Getting Toddlers to Sleep

If your child just won’t settle, read on!

Getting Toddlers to Sleep


It’s well-past bedtime, but your toddler is still not asleep. He keeps calling out to you. You are getting tired, and your patience is wearing thin. Why won’t your child go to sleep?

Many parents face the same struggle trying to get their toddlers to sleep at night. Yet, toddlers need between 10 and 13 hours of sleep a day, including naps, for healthy growth and development. And parents need sleep too, to parent their busy toddlers and maintain their own mental and physical health.

So why is this so hard to achieve? There are a host of reasons: lack of proper bedtime routine, too much stimulation before bed, or simply your child’s difficulty adapting to change. Here are some ways to encourage independent sleeping.

Establish a sleep routine. Kids need routines for comfort and security. A sleep routine, especially if you make it fun, will go a long way to helping your child develop a healthy sleep pattern. Your routine could include steps like: brush your teeth, use the potty, wash your hands/have a bath, read a book, lights out, and stay in bed until morning.

To make it fun, put the steps on a chart, along with the days of the week. Each time your child completes part of her routine, put a sticker on the chart to reward her and reinforce the behaviour. Then take your child to bed, say good night and leave. In the morning, praise her for following the routine and staying in bed.

Create the proper environment for sleep. Television before bedtime can interfere with your toddler’s ability to settle down and sleep. It’s better to choose some relaxing activity before bed, such as reading or listening to music. Make sure your child’s bed is comfy and provide him with his favourite blanket or toy at bedtime. Tuck him into bed snugly so he feels secure.

Use new strategies during times of transition. Your toddler may still expect to be rocked or nursed to sleep as she was as an infant, while you expect her to sleep on her own. So change tactics. Give your child snuggles, nurse and rock her in a quiet room and then try to put her into her own bed while she is still awake. The goal is for your child to be able to fall asleep on her own.

Moving to a big bed is also difficult for some kids, especially if the move comes because there is a new baby. If you are expecting a new baby and you want to transfer your child into a “big bed,” do it well before the baby is born. Make the transition appealing and let your child pick out sheets or a blanket.

If all else fails, try a new approach. If your child is still having trouble sleeping on his own, there are three 

approaches you can try. Choose the one that you are most comfortable with as a parent and you think will work with your child.

Direct Approach. Follow your usual bedtime routine, and then tell your child that she needs to stay quietly in bed and that you will see her in the morning. Tell her that if she calls out you will not answer her, and if she comes out of her room you will return her to bed without any discussion. Then stick with it. Reward your child the next morning for staying in bed; a sticker or special breakfast cereal work well. This approach is best for older toddlers. Don’t use this approach if your child is sick, and only use it for a week. If it doesn’t work, try another approach.

Gradual Approach. Follow your bedtime routine, say good night and leave. If your child calls out or cries, wait a couple of minutes to see if he can settle himself. If not, return to the child’s room, pat his back and remind him that it is time to go to sleep. Leave after a minute and try to stay out of the room longer each time between check-ins.

Gentle Approach. This last technique works best for younger toddlers. Follow your bedtime routine, put your child in her bed, say goodnight and stay in the room, sitting in a chair beside her bed. Do not make eye contact or talk to the child. Don’t answer if your child tries to talk to you. Each night, gradually move the chair away from the child’s bed and out the door.

Consistency and lots of positive praise will make it easier for your children to learn to go to sleep on their own.

Author: Nancy Doherty

Nancy Doherty is a registered Early Childhood Educator at the Peterborough Family Resource Centre.

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