How to get your jack-in-the-box toddler to stay in bed and sleep through the night

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Let’s face it - a toddler in the house can test even the most patient parents. After all, they are in constant chatter; they run, jump, bounce boundlessly; and they make demands...lots of them! With all of their energy, it’s not surprising that their batteries need recharging, and so do yours!. Most toddlers require 12-14 hours of sleep through age 5, including a 1-2 hour nap until they are 3-4. Many 4 and 5 year olds also benefit from quiet time during the day to recharge.

As I already discussed in more detail in this post, sleep is critical to your toddler’s optimal growth and development, not to mention mood and behavior, learning and memory...and your sanity!

You may be thinking: “I know why my toddler should be sleeping, but my child just won’t settle down easily? What can I do?” No doubt getting toddlers to sleep can be tricky because they often refuse, protest, demand, run, climb, and move faster than you can say “lights out!”

Here are 5 tips for a peaceful bedtime with your toddler:

  1. Avoid the “crankfest” with a well-timed bedtime. One common problem for this age is that bedtime creeps later and later. With their bodies in constant motion all day, toddlers need plenty of preparation to wind down before bedtime. When they reach a point of acting cranky, they are overtired, which makes getting them to sleep even tougher. They often get a “second wind” because their bodies produce cortisol to fight fatigue, again making it nearly impossible to fall asleep easily. To avoid this state, be sure your toddler is in bed and sleeping no later than 4.5-5 hours after the end of the afternoon nap. That means wind down routine should begin 30 minutes earlier than lights out. A typical toddler who sleeps from 1:00-2:30 or 3:00 p.m. should be in bed by 7:00 - 7:30 p.m. If he misses a nap, then bedtime should be about 12 hours after wake time, which may mean 5:30 to 6:00 p.m., to compensate for the lack of afternoon sleep. Of course, every child is different, so have your eye on his behavior to hit the right bedtime.
  2. Ignore the “curtain calls”. She’s in bed, the lights are out, you have just left the room with a sigh of relief to relax and curl up with your favorite magazine when the first request comes: “I want a glass of water.” Most parents learn fast how one request suddenly turns into a streaming litany of complaints and demands: “I can’t find my bear,” “I’m hungry,” “I can’t remember how to sleep.” Though you know what is coming, it’s easy to give in to just one. Before you know it, your plans to catch up on your recorded shows are shattered as your toddler’s shouts echo through the house. The best advice for these demands is to ignore them. If you really want to acknowledge them, go to their doorway and state firmly, “I can hear you, but it’s time for bed, go to sleep”; then leave. If you don’t linger or reinforce those requests with responses, they will get the message loud and clear. Even once response, however, can trigger more calls for attention, and more excuses not to sleep. The bedtime routines are a great time to accommodate requests for a sippy cup of water or one more hug, but once lights are out, be firm about those limits.
  3. Return the “runner” to bed, silently: Sometimes just as you think think you have successfully completed a calm bedtime routine, your toddler races out of bed faster than you can say “good night, sleep tight”. Even toddlers who are still in cribs can master this feat with the dexterity of a mountain goat on the side of a cliff. For these “runners”, the key is to take their hand and return them to bed, swiftly and silently. Avoid saying what you feel like saying (i.e. “stop getting out of bed!”); just march them in silence back to where they belong. Toddlers are nothing if not persistent, so sometimes it takes 100 + returns on the first night for them to get the message. The key is not to let them ruffle you during the process: stay strong, calm, and quiet. Make it business like so that the behavior is not reinforced and they will get the message, even if it means after a meltdown or two during the process. Remember, even negative reinforcement is reinforcing. For crib climbers, the key is to catch them in the act as soon as you hear them and give them a firm “No”; they may startle but they will return to their mattress. Again, this may take a few firm “no’s” for the message to sink in.
  4. Encourage independence so you don’t become “the pillow”: Just as you can create a habit by feeding or rocking an infant to sleep, you can become a sleep “crutch” for your toddler so that he needs YOU to fall asleep. If you make a habit of staying with her in the room until she falls asleep, when she wakes up through sleep transitions, as they all do, she cannot fall back to sleep without you. And that’s the last position you want to face in the middle of the night! So instead of staying in her room until she falls asleep, make a habit of a loving bedtime routine with ample child-oriented activities and then leave her to fall asleep on her own with all of her favorite stuffed animals to cuddle with; they will be happier than you to sleep with her.
  5. Manage nap transitions: On average, most toddlers transition from two naps to one between 15 and 18 months. You may have friends who say their toddler dropped a nap at 12 months or even earlier, but don’t jump the gun if you don’t need to! Here are a few signs to look for to know whether your toddler is ready to transition: when they consistently refuse one nap (and consistently means over the course of several weeks, not several days); when one nap becomes much shorter (usually the afternoon one); and when the timing changes for a nap (your otherwise predictable nap schedule starts to go haywire with naps all over the place and sometimes too late in the day). Transitioning to one nap can take a few weeks, or more,longer for some. One trick is to slowly move the morning nap later by 15 minute increments every few days until you reach a midday nap that begins between 12 and 1 and lasts about 2 hours. During the transition period, your toddler may become more tired as they lose some of that day time sleep, so be sure to compensate with an early bedtime. Read my article on how to transition to one nap with ease for more details.

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