What is Toddler Sleep Training?
Toddler sleep training is an umbrella term for any proactive, consistent steps taken by a parent to help improve their child’s sleep. It is does NOT have to mean leaving a child alone to cry! Sleep training can include staying with your toddler whilst they fall asleep, or it can include leaving the room before they are asleep. It truly is an umbrella term!
Why can toddlers struggle to stay in bed/fall asleep?
As with everything to do with sleep struggles, there can be many reasons why toddlers struggle to stay in bed and or fall asleep. Reasons might include illness, a change in routine, stressful events (e.g. starting a new nursery), separation anxiety, a new fear, hunger, being moved out of the cot too early. In addition to the above, some toddlers struggle to fall asleep or stay in bed due to needing clearer boundaries at bedtime or a more consistent bedtime routine.
How to sleep train a toddler – Work through the tip list below. If you’re confident you’ve addressed everything in the list, you might want to consider using a ‘sleep training’ method to help improve bedtimes and night wakings.
Sometimes, all that’s needed to improve things is work through this list! You might not need to sleep train!
1. Health- are you sure your toddler is well? Are they ill? Aches and pains? Temperature? Significant teething? Blocked nose? If it would impact your sleep negatively, then for sure if could impact your child’s sleep.
2. Getting the timings right- Sleep timings are regulated by a coupled process; the homeostatic process, which is essentially a build up of sleep pressure during any awake period. Sleep pressure builds more quickly in babies and toddlers, hence their needing naps to get through the day happily. If sleep pressure isn’t high enough, it makes sleep onset unlikely. Consider this when you’re tempted to either let your young one nap late in the day or your tempted to put them to bed early. There might not be sufficient sleep pressure for them to fall asleep promptly. The second process involved in sleep regulation is the sleep-wake circadian rhythm. This is the regular organisation of sleep-wake cycles. Your toddlers sleep circadian clock prepares the body for sleep by releasing melatonin and ensures wakefulness by supressing melatonin. Toddlers will struggle to sleep if they are being put to bed at a time out of kilter with their circadian rhythm and sleep pressure. For example, perhaps your toddler has grown out of their need for a lunchtime nap. At this point, if they have slept in the day, this will have a negative impact on the sleep pressure needed at bedtime.
3. Environmental/practical- Some daily activities can hugely impact the regulation of the body clock and also make bedtimes harder. Here are some of the things you should consider when questioning why your toddler won’t go to sleep:
-have they eaten enough?
-did they get enough exposure to daylight in the morning?
-have they had enough physical exercise/movement?
-have they been stimulated and given opportunities in the day to play and interact
-have they had moments of quiet/down time (important for the brain to calm in order to access sleep)
-is the bedroom environment appropriate? (cool room, not too many layers, room as dark as possible, quiet room, comfortable bed etc)
-do you have a consistent, predictable bedtime routine to signal to the brain that sleep is coming? E.g. bath, pjs and teeth, 10 mins of stories/singing, sleeping bag on, lights out, into bed
-have you moved them into a bed too soon? Children younger than 3 might struggle to understand the requirement to stay in bed! Side note! Moving a child out of a cot, into a bed will NOT solve sleep problems that already exist in the cot!
How to sleep train a toddler
Some children will simply learn to or naturally fall asleep easily and happily. (Most likely all of the above needs have been met!) However, many children will need some loving support in learning the life-long skill of going to bed and fall asleep soon afterwards. Any act of sleep training a toddler is an assumption that you want your child to sleep independently! If you happily co-sleep or are happy to remain completely present and involved with your child’s falling asleep and nighttime wake ups, then you absolutely don’t need to sleep train! You might however like to agree with your partner what your boundaries at bedtime are going to be. E.g., If toddler objects to it being bedtime, you still follow the routine and don’t give in and delay! If you would like some tools in your parenting tool kit, have a look at some of the options below. Essentially all sleep training requires total consistency with a clear plan on how you will progress until you reach your goal. Sleep training is often more a change of behaviours for the parent than controlling what the child does or doesn’t do! Please note that often sleep training methods are given various names and differ in approach. These methods are evidence based and are recognised as being effective. It’s helpful to keep a sleep diary throughout so that you can objectively measure progress.
1. Gradual retreat (suitable for toddlers in a cot or bed)- The concept- Starting point is staying with your child until they are asleep. You then gradually remove yourself over time. The key to success is that you never do more than already planned. E.g., If you are sitting in the room and just shushing with your voice, you would ONLY do that and not resort to cuddles/getting into bed with them. Decide on your gradual retreat steps and move to each step once you’ve had 3 consecutive nights of your child falling asleep this way, without objection. E.g., 1. Sit next to the cot/bed and pat until asleep, 2. Sit slightly further from the cot and soothe only with your voice, 3. Sit near the door (in sight) and don’t speak!, 4. Sit outside the room (out of sight) and soothe with voice. 5. Remain out of sight and don’t use your voice either! Once no objecting to this, you have reached your goal!
