Not getting enough sleep can lead to a host of other issues with toddlers, such as tantrums, meltdowns, crankiness, and a disagreeable demeanour.
Sleep is essential to make life easier for the whole family. When it comes to establishing good sleep habits with your toddler, the earlier you start, the better.
Some parents don’t realise that the habits they allow or even encourage can lead to sleep problems.
Once these habits have developed, it can be challenging to make changes. But it’s not impossible and is certainly worth the effort.
It will be easier for the Child and the parents if ground rules and routines around sleep are set sooner to avoid problems later.
Watching your newborn sleep peacefully in your arms is a beautiful thing. But having an older baby or toddler unable to fall asleep without being rocked in your arms is less of a joy, especially when this happens three or four times a night, every night.
You are wondering how to teach your baby to sleep alone without using you as a crutch? Read on and discover everything you need to know about helping your baby fall asleep alone.
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How Common Is This?
Sleep issues impact about 25 per cent of young children. These issues aren’t just tricky for parents; they may also be associated with kids’ attentional, behavioural, and emotional problems.
How Much Sleep Is Enough?
Toddlers ages 1 and 2 years old generally need 11 to 14 hours of sleep each day. For example, a 2-year-old may take a 2-hour nap during the day and sleep 12 hours at night.
Slightly older children, ages 3 to 5, need between 10 and 13 hours of sleep in 24 hours. So, a 4-year-old may only take a 1-hour nap or no nap and may sleep 10 to 12 hours at night.
Exactly how much sleep your child needs is highly individual. And it may vary depending on several factors, like whether your Child is sick or if they’re having an off day. However, if your Child is consistently getting far less sleep than is recommended, you may want to contact your pediatrician.
Here are a few signs to make an appointment:
- Your tot snores or seems to have difficulty breathing while asleep.
- Your Child acts differently at night, wakes up frequently throughout the night, or has a fear of sleep or the night.
- Sleep issues impact your tot’s behaviour during the days at night.
The Capacity to Be Alone
The concept of enjoying oneself when alone—the ability to relax, reflect, enjoy solitude, and do things on our own—is not something that happens.
It’s a skill we learn and develop through our lives. He says that the capacity to be alone is one of the most critical signs of emotional maturity. This includes putting oneself to sleep, and it begins in the early years of life.
When you consider that infants and toddlers are entirely dependent on parents for food, dressing, activities of daily living, and comfort, it’s no surprise that the very first time they’re really on their own is when they are put down for a nap or bedtime.
And, naturally, they may initially freak out. Separation is scary. No one is there to hold them, rock them, snuggle them.
But helping your Child get to sleep on their own is not only crucial for you as a parent but a necessary experience for your child and their future development.
It’s not just about getting to sleep. It’s about learning to enjoy being alone and acquiring personal ways of “self-regulating”—finding unique ways of calming one’s emotions, slowing down, relaxing, and feeling safe enough to drift off to sleep.
When Should Babies Learn to Sleep Alone?
All babies are different. However, most become able to learn to sleep alone between three and six months old.
The exception to this would be babies with underlying issues, such as an illness, prematurity, or developmental delay.
Are you wondering whether your baby is ready to learn how to sleep alone? First, speak with your medical professional to ensure there are no reasons you can’t move ahead with this. Then, once you have the all-clear, you can begin when it works for you.
Possible Reasons for Toddler Sleep Difficulties
Aside from recognised sleep disorders, more benign (harmless) issues may cause trouble at bedtime. However, if you can identify what’s going on, you may be able to help your child snooze with a few tweaks to their routine.
Your Child’s Bedtime Isn’t Relaxing.
Is bedtime chaotic in your household? You’re not alone. Between bath time, putting on pyjamas, brushing teeth, combing hair, packing everything for the next day — everyone may be running around at Mach speed.
If you’re feeling stressed from all the rushing around, your toddler may also be picking up and holding onto that energy versus winding down.
Your Child Is Going Through Big Changes or Transitions
Toddlers face a lot of change. New siblings. New preschool or babysitting situations. We are moving from a crib to a big kid bed. Dropped naps—potty training. The list goes on.
With change comes disruption. Along with sleep issues, you may notice that your Child is crankier and clingier than usual, not eating as much, or has some other type of difference in their day.
Your Child Isn’t Tired.
Toddlers are full of life. If they don’t have a proper outlet to play and burn energy, they may not be tired at bedtime.
Some well-meaning parents try tiring out their kids by letting them run circles around the house before lights out.
There’s a fine line between super energised and overtired, however. If you cross it, your tot may not be able to fall asleep because they’re so exhausted they don’t know what to do with themselves.
Your Child’s Naps Are to Blame
Your toddler may not be tired if they’re napping too much. Look at the sleep requirements for their age and tally up the hours they’re getting between daytime and nighttime sleep.
