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Toddler Sleep Challenges: How To Get A Good Night’s Rest

Toddler sleep issues, little boy sleeping on his mamas shoulder
Family LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily LifeParentingPost Category - ParentingParenting - Post Category - Toddler & PreschoolerToddler & Preschooler

Your ultimate guide to giving your toddler (and the rest of the family!) the gift of sleep.

It’s a common concept that babies will grow out of their sleep problems when they become toddlers. If not resolved as young as 18 months of age though, you may find yourself with many sleepless nights ahead. Tackling sleep challenges for toddlers, in my experience, is much more difficult because habits are deeply set, they are more strong-willed and persistent, and can be far more reluctant to any change.

The best piece of advice I can give any parent who wants to have a more restful home is to address any sleep issues you might be facing before the age of 18 months. That said, you can still train your toddler how to fall and stay asleep. Though, as an expert in the sleeping habits of babies and small children, I feel the sweet spot to really setting healthy sleep foundations is between six and 12 months.

If you are ok to continue to support your little one throughout the night then that’s absolutely fine! There’s no right or wrong on how you choose to deal with your little one and their sleep. However, if your toddler is struggling to head off into the land of nod and you are seeking some support, there are things you can do to help!

Read more: Baby Sleep Coaches And Night Nurses In Hong Kong

Toddler asleep in bed with feet sicking out, toddler sleep challenges

What Are Common Toddler Sleep Challenges?

There are many toddler sleep challenges that we might face and just realising this may help in making you feel more reassured. This may be due to the fact that they have a history of not sleeping well and nothing has changed (and maybe getting worse), or you may find your previously amazing sleeper is now refusing to sleep at bedtime or waking in the night all of a sudden. So what can you do? Let’s look at some of the common issues that might resonate with you. It’s always important to know that progress can always be achieved – the earlier the better!

Jump to:
Toddler Can’t Fall Asleep On His/Her Own, Or Sleep Through The Night
Older Baby Still Needs Milk In The Night
Dropping To One Nap Too Soon
Activity: What Is The Right Amount?
Bedtime Stalling
Moving To A Toddler Bed
Nighttime Fears And An Over Active Imagination
Surviving Holiday Periods With Your Toddler

Toddler Can’t Fall Asleep On His/Her Own, Or Sleep Through The Night

If your child is 12 months of age or above and still needs your full support (rocking, holding, patting, carrying, feeding) until fully asleep, then you may be setting yourself up for a difficult time ahead with sleep for you and your child. Providing there are no medical issues, babies of this age are more than capable of sleeping independently through the night, with no feeds and they shouldn’t be waking up until the morning. If this is still happening, then we need to consider that they have not yet had the opportunity to learn to self soothe (fall asleep without support).

We are looking at some very deep-set habits to help your baby get to sleep at bedtime, and they will continue to wake in the night if these associations are not resolved. Some points to note:

  • I would say the window of opportunity to reset the narrative starts to close as you reach the 18 months to the two-year mark. If they are still highly dependent on a certain set of events or people to help them sleep beyond the age of two, it can be very hard (not impossible but much harder!) to resolve. The notion of them “growing out of it”, in my experience doesn’t apply.
  • Since each child and situation is unique, I resolve issues like this all of the time from a very holistic and gradual perspective and take time to understand the history behind the current situation.

Of course, a lot of parents are happy to keep responding in this way until even school age and that’s absolutely ok, too! However, if you are a parent in this situation and want to make some changes, read on for some quick tips.

Quick tips:

  1. The main message is: if you have a 1-year-old and the above resonates, and you don’t want to continue the way things are, now is the time to act. Waiting until two years of age plus can set you up for much bigger challenges.
  2. Take a step back and look at what your toddler requires in order to be “put to sleep”. It is these things that need to be slowly weaned so that they ultimately fall asleep drowsy but awake.
  3. I usually follow a hierarchy of soothing to ensure a gradual change is implemented so that they can adjust slowly and in a supportive way. This means that if they are being held to sleep, you would then work on patting to sleep by their crib/bed (with some gentle shushing). Then once they are comfortable with this, you would progress to shushing to sleep with very intermittent patting. Then you would sit further from their bed and shush occasionally until you find yourself out of the room.
  4. There are various ways of implementing this however the key message is that you are supporting them through some gradual changes and a bit of protesting is to be expected but you are with them and supporting them through it.
  5. Be consistent and persevere and you can expect to see some miraculous results with some patience.

