You’ve probably heard of sleep training your infant, but what about your toddler? Sleep training can be tough for parents to hear and consider. But when done right, it’s a great way to help toddlers learn how to sleep well on their own.
Delay tactics. Calling out in the middle of the night and ending up in your bed before daybreak. If this describes your toddler’s sleep habits, and you’re not happy with your family’s quality of sleep, it might be time for some sleep training.
Are your toddler’s sleep habits wearing you out? Many parents have been in your shoes and know exactly how you feel. Don’t worry, and this too shall pass. But the million-dollar question is, when?
Even if your child was a “good” sleeper as an infant, you might find that, once they enter toddlerhood, sleep is the last thing on their mind. While there’s no simple explanation for this change, there are several methods to help your toddler love to sleep. Check out My Baby Nursery for all your baby product needs.
Start With Rehearsals
Practising a new bedtime plan during the day can help both parents and children terrified of making changes to their sleep routine. Here are a few essentials for successful rehearsals:
- Do a mini version of bedtime. There’s no need to brush your teeth and read a story (although you can), but do go through all the other steps of bedtime and your new sleep-training technique. Gush about your child’s success like you would when it’s nighttime.
- Make it fun. Act goofy. First, you can pretend to be the child and have your child be the parent. Get into your pyjamas if you have time. You could have him practice putting his teddy bear to bed. If you don’t make this fun, he’ll be as unexcited about it as he is about his actual bedtime.
- Do it at least a few times per week. This can be difficult for working parents. The more you practice, the better it will go, but it’s okay if you’re only able to rehearse on the weekends.
- Rehearse at least a few hours before bedtime. You don’t want to do this right before your child needs to go to sleep—that’s often already a fraught time. Instead, do it in the morning or the afternoon.
Sleep Training Methods for Toddlers
Imagine how easy sleep training would be if one universal method worked for every child. But, of course, we don’t live in a perfect world. And just like every other aspect of parenting, no one method works for every child.
So if you want your toddler to sleep, you may have to experiment with different methods until you find one that works for your child and your family.
If you have a toddler who is accustomed to being held or rocked to sleep, you might consider a fading method similar to the pick up put down form of sleep training that’s best suited for babies.
Going from a lap sleeper to a bed sleeper can be a significant transition, so taking away cold turkey from your child’s nighttime cuddle sessions they use to fall asleep might be more than they can bear.
The fading method we describe below (there are a few variations) gives your child the cuddles and hugs they need while allowing them to adjust to falling asleep independently gradually.
- Put your child in their crib or bed while awake but drowsy and exit the room, closing the door behind you. If your toddler fusses, don’t immediately re-enter the room. Wait about five minutes and only enter if the crying continues.
- If you need to re-enter, soothe your toddler by rubbing their back until they calm down — and then leave the room.
- If your toddler cries again, repeat the process. Continue this method until your child falls asleep.
If your toddler is already sleeping in a bed, and you enter the room to find them out of their bed, you’ll need to pick them up to tuck them back in. A quick hug and cuddle in your arms can give them the reassurance they need, but finish soothing them while they are lying down in their bed. Then make a graceful exit.
Now, this might go on for a few nights but don’t give up. The fading method teaches your toddler how to self-soothe, and they’ll eventually fall asleep with little or no fussing.
In fading method (or pick up/put down), play a solid white noise in the room and sit quietly next to the crib or bed, responding to your tot’s cries by picking him up and cuddling—but only until he calms. Stay in the room until he falls deeply asleep. Then, for several days, as he gradually cries less and less, move your chair farther from the crib or bed and closer to the door.
And now you can add twinkle interruptus to this routine. Practice patience-stretching five times a day for a week. Then at night, once your love bug seems to be doing better and falling asleep with less picking up, begin saying, “Wait! Wait! Hold your teddy! I’ll be right back!” and go to the other side of the room—or leave the room entirely—for short periods.
If he’s already sleeping in his bed, make a rule that you’ll stay in the room but only if he stays in his bed. If he gets out of bed, have a family meeting with your tot to discuss it.