That said, resist the urge to drop naps too soon. If your child still needs daytime rest, they may be overtired at bedtime, leading to that difficult-to-calm conundrum.
Your Child Won’t Sleep Alone.
The truth is, your toddler may not love bedtime because they miss you. In addition, young children may not want to be separated from their caregivers.
Or they may wonder what goes on after they go to bed. All that fear of missing out (yes — toddlers can get FOMO!) can lead to bedtime resistance.
And if you’re lucky enough to get your little one into bed, they might want you to hang out while they fall asleep. They may not even let you leave the room without a struggle, leading to quite a bedtime battle.
Your Child Has Nightmares
Whether you’ve realised it or not, your tot has an active imagination. So those cute stories they tell you during the day can turn sinister in their mind at night.
Monsters under the bed, nightmares, and night terrors may work against sleep in two ways. First, they may wake your child from an otherwise sound sleep.
Second, your child may grow fearful of sleeping because they’re worried they’ll have more nightmares.
Toddler Sleep Associations
The asleep association is anything that a toddler or Child connects with going to sleep. It can be an object, like a pacifier, blanket, or stuffed animal.
Or it can be an action, such as rocking, nursing, or sleeping next to a parent. Children start establishing sleep associations very early in life.
If a toddler is used to falling asleep with a bottle or being rocked to sleep, they will make that association every time it is bedtime.
Some sleep associations are healthy and critical to setting up a bedtime routine to prepare your Child’s mind and body for sleep.
Parents might give their toddler a warm bath, brush teeth, read a story together, turn the lights low, sing songs, or do anything that helps indicate that bedtime is approaching.
Other sleep associations can create issues. For example, if a toddler has to have a milk bottle to fall asleep, it may seem fine at first.
But later, it becomes unhealthy due to promoting cavities or being a source of extra calories that your toddler doesn’t need.
Or, sleeping in your Child’s room may have seemed like your only option for getting your child to bed, but that probably means you’re not getting a good night’s sleep.
Consider whether a sleep association adversely affects your Child’s sleep, your sleep, or that of another family member or caregiver.
Problems With Co-Sleeping
Co-sleeping (the family bed) is a hotly debated issue that may straddle the line between healthy and unhealthy sleep habits and associations.
Many parenting experts say that, when done right, co-sleeping is perfectly safe and healthy.
However, even if you’re co-sleeping in a safe environment, it may not be the best choice for everyone involved.
You or your partner may find your sleep habits disrupted by your Child, so you don’t get enough sleep. As a result, the Child may also suffer.
Co-sleeping effectively places a child on an adult sleep/wake schedule. By going to bed later and waking up at the same time as you, your child will inevitably be deprived of the 13 hours of sleep per night that many toddlers need.
Toddlers who are not getting enough sleep at night may compensate for the loss by falling asleep in the car, at meals, or wherever there is an opportunity for a nap.
While it may seem handy to have your toddler sleeping a lot during the day, this napping schedule may be disruptive to other family activities.
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Getting a Child to Sleep Alone
If a toddler is struggling to sleep independently, tell them that they need to stay in their bed and sleep. Be firm.
Once you set the expectation, it’s time to say goodnight and leave the room. However, some tips may help.
Choose the Right Time
While you may want to teach babies to sleep alone as soon as possible, choosing the right time is critical for success.
If possible, plan to begin sleep teaching when as few disruptions to your routine as possible.
So, avoid beginning shortly before scheduled immunisations, changes to daycare, vacations, and things like that.
But, don’t just consider your baby’s day-to-day routine. You also must be in a place where you can stick with the program.
It’s just as important not to begin teaching your baby to sleep alone at a time when you are under temporary, additional pressures (i.e. moving to a new home, extended family visiting, etc.).
Speak With Everyone Involved
Make sure everyone is on the same page before you begin. This includes everyone in the household who helps with your infant’s care, such as extended relatives and babysitters.
If everyone is not in agreement, the baby will become “confused” by the mixed expectations. This can result in a very arduous sleep teaching process…
If one person runs to your baby the first time, they whimper, teaching your baby to sleep alone will not be successful.
In addition, if your baby is in daycare, speak with your childcare provider. It is essential to be sure that the same teaching strategies are happening in all settings.
Establishing a Bedtime Routine
Human beings are creatures of habit — we learn by association. So, to help your baby learn how to sleep alone, you have to provide a routine.
The routine should have the same steps, in the same order, at the same time, for each sleep period.
This way, your baby learns that because X has happened, then Y is the logical next step.
While the “traditional” bedtime routine is a bath, dressing in pyjamas, reading, and then sleeping, you don’t have to take these steps if they don’t work for you. The important thing is consistency, rather than the actions themselves or the order you take them.
However, the one thing you should incorporate into your baby’s bedtime routine is a peaceful environment.
