TODDLER SLEEP TRAINING: HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO GO TO BED AND STAY THERE
There is nothing more terrifying than being awoken from a deep slumber by a small child repeatedly hissing “Mommy!” into your ear at 3am. But this was my reality when we transitioned James from his crib to a toddler bed at two years old. Night after night, he woke us up. Sometimes he tiptoed in and whispered a request to snuggle, and other times he flung our bedroom door open and announced, “I’m all done sleeping now!”
Our toddler had been sleep trained already! WTF was this?!? I’d say it was the stuff of nightmares, but bad dreams require sleep. And we definitely weren’t getting any.
We knew we had to start sleep training again, but we didn’t know how or where to start. We hadn’t had to cry it out since James was 10 months old, and we were worried. At this age, would he begin to feel abandoned when left alone in his room to cry? What should we do? A quick call to our pediatrician was all we needed to calm our fears.
“Oh my God that’s unacceptable! Let him cry! And have you thought about putting a monkey lock on the door so he can’t come in and bug you?” she said. My mouth just about dropped open at the door-locking suggestion. That was a bridge too far for us, but with a few Google searches and some smart parenting, we had our nights and mornings back within a week.
Here Are 5 Tips For Sleep Training Your Toddler:
Get A Sleep Training Clock. One of the first things I did during those sleep-deprived days was buy this sleep training clock. “Green Guy,” as James calls him, was the best $25 I ever spent. The clock silently glows green and displays a smiley face at the child’s wake time, which you set just like an alarm clock. It also works as a night light when its foot is pressed and will beep like an alarm clock for older children. We found “Green Guy” so helpful that we even travel with him.
Choose Appropriate Bed And Wake Times. I miss the days when I could put James to bed at 6:30 and wrap up my emails before enjoying a quiet dinner with Scott. But those days were over by the time he was 18 months old…unless I felt like being up at 4:30am with a wide-awake toddler. By that age, little ones need about 12-14 hours of sleep between naps and nighttime, and that amount decreases as they approach age three. So if your preschooler naps for 90 minutes and you put him to bed at 6:30, it’s only natural that he’ll be ready to play by 5am.
We found a bedtime of 8pm worked best for James once he reached his second year. His naps were long, so he was usually up at the stroke of 6am. That may not be ideal on a Sunday morning after date night, but it’s par for the course when you’re the parent of small kids. You can find a helpful chart of age-appropriate bedtimes here.
Become The Nap Police. Kids are so damn confusing. If they miss a nap, they’ll often have a poor night’s sleep. But if they nap for too long, they’re up late, or early, or in the middle of the night….or all three! James was a heavy napper. He was so active and engaged during his wake time that he simply needed to pass out for 3-4 hours during the afternoon just to get through the day. That changed around age 3, when his long naps started making it difficult for him to fall asleep. He started going to bed later but would wake up at the same time every morning, which made him cranky and difficult. At that point, we would purposely wake him up after 90 minutes of napping. Six months later, the problem resurfaced and we dropped naps completely.
Create A Barrier. There’s one key detail I left out about James’ transition to a toddler bed: not only did he refuse to stay in it at night, he blew naps too. Once he realized that he could leave his room of his own free will, he figured there was no reason he should listen to us. After all, we had no way of forcing him to stay in his room. We tried bribery. We tried discipline. We even tried a middle-of-the-night time out. It wasn’t working.
I was uncomfortable with the idea of locking James in his room as the pediatrician suggested. I felt like he needed to be able to see out, and I was concerned that this could create a safety issue for first responders in case of emergency. Instead, I found a compromise solution by relocating the baby gate from the top of the stairs inside his door jam. This meant he could see out and sleep with his door open, but he couldn’t leave. It reinforced the idea that rules are rules, but mom and dad are still nearby. We took the baby gate down when James was 3 and his healthy sleep habits were well established.
Lose The Guilt. The bottom line is this: kids need sleep to grow and develop properly, and we need sleep to parent properly. This can be an uncomfortable process for both, but it’s crucial to everyone’s well-being. It broke my heart to hear James cry, especially once he’d become verbal and could say things like “Mommy whyare you not coming?” But in the end, I understood that going to him so he’d stop crying was selfish; his health was more important. He needed sleep to grow and thrive, and I needed sleep to be a patient, alert, and energetic parent.
Every time we’ve sleep trained, it’s taken 3-5 days for him to fall into a healthier sleep pattern. Each time we come out the other side, we’re amazed at how much happier James is. He’s more alert and able to learn, and generally more cheerful. As hard as it is for both of us, we feel that sleep training is simply the work we need to put in to give James the gift of a good night’s rest.
Do you have another solution that works for your family? If so, please share it in comments! There’s no one right way to parent effectively; it truly does take a village! Let’s come together and share our wisdom so we all might be better parents!