Toddler sleep can be one of the most challenging and commonly talked about topics of parenthood. How many times does an exhausted parent desperately comment in a local Facebook group begging for advice on their toddler’s sudden early morning wakings or the struggles related to switching to the “big kid bed”? At the toddler stage, we are typically past the point of the sleep struggles that come with the first year of life, such as learning independent sleep skills and how to drop a nap. By this point, our toddlers are on one nap and have wake windows about 4.5-6 hours, give or take. For the most part, they should be in a somewhat consistent routine. However, the toddler years come with a whole new set of tricky transitions!
Sleep can be a function of two scientific pieces working together - the science of sleep and the science of behaviour. I’ve partnered with the amazing Rachel Chitiz from Sleeping Cutiezzz to illustrate how toddler sleep challenges can be navigated from both a behavioural perspective, and a sleep science based approach.
In this special partnership post, we are going to highlight some of the most common struggles parents encounter when it comes to toddler sleep. For each challenge, we will provide strategies you can implement that are rooted in principles of behaviour theory and sleep science research.
As a refresher, I am an experienced educator, former behaviour therapist and toddler mom. I work with parents of toddlers to help them learn the skills to promote healthy emotional and cognitive development in their kids. I am an education consultant, helping children of all ages (and their parents!) with everything from
education support, to IEP management and acting as a school-home mediator. I am also is the author of the new guide, The PEACE Method (available on Amazon now!). You can get in touch with me here, on my website or on Instagram.
Rachel Chitiz is a toddler mom, a lover of sleep, and a Certified Sleep Consultant. She works with tired parents of children 0-4 years of age who are frustrated and struggling with their little one’s sleep - or lack thereof! Rachel began working as a sleep consultant after experiencing the exhaustion that often comes along with being a new mom, and the confusion that comes along with trying to instill healthy sleep habits. Rachel is passionate about helping parents and their children get the rest they need, and the rest they deserve! You can find out more about her through her website or on Instagram.
Challenge: Parental Preference
What it looks like: Sometimes our toddlers want only mommy or only daddy to put them to bed!
Strategies: Parental preference is completely normal! While it may feel personal to the non-preferred parent (that’s totally me right now, so if it’s you, you aren’t alone!), or exhausting to the preferred parent (it’s a lot being the chosen one ALL the time!), then rest assured that it is likely just a phase. Try not to fall into a pattern of one parent doing it all, all of the time. Don’t deprive your child of their preferred parent (PP), but stay included as the
non-preferred parent (NPP). Have the PP participate in bedtime but have the NPP do parts of the routine that are just for them. It’s important that each parent is able to do bedtime on their own. This helps our littles learn to be more flexible in the event one parent is unavailable for a night or is tending to other children. If both parents follow a similar bedtime routine, your toddler will be less likely to show a preference for one parent’s way of doing things. It can also help to have the NPP show lots of excitement towards spending special, quality time together before bed. “My husband is the PP these days, but I am present as often as I can be. I usually do the teeth brushing and we both do storytime all together in our bed. Although he often wants my husband to read a book, I am still present for snuggles and engaging in the moment. We both take him to his room and sometimes my husband stays an extra moment to rub his back, but sometimes it’s me, and other times we both leave at the same time. We try to both be present and never fall into too strict of a parental role pattern. We approach it as a team, unless one of us can’t be at bedtime for other reasons.” (Michelle) “Dad has always been in charge of bedtime in our house, but lately my daughter has been asking for mama. I know if I show up at bedtime, I better be ready to stay until the end! On the nights where my daughter is asking for me, my husband will typically do the first few steps of the bedtime routine including bottle and bath, and I will come in towards the end for PJs, books and cuddles.” (Rachel)
Challenge: Lack of Routine
What it looks like: Bedtime looks different every night and toddlers have a hard time knowing that bedtime is coming soon.
Strategies: Just like you did as a baby, bedtime routines are important. They are consistent reminders that cue our kids for what is coming next. It eliminates any element of surprise and allows them to mentally prepare for bedtime before they get into their bed. It also gives them quality 1-on-1 time with their parent(s) before a long period of separation overnight. The routine should be about 30-45 minutes and should be calming, in or near the bedroom, and fairly consistent. It can include anything such as:
Sharing a special moment of the day
Putting on PJs
Sound machine on/lights off
A goodbye/goodnight special ritual or phrase
Have your child be in control of as many parts of the routine as you can, including the order of them. They can choose their PJs, brush their own teeth, choose the songs, turn on the sound machine, etc. Use Rachel’s free Bedtime Routine Poster to work with your child to create a routine! To take it one step further (if you are extra, like me), laminate and put some velcro on the back of the bedtime routine images. Let your kid determine the order and take off each picture once the step is done (or make a checklist and use a dry-erase marker!). It’s never too early or too late to implement a bedtime routine with your child!
Challenge: Bedtime Sillies
What it looks like: Toddler isn’t tired enough, or they are overtired by the time bed comes. They seem high energy, silly and don’t want to settle/it takes a long time to fall asleep.
