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How to Handle Toddler Sleep Problems

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If your toddler is nearing her second birthday, the two of you may have found your groove with sleep. Maybe you’re down to one nice long nap and full 11-hour nights. But your toddler’s mind and body never stop growing, so you’re sure to be thrown a few curve balls as the months go on. Here are some of the most common sleep issues for toddlers, along with tips on how to work with them:

Climbing out of the crib: If you’ve got a precocious little gymnast, you may routinely find her perched on the crib rail smiling proudly (or sneakily). Falls – and subsequent head and neck injuries – are the most common cause of accidents in cribs (above getting body parts stuck between the rails), so you should address the problem right away. One option is to switch to the big kid bed, but since children under three still have limited impulse control, it’s a good idea to wait if you can before venturing into the wide-open roaming land of beds.

A better option for a nearly-two-year-old is the crib tent that fastens to the crib and provides a see-through protective top. This isn’t meant as punishment, so don’t present it to your toddler as such. It’s a fun new way to sleep, and lots of kids actually love their tents, as they appeal to their desire for cozy protected spaces. Let your child get used to the idea during the day when it will be less threatening.

 

Nightmares: Even babies dream (in fact, fetuses start doing it in the last trimester of pregnancy), so toddlers can theoretically have nightmares. The problem is more typical of preschoolers because they have robust imaginations and verbal skills, but if your toddler seems frightened in the middle of the night, it could be a bad dream.

The trick when little kids wake up frightened is to be soothing but not to overreact and send the message that there is, in fact, something to worry about. Try the least invasive method of comfort first: Say a few reassuring words, give him his lovie (this is where your transitional objects come in handy), or rub his back and walk out once he’s settled. Unless you are co-sleeping, see if you can avoid scooping him up and moving to your bed. If you do, you’re more likely to hear from your little habit-machine at the same time tomorrow night.

Especially as your child grows, the key is to give him a sense of control over his nightmares; send a calm message that all is okay and encourage him to find his own source of comfort like a lovie or favorite stuffed animal. When he gets a little older, you can tell him that flipping the pillow over “changes the channel on the dream,” hang a dream catcher over the bed, or draw pictures of the dreams during the day, crumple them up and throw them away together.

Resisting naps: One of your toddler’s favorite moves right now might be pretending he can go all day without a nap. It’s common for little kids to resist naptime around their second birthday – but don’t panic, he’s not ready to go napless. Most kids do well with a nap at least into their fourth year, but that doesn’t mean they’ll drift off easily every day.

If your little one is protesting naptime, give yourself this framework: It’s your job to provide the structure and opportunity for nap, but it’s his job to actually fall asleep. It helps to keep a consistent schedule (a 12:30 p.m. nap works well for most) and environment (dark and with the familiar routine and creature comforts, like a lovie), but ultimately you can’t make him snooze.

Many toddlers will go through periods of chatting to themselves and rolling around in the crib for an hour instead of sleeping. That’s still an important rest time for your toddler’s developing brain. Most toddlers who talk or fuss during naptime for a few days will ultimately end up sleeping if you keep the nap framework in place.

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