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Tips for Helping Your Toddler Catch Those Z’s

My friend’s three-and-a-half-year-old son was a stellar sleeper until he graduated to a big boy bed. After the move, he started paying her a lot of visits in the middle of the night. No matter how often she walked him back to his room, he was eventually tugging on her blankets again.

So she tried something: “If you can’t sleep well in your bed, we’ll put the crib back together and you can sleep there,” she told him. That night he called her bluff and was standing at the foot of her bed. My friend got up, lugged the crib out of storage, started to put it together, then left it half-assembled in her son’s room to let him know she meant business. He has slept beautifully ever since.

As I wrote in a recent column, sleep issues are par for the course for toddlers and preschoolers. As children make big cognitive leaps and start to reason and negotiate, bedtime becomes a common struggle. We hear so much about how to fix infant sleep, but what do you do when the crib is gone and you’ve got a fully mobile, free-ranging little night owl in front of you?

When I started asking parents about this, I found no shortage of stories. At a party recently, a friend told me that her two-year-old son had figured out how to launch himself halfway out of the crib. Every night, he was dangling precariously on the rail, and no matter how many times she went in and put him back down, he always returned to his perch.

So she converted the crib into a toddler bed. For a few nights her son was so proud of himself for being in a “big boy bed” that he happily stayed put. But then the novelty wore off. Bedtime became a back and forth negotiation – sips of water, different stuffed animal configurations, needing to go potty one more time. At the height of the madness, my friend was spending two to three hours with her son before he finally fell asleep.

So she decided to “go all Supernanny on him.” If you’re familiar with any of the sleep-related episodes of the parenting expert’s TV show, you know my friend was serious. After her son was tucked in and the last bedtime song was over, my friend walked out of his room. Her son immediately trailed her. “It’s time for sleeping now,” she said without emotion and led him back to bed. Minutes later he padded out to the living room all smiles. She walked him back to his room over and over, without saying a word. The first night, he left his room 40 times. The second night, fewer than 10; after that he went to sleep on his own, no problem.

“The reason consistent sleep plans work,” says Julie Wright, a parenting group leader and sleep consultant in Los Angeles, “is that when you repeat an action over and over for a child, they detect the pattern, know what to expect, and can relax and access their own soothing mechanisms.” Wright recommends trying to head off the continuous walk-backs by telling a child, “If you stay in your bed, I’ll be in to check on you in five minutes.” Setting up a check-in shifts the dynamic because the child doesn’t have to come up with tricks to get you back in the room. If tiny footsteps follow you out right away, Wright says to gently walk the child in to his room again, repeat the phrase, re-tuck, and walk out. Sometimes, she says, it may even be necessary to put a gate on the bedroom door so the child never reaches the “action” in the living room.

One of the keys to fixing sleep issues for older children is to include them in your new plans. By two years old, kids understand a lot, so talking to them directly is important. Saying, “We’re going to try something new this week,” or, “I’m going to do things differently from now on to help you sleep better,” sets their expectations. As does explaining exactly how the new system works: “I’ll read two books, sing one song, and put a cup of water by your bed. If you stay in your room for five minutes, I’ll be back to check on you.”

Sleep struggles get ugly sometimes, and frustration and anger are common, because parents are trying to be responsive and empathetic, but they reach a limit and end up feeling out of control. If you need to approach sleep with a fresh start, Wright says it’s not so important what your routine is, as long as you have one. “You can start by standing on your head for all I care,” she says. “The point is that you’re consistent and you respond the same way every time.” It’s almost hypnotic for a child when you repeat your actions reliably – they can relax because they know you’re there, you’re not abandoning them, but you’re also unwavering. It gives them a feeling of safety to know exactly what to expect. Then they can get busy recruiting their animals and blankies to help them drift off to sleep.

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