Read more: How Much Sleep Do Children Need?

toddler sleep challenges, needing milk to fall asleep

Older Baby Still Needs Milk In The Night

Beyond nine months of age, in most cases, babies are capable of sleeping through the night with no feeds. Just because they are capable, however, doesn’t mean that they are doing it.

Whilst some babies naturally just wean themselves and start to do this on their own, there are plenty out there who don’t. There is no rhyme or reason for why some babies can and some can’t so don’t get wrapped up in what your friends’ baby can do. Simply focus on your own and it becomes a lot less stressful! Some points to note:

  • If your baby is above 9 months of age and is medically cleared to sleep through without nutrition and you want to have your baby sleep without waking for milk, then it can be done. If you prefer to keep feeding, then absolutely go for it! It is a personal choice for every parent and every family.
  • Depending on the baby, and the other sleep challenges that might be present, there are several ways to eventually stop the feeds, and as a result, the night wakings that come with it. I prefer a more gradual approach which weans the quantity ever so slowly over a certain period of time. Ultimately, it is the feed to sleep association, beyond 9 months of age, that is driving them to wake up, rather than hunger itself.

Make sure you always check with your doctor first to ensure your baby or toddlers nutritional requirements are being met during the day. You’ll want clearance that no milk is needed at night. This advice is on behalf of those who are keen to make a change because at this stage its less about nutrition and for some more about bonding and comfort.

Quick tips:

  1. There are several ways to do this and I would not advise going cold turkey when removing milk. I suggest that you slowly offer less milk than usual at each night waking.
  2. Each night you could either offer 30ml less in a bottle or one minute less of breastfeeding.
  3. You can also try pulling them off the breast when you can tell that the sucking has changed from feeding to comfort.
  4. You can then practice rocking and patting the rest of the way to sleep whilst they get used to not being fed at night.
  5. Once the milk has been weaned you can then work on the other sleep association as described above.

Toddler Sleep: Dropping To One Nap Too Soon

It’s a common error to drop your 1-year-old to one nap a day. This often happens as they may refuse to fall asleep for their first nap for a few days. This can actually be the result of a sleep regression and/or development, but its best to try and continue with two naps a day as they should stop skipping that morning nap after a short while of refusing it.

  • By dropping to one nap, you are substantially increasing their wake windows and it can spiral out of control into a lot of overtiredness.
  • Overtiredness means lots of fussiness towards the end of the day (but well before their bedtime because they just can’t manage).
  • This in turn leads to more night wakings and early rising.
  • A very small percentage of babies will drop to one nap happily at the age of 1. If it is working for you and you’re not experiencing any of the effects above, then continue.
  • Otherwise, they typically will be ready between 15 and 18 months of age.

Quick tips:

  1. If you have dropped to one nap below the age of 15 months, and they start waking at night or earlier in the morning, I recommend that you switch back to two naps for a little while longer or ensure that they are going to bed at night earlier if you choose to stay with the one nap.
  2. Overtiredness is at play in these situations and your goal is to remove this from the equation. If you still have problems, then I typically look into sleep logs in a lot of detail to figure out what is going on.
  3. If there are large wake windows either side of a nap, or the timings of the naps are not consistent then your next step would be to look at their schedule in more detail and ensure it is age-appropriate.

Read more: Four-Month Sleep Regression: Help For You And Your Little One

how much activity does a toddler need to sleep well?

Activity: What Is The Right Amount?

When I meet with families, I like to get a full view of their day from start to finish. I am usually surprised one way or another – sometimes they are barely doing anything at all or the toddlers are overscheduled and overstimulated.

  • Getting your child outside in the day is key! The natural daylight does wonders for them and helps with their circadian rhythms, but they are also getting an opportunity to see new things, be visually stimulated and perhaps burning off some energy. I recommend doing this upon waking after breakfast and starting the day off right. They may be off to a playgroup, the park, kindergarten or a gentle stroll in the pram. All of this is wonderful. Ensure that you get home so that they can wind down for a nap, before perhaps going out again in the afternoon, and being home with time to wind down for dinner and the upcoming bedtime routine.
  • Being out all day, or being signed up for every playgroup on offer can mean that you are overscheduling and perhaps not respecting their nap needs. Be mindful that they are little people who love to play and be engaged but also need time to wind down. You need to create those opportunities for them as they are too little to understand this need and can just go and go and go all day without stopping! This means they will fall into the category of being way too overtired and you can be confident their sleep will be impacted during the night (perhaps in the form of night wakings, fussiness or early rising).
  • On the opposite side of the scale, I have met with families where their baby doesn’t leave the house at all. Not only would they not be getting all of the benefits that come with natural daylight, but they will not be burning off enough energy and from a learning perspective, they need a variety of visual stimulation.