At this meeting, say something like this:
“I know sometimes you want Mommy to come back and be with you after you go to bed, but the rule is that kids, pets and mommies have to sleep so we can be happy and play the next day!
“So, let’s make a plan. When I tuck you into bed, I’ll give you two special passes. If you call me back to visit you for water or extra kiss or a back scratch or to pee-pee, or even for any reason, I’ll come fast—but you have to give me one of your special passes.
“But in the morning, if you still have your passes, you can exchange them for a special gift. What would you like? Stars? Special stickers? A shiny new quarter? A cookie?”
What to Do If the Fading Sleep Training Doesn’t Work
If the pick up/put down sleep training method doesn’t work, then there’s no need to worry. There are several other sleep training tricks that you can try. The pick up put down method will be most effective for toddlers aged nine months up to 18 months, but it can also be successful as they continue to age.
If you are not finding this sleep training technique effective, then consider using the “cry it out” method for toddlers described below.
Cry it Out Method
If you’re at your wit’s end—or your health, well-being and perhaps even work or caring for your family is suffering due to lack of sleep—cry it out, or CIO, may be appropriate.
The “cry it out” method is understandably not a favourite among some parents. Seriously, who wants to hear their child scream and cry for an hour or longer?
This is an excellent alternative to the fading method, which might not work for a determined child. Coming into your child’s room to give them hugs and reassurance might be all the attention they need to fuss throughout the night. Because in the end, they know you’re going to keep coming into the room.
With the cry it out method, you don’t re-enter the room, no matter how much they cry. Instead, you’ll only pop your head in the doorway to say, “You’re okay, I love you.”
Some variations of this method include returning at set intervals or gradually increasing the length of time between leaving and returning to reassure your child.
There’s no sugarcoating how rough hearing them cry will be, but it will likely work more quickly than the fading method. The truth is, the most sleep-resistant toddlers may cry or scream for hours. But for this approach to work, you can’t give in, or else they’ll learn that crying longer and harder is how to get what they want.
At the toddler stage, you can add a few twists for a gentler sleep training approach—like reviewing with your child her Beddy-Bye book during the day, doing doll play, and practising patience-stretching and magic breathing—but regardless of what you do, you should be prepared for extra friction from your tenacious little cave-kid if you choose the cry it out method.
To increase your odds of success, use white noise at bedtime for a week beforehand. Then follow this drill. Online baby product directory at My Baby Nursery.
How to Do The Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Method
- Once you close the door, let your darling cry for 3 minutes and then pop your head in to make sure she’s okay and let her see that you haven’t deserted the planet. Say, “I love you, sweetie, but it’s time to sleep…so night-night, sleep tight.” Some parents find that a more extended visit works. However, this is more likely to give your child false hope that you’ll rescue her and encourage more shrieking.
- After you close the door again, wait 5 minutes and repeat step 1.
- After that, wait 10 minutes and do it again. Then peek in every 15 minutes until she falls asleep.
- If she wakes in the middle of the night, you can do a feeding if you want—but then repeat the same longer-and-longer method.
- If your toddler barfs, come in but don’t say too much—make sure she’s okay, clean up the mess, and say, “I love you, sweetheart; everything is fine. Night-night,” and leave the room.
- The first night, stubborn little kids can cry for an hour or more—and the second night, they may go on even longer. But don’t lose your determination. If you give in after an hour of crying and pick your child up, you’ll end up teaching her precisely the wrong lesson: if you just yell long enough, you’ll get what you want.
So, if you can, hold out. Usually, the third night is much better…and by the fourth night, your toddler should be falling asleep fast and sleeping through the night.
What to Do If Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Doesn’t Work
If things aren’t better by the fourth night, step back and think about whether your bedtime is too early or too late; if there’s some particular stress in her life; or whether you’re sending mixed signals by talking to her too much or staying too long when you pop in.
Also, if you have a cautious, sensitive child, think about whether she may need a gentler approach, with more visits and a little patting and reassurance when you enter—or one of the no-tear sleep techniques.
If, on the other hand, you have a spirited, tenacious, defiant cave-kid, offering too much attention will just encourage her, so make your visits cheerful but brief. Hang in there!