Holding Your Baby Before Sleep
Many parents make the mistake of believing they should not hold or cuddle their babies before laying them down to sleep.
Not so! We would always recommend some quiet time being held in a loved one’s arms before bed.
The important thing is not to rock or otherwise soothe your baby in an overtly physical way before they fall asleep.
If you do, your baby will associate this rocking, rubbing, stroking, or other physical movements with sleep. They will then need this physical action to fall asleep.
Instead, feel free to hold your baby in your arms and enjoy a close cuddle, making a clear distinction between this and the next step.
Laying Your Baby Down Before Sleep
Don’t allow your baby to fall asleep in your arms or during a feed. Instead, lay your baby down into their crib while they are still awake.
Now, to be difficult, there is yet more debate on when to do this.
Some advice says to put your baby down when they appear to be drowsy. That would be when your baby’s eyes are drooping, and they seem to be almost asleep.
Other advice says they are too close to falling asleep at this stage and should be laid down to sleep when they are relaxed but still fully awake.
The only way to find out what works for you is to try. Some will take to laying down while reasonably wide awake, while others will need to be sleepier.
Our best advice would be that hitting the “right” stage of relaxation or sleepiness can become stressful. Instead, think of it as finding the location where your baby is no longer showing an active interest in their surroundings.
Maybe your tot has a set bedtime. Perhaps they don’t. Whatever the case, it’s a good idea to get into a routine with a goal of sleep that’s the same every night, even on weekends.
Not only will it help you as the parent, but it will also set the expectation for your Child. Younger toddlers won’t necessarily have a concept of time, but they’ll feel it. After all, their internal clock is always ticking.
Tip: If you’re attempting to shift a very late bedtime earlier, try moving it forward by just 5 to 15 minutes at a time until you reach your goal.
Once you set bedtime, create a whole routine around it. For example, you may want to start helping your Child relax about 30 minutes before lights out.
During this winding-down time, dim the lights, play soothing music, and give your child a warm bath.
I am switching off screens in the hours before bed is also critical. Screen time in the 2 hours before bed may lower melatonin (sleep hormone) level in the body.
After changing into PJs and brushing teeth, read a favourite book, tell a story, or sing. Then it lights off, a quick kiss, and goodnight.
Part of the nighttime routine may also be choosing a lovey that your Child sleeps with. This may be a favourite stuffed animal or blanket — something to provide comfort when you eventually leave the room.
If your child is afraid of the dark, you might consider looking for a dim night light to ease worry.
Experts specifically say “dim” because too much light may stimulate your Child and keep them awake (again — it goes back to the circadian rhythm).
Even the best routines can fall victim to your Child’s demands. “Just one more story, mommy!” Does that sound familiar? Or maybe in your household, it’s one more glass of water, one more song, or one more snuggle. This last request, especially, can be hard to resist.
Whatever the case may be, try setting a limit. For example, you may want to create the expectation that you read one story, give one goodnight kiss, and then tuck your little one into sleep.
Limits also apply to when your child gets out of bed. If your tot is constantly leaving their room, consider giving them a “hall pass” of sorts. Tell them they’re allowed just one extra glass of water or one extra kiss — but it’s one-and-done. Doing so may help them feel that they have some control over the matter.
Consider the Environment
Is your Child’s room too warm or cold? Too bright or dark? Too noisy or quiet? Your toddler may have trouble sleeping because they’re uncomfortable or overstimulated in some way.
The best sleep environment is calm, dark, and quiet. Take a look around and see if there are any glaring issues.
If outdoor light is pouring in from the windows, try blackout curtains. If you can hear lots of noise, try a white noise machine to drown it out. If it’s too hot or cold, try a fan or turn up the heat.
Look at Naps
Your child may need some modification to their napping schedule. For example, if they seem overtired at the end of the day, consider prioritising naps so you get closer to their daily sleep goal.
If your child doesn’t seem tired enough at bedtime, consider shortening naps or cutting them altogether.
Regardless, make sure the nap is early enough in the day that your Child has a long enough wake window before bedtime.
And if your tot seems to need rest but will not nap during the day, consider offering quiet time in his room instead.
No matter what you choose to do, stick with it. Even if your new plan doesn’t seem to be working, try it for at least a few nights.
You’re working to create a predictable rhythm and an expectation. However, it can take some time for your Child’s habits to shift in response.
If your tactics still aren’t making any change after a week, then you can reevaluate.
You are helping your child cope with the challenging task of becoming more independent and learning how to sleep on his own. Be sure to take moments during the day to talk about it with them
Offer your child lots of daytime cuddles and love. Tell them how proud you are of them each time they take a step toward sleeping on their own.
Remark on their progress, and be sure to take the time to listen when they express pride in themselves.
Some toddlers are surprised when they accomplish things that they thought were too hard in the beginning.
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