Find a good balance that fits in nicely with their naps. But the odd day off schedule is ok, too!

Quick tips:

  1. The key message is to get your kids outside and get as much daylight as possible.
  2. Always leave enough time to wind down before a nap and bedtime, and ensure that they are not over-stimulated or exerted.

Toddler Sleep: Bedtime Stalling

As your baby becomes a toddler, you may experience what I call “the asks”. “Can I have more milk?” “One more book, please?” “Can I have one more song?” “I’m hungry, please can I have more food?”

As they learn to talk and navigate their world of cause and effect and test their boundaries, this can quickly impact bedtime. You might find that your once-amazing sleeper, is now becoming difficult to settle at the end of the day.

This is where we really need to implement boundaries. Giving in to these requests can become a habit, and if not addressed quickly, can not only make bedtime more stressful but it can also start to contribute to the same behaviour happening in the middle of the night and they start waking up again! My best tip for this is to anticipate and address all requests before bedtime so that we remove the need. The rest of it comes down to discipline and consistency.

  • For example, I would ensure that as part of the bedtime routine, giving yourself enough time before you would normally enter their bedroom to pre-empt “the asks”. I would say something along the lines of: “It is sleep time soon so the kitchen is closing now. This is your last chance to have anything to eat so please let me know now. If you ask for anything after we go to bed, we won’t be able to have anything.”  The same principle would apply to anything else they are typically asking for.
  • If they are asking for one more book – a challenge that I faced with my son at one point – I adapted and ensured that he understood that before we settle down for storytime, that we are only having three books and once those books are read, its lights out and time for sleep.
  • To help with this, I included him in the process so that he would choose the three books and that way felt more involved. Let your toddlers have some control over their bedtime in a positive way.
  • Then we say good night to the bookshelf and go to our reading chair and enjoy the stories together. For any protest that might come at the end of the three books, ensure that you remain firm and don’t give in. Calmly say its sleep time, and repeat that mantra if necessary and clarify that there will be an opportunity to read more books tomorrow.
  • Be consistent, confident and firm, and allow yourself a few days to a week to overcome it. They soon learn and adapt.

Quick tips:

  1. Along with the above-mentioned pointers, you can also link these behaviours with a simple reward system. For instance, if they go to bed very well, you can positively reinforce them in the morning by putting a star on their chart for “being a good listener at bedtime”.
  2. At this young age, when you are working on a particular goal, make it really achievable and really quick. You can reward this with a small toy or outing each morning if necessary until the issue is resolved.
  3. Then you slowly increase the number of stars required to maintain the behaviour. In my experience, once we have done this and it becomes a new habit again they soon forget about the reward system anyway.

Read more: Newborn Sleep: Healthy Habits For Your Baby’s First Months

moving toddler to their own bed, sleep challenges

Moving To A Toddler Bed

I recommend keeping your baby in their cot until around 3 years of age unless they are showing signs of trying to escape. If they are happy in their cot, then there is no need to rush! I see amazing sleepers change overnight simply because a toddler bed has been introduced too early. So why does this happen?

  • In their eyes, their whole sleep world opens up as those boundaries are taken down and this can typically lead to lots of escaping! This can happen straight away or it may happen after a week or so. When they are under the age of three, it is a really hard concept to reason with, and developmentally, it’s a much easier process to navigate when they are that little bit older.
  • I have so many clients come to me for this exact reason and there is usually no reason for them moving into the toddler bed except for the fact that they thought it was the right time. My son only just moved into his toddler bed at the age of 3 years and 2 months. We had several nights of bedtime shenanigans as he explored the fact he had no boundaries. I was able to overcome the “Jack-in-the-box” effect by consistently and calmly returning him to his bed each time.

The big difference in dealing with this issue at age 3 versus age 2, is that:

  1. You can reason with them and explain.
  2. It can be coupled with a reward system that they can comprehend.
  3. If they were a previously good sleeper, this transition may go a lot more smoothly.

