom are going to help him get more sleep.
Rinse and Repeat
During sleep training for toddlers, you can expect to hear the pitter patter of little feet coming down the hall in the middle of the night. Don’t act like it’s a big deal. “Calmly say, ‘Oops! I see you got out of bed. I am going to take you back to your room now,’” says Waldburger. Walk your child back to the other room, tuck him in, and leave. “Prepare that you may be doing this several times a night, for several nights,” she adds. “But if you stay consistent with your words and do not engage emotionally, your child will learn eventually!”