2. Controlled crying (suitable for toddlers in a cot) *possibly the most hated/misunderstood method!- it’s completely fine if you’re against this method, but please don’t hate on the parents who do want to use it. Just don’t use it yourself!* The concept- you help your child learn to sleep without you being present by gradually exposing them to that situation. Here’s what it looks like:
-after your normal bedtime routine, put your little one into bed, say goodnight and leave the room (regardless of their protestations!). Wait for 2 minutes. After 2 minutes, return to the room briefly and try to use a phrase that you will then be repeating. E.g. “Max, it is time to sleep. Mummy loves you. Night night.”
Next, wait for 5 minutes before going back into the room and repeating your phrase. Leave the room quickly. Then repeat but with longer intervals. E.g. 2 mins, 5 mins, 10mins, 15mins and then stick with going back in every 15 minutes until your child is asleep.
3. Rapid return (suitable for toddlers in a bed, ideally you will have a stairgate on the door)- the concept- you stay calm whilst constantly returning your toddler to bed until they eventually fall asleep. They learn that the boundaries at bedtime are that they are expected to stay in bed and go to sleep! If your child gets out of bed after you’ve said goodnight, use the same timings as for controlled crying. In between the times you go into the room, don’t interact or talk to your child and remain out of sight! When it’s time for you to go back in after 5,10, 15 mins etc, go into the room, calmly say your bedtime phrase and walk the child back to bed. Leave the room quickly and don’t worry if they get out of bed straight away! You can stay calm because whatever your child does, you have a plan that you are going to stick to! At some point your child will fall asleep. They might fall asleep on the floor (during the period you’re out of the room), in which case, wait until they’re deeply asleep and then lift them back into bed.
4. Instant return (suitable for toddlers in a bed)- the concept- you immediately return your child to their bed if they get out. This method can be physically exhausting, but is effective! It is simple, after putting your toddler to bed, leave the room and wait out of sight. If they get out of bed and leave the room, calmly repeat your bedtime phrase and walk them back to bed. Leave immediately (even if they get straight out of bed!). As soon as your toddler gets to the door, calmly return them to bed using the same bedtime phrase. Repeat this as many times as you need to until eventually your toddler falls asleep! They will become more and more tired and can’t sustain this level of activity every night! The great thing about this method is you are immediately responding to your child and it allows you to remain completely calm and neutral, but gives you a simple plan to follow. Perhaps try this method before Rapid return.
-With any sleep training or indeed bringing in new boundaries, use role play/toys to ‘act out’ the scenarios. This helps your toddler grasp the new concepts and normalises them! You can make these times silly and fun!
-Make sure you praise what the toddler CAN control, not what they can’t. E.g. not “You fell asleep SO quickly last night!”, but instead “I’m so proud of you because you stayed in your bed last night and you didn’t get out once!”
-When deciding on what method to take (if at all), think about what your child’s needs are at the moment and therefore what the most appropriate course of action is. What sits comfortably with your overall parenting style and family values? Do what’s right for YOUR CHILD and YOU. Feel free in your choice!
-When finding it hard to hear your toddler cry at bedtime, think about what they’re communicating. Are they expressing anger about a change in something they didn’t ask for? Is it over tiredness? Is it fear? Is it a need for a hug? Is it frustration/confusion? It can be tempting to react simply on the basis on wanting to stop the crying (by giving the toddler what they want). Sometimes giving them what they want will be the right thing to do e.g. crying because of teething, the right thing would be to comfort and give calpol. But sometimes, the right thing to do will be to hold your boundary rather than change the situation. E.g. if they are crying out of anger because you have put them to bed and they wanted to keep playing or because you’re doing something differently, you would hold your boundary! E.g. “I know you wanted to keep playing. But it is time for bed now. You can play with the tractor in the morning.” Or “I know you want Mummy to lie in bed with you. I’m not going to do that. But I am going to sit right next to the bed.”
-Not all toddlers understand or benefit from clocks like gro-clocks. Sometimes the concept of staying in bed until a certain thing happens can be confusing. A simple alternative is using a lamp on a timer switch. When it’s night time (time to be in bed and quiet), it is dark. When the lamp (light) is on, they know they are allowed to get out of bed and start the day. With early risers, you can use the timer to gradually help them learn to stay in bed quietly. Start with the lamp set to come on a little earlier than they already wake up and give them ridiculous amounts of praise when you come into the room saying “You stayed in bed so quietly until morning!”. After a few mornings of this, shift the timer by 5 or 10 minute increments every few mornings. You ought to see your toddler get better and better at understanding the dark room means staying in bed, and over time, they might learn to go back to sleep after their early waking.
-CONSISTENCY, CONSISTENCY, CONSISTENCY, is KEY!