For some families, I see that they try and introduce a new bed because they aren’t sleeping well. They assume that by getting a new toddler bed must be a novelty and very exciting for them and that this will magically resolve all of their sleep problems. This, in my opinion, is the biggest error that can be made as those sleep challenges will spiral out of control tenfold because you have opened up the boundaries and then you enter the realm of escape!

Quick tips:

  1. Try not to move your toddler into a bed before at least 2.5 years. A lot of problems can arise if you make this transition when they already have a lot of sleep challenges. I would focus on resolving any sleep challenges before making the big step.
  2. Get your kids involved by choosing their bed, duvet covers, etc. and allow a few days for them to adjust.

Toddler Sleep: Nighttime Fears And An Over Active Imagination

Your toddler now has a wild imagination and with that can come nighttime fears. These can be handled by entering their world and creating a narrative for them that they not only understand but can become part of their evolved bedtime routine.

  • Let’s say they begin to complain about monsters, beasts, etc. You can sit with them at bedtime and protect the room together in a lovely way. My daughter Myla (who is 5) now expects me to create a “protection bubble” for her when I say goodnight. All that I do is pretend I have a magic wand, and cast a spell and deem that the room is now protected. It’s as simple as that in some cases, and she’s not even scared anymore of anything, but we still do it every night as it is now part of our routine.
  • Other ideas are giving your child power spray (a spray bottle with water in it will suffice) to use before night time. They can believe that the spray gives them power, or protects the room in some way.
  • This really is a great opportunity for you to get creative and your child will love it as you are entering their world and acknowledging their fears.

Quick tips:

  1. Ensure they are not going to bed overtired as this can increase the chances of night terrors or nightmares.
  2. Empower them in your bedtime routine by choosing a narrative that they enjoy, such as monster spray or magic dust for example.
  3. Avoid watching television before bed, especially programmes that aren’t age-appropriate. It’s also best to observe what they are watching as some cartoons can include scary content. For instance, my little girl had a few nights of being scared after watching My Little Pony. I went back to check the episode and there was some scary imagery so don’t assume it’s ok because it’s a cartoon.

Read more: Tips & Tricks: How To Get A Good Night’s Sleep While Pregnant

toddler sleep challenges at Christmas

Surviving Holiday Periods With Your Toddler

The lack of a regular daily routine, fun outings and gatherings, and in some cases a complete change of sleep environment, may mean nap disruption or heading home later than usual. It’s a time to enjoy and go with the flow, but it’s important to also respect their sleep needs. You’d be amazed how quickly things can spiral out of control.

  • If naps are missed or shorter or later than normal, then their bedtime needs to be adjusted accordingly. We want to ensure as much as possible they don’t go to bed overtired as this is a recipe for more night wakings than usual and early rising!
  • If you have had a busier than normal day and their naps or night is disrupted, the best tip is to get back on track the following day. Spread your festive plans with a couple of days in between at the least so they have a recovery period. This will prevent a spiralling out of control effect that will end up with a cranky baby.
  • Routines should be maintained. If you happen to arrive home later than usual, try to stick to the same routine, the same order (although perhaps a shorter version) so they can wind down into bedtime as best as possible in the way they are used to.
  • When you feel overwhelmed or stressed with too many plans, your baby will pick up on this. Aim to enjoy yourselves and not over schedule.
  • Throw in too much sugar, over-scheduling and lots of exciting activities, and it’s likely they may be processing emotions more intensely. It’s normal – allow them to feel the feels. But if it’s all too much, it may be wise to ease off on the overstimulation and allow some grounding time.

Quick tips:

  1. Enjoy your holiday time! Attend parties, go on day trips, but aim to have your baby/toddler nap on the go as the best-case scenario.
  2. Failing that, simply anticipate that a full-on day with little day sleep may lead to a poor nap. As long as you allow the next day for catch-up time, all should be well.
  3. The problems arise if it’s a continuous stream of overwhelming activity with no break and no reset.

Most of all enjoy, go with the flow and a couple of days off-routine won’t unravel everything. The key is to get back on track as soon as possible before it becomes a problem.

Read more: Where To Buy Kids Furniture And Decor For The Nursery In Hong Kong

Featured image courtesy of Getty Images, image 1 courtesy of Tatiana Syrikova via Pexels, image 2 courtesy of Viajero via Pexels, image 3 courtesy of cottonbro via Pexels, image 4 courtesy of Tatiana Syrikova via Pexels, image 5 courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels.

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