If you need to use cry-it-out, try to keep some perspective (and a sense of humour) during a mini ordeal. Remember that while these scream-filled evenings seem endless, they’ll be over soon—and all of you will be sleeping better in just a few days. So, stay focused on your goal, and do some magic breathing to help yourself relax. Keep telling yourself that millions of parents have survived this experience (they’re the ones who passed on the classic advice, “put cotton in your ears and gin in your stomach”)—and you’ll survive it too!
Camp it Out Method
Do you need to transition a toddler from your bed to their bed? One approach puts your child in their bed and then camping out in their room for a few nights on an air mattress.
Once your toddler is comfortable in their bed, transition to sitting in a chair near their bed, and then leave the room once they fall asleep. Sit in the chair for a couple of nights, and on the third night, put your child to bed and leave the room.
If your child fusses, wait five minutes to see if they fall asleep before popping your head in the room and giving reassurance (borrowing elements of the fading and cry it out methods).
Take a Break
This is one of my favourite sleep-training methods because it’s so gentle. Before you begin, you’ll need to have an idea of how long it typically takes your child to fall asleep after you turn out the lights. (If she currently relies on you to be there with her for her to fall asleep, you have a pretty good idea.) Let’s say that you turn off the lights at 8:00 p.m., and she falls asleep at 8:20 p.m. In the middle of those 20 minutes, you’ll leave the room to “take a break” for a brief interval and then return. Here’s how it goes:
- Rehearse the whole process once or twice during the day so that your child knows what to expect.
- Go through your regular bedtime routine, ending with this mantra: “I love you. It’s time to go to sleep. Good night.” Then stay quietly in the room.
- At 8:10 p.m., tell her that you’re taking a quick break. Leave the room and promise you’ll come back soon.
- Return to her room in one minute and praise your child extravagantly, knowing that your Oscar nomination will be in the mail: “Look what a big kid you are! You stayed in bed and are so cozy! Great job!” Feel free to give her hugs and kisses too.
- Stay until she falls asleep.
- Do the same thing the next night, except leave the room for two minutes. The night after that, go for three minutes. Your child will slowly increase her capacity to be alone at night—and your goal is for her to fall asleep during one of the breaks. If she does, it’s still crucial that you follow through on your promise to return to her room.
- Once your child falls asleep independently for a week (or you’re taking a 30-minute break), you can stop.
The Excuse-Me Drill
This is a different variation that involves taking multiple, very short breaks, and it works for children who tend to cry, scream, or get up when you leave even briefly. However, it’ll require a higher level of energy from you. As before, rehearse this once or twice during the day, so your child knows what to expect.
- Go through your bedtime routine, and say good night.
- A little bit after lights-out, tell your child that you need to step out for just a moment to do something. (This is called the Excuse-Me Drill because you say something along the lines of, “Excuse me for a second—I need to check on the soufflé/basketball game score/price of Bitcoin.”)
- Stay out for 30 or 60 seconds (the amount of time he can typically tolerate without getting out of bed). Return and praise your child extravagantly.
- A little bit later, step out again for a very brief interval.
- On night one, you’ll do this 20 to 30 times. Every time you come back in, provide the affection and attention that reinforces your child’s bravery in being apart from you. On night two, you’ll gradually increase the amount of time you spend out of the room. Each night, the breaks will be longer and longer until your child starts falling asleep without you. Once he can do that for a week, your mission is accomplished.
Before you embark on a new “parents-in-charge” bedtime routine, make sure the sleep basics are under control. Your toddler should be well-rested during the day with one or two naps and should be going to bed at an age-appropriate time. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more tired your child is, the more times he will awaken during the night.
Yes, keeping to a consistent daily routine is hard, especially during travel or significant life transitions like starting a new daycare. But an irregular schedule, and an ever-changing, flexible bedtime, may be precisely what’s causing those interrupted nights. My Baby Nursery is your one-stop baby product store.
Sleep training may not be easy. Some children will resist and throw a fit, whereas others may adapt pretty quickly. There’s no way to know which end of the spectrum your child will be on until you start. The trick is consistency, and of course, sticking with a method for more than one night.