Toddler Sleep Issues

Even though infants have their share of sleep issues to work through, toddlers are not immune from sleep struggles as well.  While toddler sleep problems present themselves in different ways than infant sleep issues do, they are often (but not always) rooted in the same predicament – a child’s inability to fall asleep unassisted.  Here I’ll cover the most frequent toddler sleep issues and what you can do to remedy them.

  • Naps – When families come to me with toddler sleep struggles it is almost always because their child either takes too long to fall asleep (thus putting the start and end time of the nap quite late), or if their toddler sleeps at all, it interferes with being able to fall asleep at bedtime. If you find that your child struggles to fall asleep quickly for their nap, it may be because they are waking too late in the morning to be sufficiently tired for their nap. To remedy this problem you can either wake your kiddo up earlier in the morning (30 minutes should suffice), or you can start their nap about 15-30 minutes later.  Alternatively, you could keep their morning wake up time the same, start their nap 30 minutes later, and move bedtime about 30-45 minutes later. Finally, you could keep morning wake time the same, move nap start time later, but cut your child’s nap short by about 30-45 minutes in order to protect bedtime. I know there’s a lot of alternatives here, but there are also many unique situations in people’s lives. If you find your child’s nap (of any length) is interrupting their ability to fall asleep at night, this is likely a sign they may need to stop having regular naps all together. I would strongly caution against allowing your child to stop attempting a daily nap prior to the age of 3 years, but in some cases it becomes very obvious that naps of any length produce huge sleep issues. For example, I’ve had 2.5 year olds who willingly nap each day, but are then unable to fall asleep before 11:00 pm each night, even when left completely alone in their crib with no interaction from Mom and Dad for hours prior to falling asleep. If you find yourself in this category, begin by attempting a nap only every third day, and allowing short snoozes (20 minutes or less) to occur in the car here and there. If your child does occasionally sleep in the car, make certain this sleep ends no later than 3:00 pm. If your child is known to fall asleep in the car in the later afternoon, avoid being in the car after 3 pm on “no-nap days,” and if you do have to drive, plan to have your child eat a snack or attempt to engage them in some other way to keep them awake.
  • Wanting parents to stay in room at bedtime / Waking overnight – These types of sleep issues are usually rooted in an inability to fall asleep unassisted. Thankfully, there is a relatively easy and straightforward method to remedy this issue found in my book. As an overview, you want to create a system for your child in which they “check off” all the things they need to do before bedtime (so they are not asking for water or to go potty once they’re in bed for the night), then once they are in bed for the night, they have a certain number of chances to stay in bed before the privilege of being able to leave their room freely goes away. Generally speaking, toddler sleep issues resolve within 1-3 days if parents are able to be hyper-consistent in implementing the toddler sleep training guidelines.
  • Waking too early in the morning – If you find your little one waking too early, first try to implement the use of a toddler sleep clock (to see which sleep clock is my favorite check out this blog post). For many easygoing kids, explaining to them that they must stay in bed until “the light turns green” on their clock is sufficient to dealing with this issue. If you find your child (like one of mine) is simply not interested in following that established guideline, refer to the training methods in the above mentioned book to help them learn that they must stay in their room until Mom and Dad deem it is time to start the day.
  • Transitioning to a toddler bed – There are a few things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to transition your toddler from a crib to a bed. First off, I’ve noticed many of my clients anxiously anticipating this transition and want to make the change sooner rather than later. This is a terrible idea. You should delay transitioning to a bed as long as you possibly can. Unless your child is able to climb out of a crib, I would not transition them until they are close to the age of 4. I would also suggest not potty training at night (and using pull ups instead) until you are confident your child is able to get up, use the bathroom, and get back to bed without assistance (and also be old enough not to get distracted by playing, etc, on the way back to bed). If your want your child to be able to go pee overnight, I’d institute a “ticket” system where they receive one (or two, if needed) tickets at bedtime each night. If they need to use the restroom anytime between bedtime and the morning, they can call to you and give you their ticket, then use the bathroom and go back to bed. If they abuse this system and call for you without needing to pee, then they will use their ticket and need to remain in their crib/bed until the morning. I would suggest still using a Pull-Up just in case they have an accident overnight (especially once they’ve used their ticket). If you do find yourself needing to transition out of the crib, make absolutely certain your child’s bedroom is TOTALLY childproofed and that there is nothing in their room that could harm them. Then, put up their bed, put up a toddler clock (here’s my favorite one), hand them their potty ticket, tell them you love them, tell them to stay in bed until the “light turns green,” and that you’ll see them in the morning. Also, and this is key, I would add a toddler door knob cover to the inside of their door. I totally get that people will think this is locking their kid in a room, but I can assure you this is no different than using a crib. The major issue kids have when going from a crib to a bed (and this is why I implore you not to make the transition unless you have to/they are old enough) is that they are able to leave their bedroom at will. Once they have this freedom it’s becomes necessary to sleep train your child all over again (if you find yourself in this situation, read my new book for a great toddler training method). Once you put them to bed, I would not interact with them again unless there is an emergency. Usually this resolves any sleep issues within just a few nights. Something to also remember is that using this tactic (door knob cover on the door) is usually not even necessary if you wait long enough to transition. Most four year olds are old enough to be obedient to the expectation to stay in their room until the light on their toddler clock turns green without even needing to have a their door closed.
  • Climbing out of the crib – I left this one for last because it is an extremely common issue that can be very challenging to deal with. First and foremost, if you choose to attempt anything to physically prevent your child from climbing out of their crib, you must first discuss this issue with and get permission from your pediatrician.  If you happen to have a crib that has a lower front side and a taller back side (like a sleigh crib), turn the lower slats to the wall and make the higher slats face the room. This may prevent your child from being able to get up and out of the crib. Additionally, you can put your child in a sleep sack (even if they really dislike them – with time I can assure you they will become accustomed to using them) because the extra fabric may encumber their legs enough that they cannot climb out. Finally, consider purchasing this Travel Simple Playard from Ingenuity as it is very, very deep and may prevent some toddlers from being able to climb out.

Toddler sleep issues can be very distressing, but often with a little forethought and planning, nearly all issues can be remedied with consistency and time.

2 Comments

  1. Katrina December 19, 2017 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    We had a problem with exactly the second point – “Wanting parents to stay in room at bedtime”. Out child wasn’t used to our absence while falling asleep. However, we had luck because we found a fantastic short book about sleeping lessons for a child. Susan Urban wrote it and it’s great.

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