Strategies: Consider adjusting the wake windows to have an appropriate schedule in place. Wake windows for ages 2-3 should be between 4.5-6 hours for most kids. Depending on age and the child, they might nap for anywhere between 1-3 hours in the middle of the day. We want to strike a balance between the right wake window length and the right amount of sleep pressure built up before bedtime.
If you find that your toddler is not ready for bed, consider adjusting your schedule in the following ways:
Keep bedtime the same: Cap the nap earlier to increase the sleep pressure before bedtime
Push bedtime later to increase the sleep pressure before bedtime
Bring bedtime earlier if the wake window is too long
Here is your friendly reminder that screen time can be highly stimulating, so try to avoid screen time for up to an hour before bed. Screen time too close to bedtime can impact your child’s ability to wind down in time for an appropriate sleep time. In addition to this, a consistent bedtime routine will help to wind down before bed. If needed, start the routine a bit earlier to add in some extra time for winding down. The first E from the PEACE method works here too! Be the emotional compass - keep your voice low, body relaxed, tone calm. Turn big lights off and “set the mood” for bedtime.
Challenge: Graduating to a “big kid bed”.
What it looks like: Your toddler is about to or has already climbed out of their crib.
Strategies: Once your toddler has escaped their crib, or is getting pretty close, you’ll want to begin the transition to a toddler bed. When you make this change, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Sleeping in a bed gives toddlers a lot of newfound freedom and independence. Since they’ll be able to leave their bed, you’ll want to view the whole room as a big crib. In other words, their room should be a safe, enclosed sleep space. This means securing furniture to walls, tucking away wires, covering sharp corners and removing hard or heavy toys. It may also mean adding a child safe lock on their door or a gate to prevent them from leaving their room. This sounds mean and scary - but it’s much safer than finding your toddler roaming the hallways of your house in the middle of the night! Another option is a door monkey.
Prepare your child for this change. Talk to them about it in a fun and exciting way and involve them! For example, make an activity out of going to choose their new bed and bed sheets. Perhaps they get a new stuffed animal to sleep with in their big girl or big boy bed. Read books that talk about the transition to a toddler bed in a positive way
When you’re ready to make the transition, keep their bedtime routine as consistent as possible, as children thrive on predictability and familiarity.
Challenge: Nightmares or Night terrors
What it looks like: Your child wakes up screaming in fear in the middle of the night.
Strategies: If your child is going to have nightmares or night terrors, you typically will see them begin after two years of age, when fears can set in and imaginations start to blossom. You may not know if your child is experiencing night terrors or nightmares. Here are some key differences between the two: Night Terrors:
Child doesn’t realize parent is there
Child won’t remember any of the details of what happened the next day
Often occurs in the 1st half of the night
Child is comforted easily when parent is there
Child can remember details of what happened the next day
Often occurs in the 2nd half of the night
If your child is experiencing nightmares or terrors, here are some things to consider:
Assess their schedule and their wake window before bed to ensure they aren’t overtired.
Avoid stimulating electronics at least 1 hour before bedtime
Provide low sugar foods close to bedtime.
Calming, comforting, peaceful bedtime routine
Challenge: Early morning wakings
What it looks like: It's 4 or 5 in the morning and you hear your toddler awake in their crib. They’re ready to start the day - but you’re not!
Strategies: This is unfortunately a common sleep issue that many toddler parents face. Your child is up at the crack of dawn, feeling rested and ready to go. It can be really difficult for parents who are still hoping for another couple of hours of sleep. If you are dealing with early morning wakings, here are the most common culprits.
An okay-to-wake clock is a great tool to add to your sleep toolbox for toddlers 2-2.5 years and up. I love to use the GroClock with my son! These clocks change colours when it's morning and time for your toddler to wake up and get out of bed. You can teach your child to stay in bed if they wake up before the clock light turns on. Not sure how to introduce this to your toddler? Here are some tips:
Involve them in the process - have them choose which colour means it’s time to wake up or have them push the button at bedtime to start the sleep colour.
Explain what to do if they wake up before the awake colour turns on - lie still, let your body rest, wait for the light to change and for mom/dad to come get you.
Make it a part of their routine - talk about it during the day and as part of your bedtime routine.
Focus on small victories - set the clock for just after the time they are currently waking and slowly adjust the time by 10-15 minute increments. This will help them feel successful and want to continue using the clock as a motivator.
“I started using the GroClock with my son (2.5) and it has been a game changer. He loves waking up to say ‘I stayed in my bed until the sun was yellow!’. We talk a lot about the sleeping blue star and the awake yellow sun. He loves to ‘put the sun to bed’ by pushing the button at bedtime. We started with 6:30, but found he was waking much earlier and I wanted to increase his chances for success, so I moved the time back by 15 minutes. Now he often sleeps much past the time it turns yellow!” (Michelle) We hope that you have found some useful strategies in this post! For more sleep support, feel free to reach out to Rachel on her site, https://www.sleepingcutiezzz.ca/.
Michelle and Rachel