Toddler sleep training should ideally begin early in their lives. This is to ensure their optimum growth and development. The recommended sleep hours in children between one and two years is 11-14 hours a day (1). You may divide these hours between nighttime sleep and daytime naps.
Most parents generally feel that their toddler’s bedtime is the most demanding part of their day. Toddlers usually turn rebellious while sleeping, frequently wake up in the middle of the night, and may not easily go back to sleep. They may also encounter nighttime fears and nightmares, adding to the parent’s anxiety. Therefore, many experts say that sleep training may also help toddlers’ parents.
This post explains the appropriate ways to start sleep training and techniques to help your child sleep better.
What Is The Right Age For Sleep Training?
There is no right age to start sleep training. Every child reaches developmental milestones at varying ages and has different needs. Moreover, a technique that works for a five-month-old may not work for a toddler. For instance, gentle patting can work well for young babies but not for older toddlers.
A few proponents advocate introducing sleep training as early as two months of age. However, the age of four to nine months is widely accepted as a suitable age to start sleep training since the baby can learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. If your child is more than one or two years old, fret not because toddlers can be sleep trained as well.
How To Tell You Are Ready To Start Sleep Training?
Identify when you and your toddler are ready, as sleep training requires consistency, patience, and commitment. You may ask yourself the following questions before initiating sleep training.
- What does your schedule look like? Are there any major trips, vacations, events, or shifts that may disturb sleep training?
- Will you be able to make the required changes in your routine?
- What methods have you researched, and which one is the most comfortable to implement?
- Are you committed to following the plan for two to four weeks?
- Is your partner/family on-board with the plan?
Moreover, check with your pediatrician to rule out any health conditions or factors, including the toddler’s age and weight, which could play a role in the sleep of your child.
Why Does A Toddler Need To Be Sleep-Trained?
As toddlers become more aware of their surroundings, their imagination and the events around them can interrupt their sleep. Children might become cranky, grumpy, or even hyperactive when they are sleep-deprived. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, only 25% of children under the age of five get enough sleep (2).
The lack of quality sleep in early childhood has been associated with various health conditions, including allergic rhinitis, immune system issues, anxiety, depression, and an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure in the future (2).
Some studies have indicated that sleep training may not have long-term negative effects or benefits for the parents and the child (3). However, a few studies have shown short-term benefits, such as improvement in the child’s sleep quality and the mother’s mood (4) (5) (6).
Therefore, it may not be wrong to conclude that sleep training holds the potential to improve your toddler’s sleep without any long-term risks or disadvantages.
How Is Toddler Sleep Training Different From Baby Sleep Training?
Toddler sleep training is different since the sleep-related needs of toddlers and babies are different. For instance, newborns may need up to 18 hours of sleep with three to four hours of sleep at a stretch. By the time they are four to 12 months old, they need around 14 hours of sleep. Moreover, their daytime nap routines may change between six and 12 months (7).
Also, sleep training does not work well in very young babies (younger than three to four months) as they cannot settle themselves to sleep or self-soothe. Interestingly, the ability to climb up or down the crib may also determine the course of the training. Babies cannot climb over their crib’s guard rails, thus a parent visit-based approach may work well. However, since toddlers can climb out of a crib, their training technique is focused on teaching the toddler to self-soothe and sleep by themselves.
Sleep Training Methods For Toddlers
No one method works for everyone. You may try the following methods to choose which one works best for you and your toddler.
- Fading method: This method can be tried if your child needs rocking or being held before sleeping. The fading method is similar to the pick-up, put-down method. In the fading method and its variations, you allow the toddler to settle themselves to sleep and self-soothe without taking away the care and love (hugs or kisses) they need. You put your child to sleep while they are drowsy and leave the room. If the child fusses, wait for five minutes and go inside if the child continues crying. Soothe the toddler until they settle down. If the child cries again, repeat the process. In case the toddler is out of the bed, tuck them, give a quick kiss or hug, and leave the room. You may need to do it for a period of time so that your child learns to fall asleep on their own.
- Camp-it-out method: In this approach, the parent stays in the room to help the child settle and gradually move further away from the child. The idea is to reduce the touch, feeds, and cuddles required to make the toddler sleep. It will gradually make them sleep on their own. It is especially helpful with an anxious child (7).
- Pick-up and put-down method: This gentle method involves comforting the child but not feeding them every time they wake up. It is suitable for parents who do not want to go through the anxiety of seeing their child cry. As the name suggests, the idea is to pick up and reassure the child, and put them down when they are drowsy or as soon as they stop crying. You may need to repeat the process every time they wake up during the night.
- Chair method: It is similar to the camp-it-out method, with the difference that the parent sits in a chair near the crib and moves it farther the next night or week. It is accompanied by a gradual decrease in the cooing and shushing. The baby is put down in the crib while awake but drowsy. In case the toddler cries, the parent verbally soothes the child without picking them up.
- Bedtime fading method: This method is based on the belief that if the child is not sleepy, then they won’t willingly go to bed. Therefore, this method relies on identifying the cues when your toddler seems sleepy and adjusting the bedtime to those patterns. The idea is to reduce the amount of time you spend doing a particular routine, such as rocking, nursing, or snuggling, and eventually making them sleep independently.
Creating A Bedtime Routine To Help Your Toddler Fall Asleep
A positive, consistent bedtime routine can help your toddler sleep comfortably and for longer. The bedtime routine includes bedtime activities that you initiate around 20 minutes before the time you wish your toddler to sleep. It may include the following activities (8). Since children learn and put things into habits, it is important to follow the same activities every day.
- Start by giving them a cue that it is time to go to bed — switch off the TV, dim the lights, and collect their toys. These cues will help them mentally prepare for bedtime.
- Make sure your child learns healthy sleeping habits that include brushing teeth after dinner.
- Give them a warm nighttime bath.
- Let them choose their favorite pajama or favorite stuffed toy to sleep with.
- If you are potty training, make sure they have their diapers on or visit the toilet before settling them into the bed.
- Spend some quiet time (around 15 to 20 minutes) with them. Do not include games that involve running around or having engaging conversations, which may overstimulate the toddler. Instead, include activities that are relaxing, such as listening to calming music, or reading a book.
- Give them a brief cuddle and kiss.
- Finally, put them to bed.
- You may maintain room temperature, put curtains, and try using white noise in the background to create a comforting, cozy environment.
- Since children develop habits gradually; thus, it is important to follow the same activities every day.
Toddlers Sleep Training: Tips And Tricks
Toddlers resist bedtime for fear of missing out on the fun. They may also experience separation anxiety when sleeping alone. Preparing the child for the training should start with parents first. You may need to dedicate two or three weeks to the training process to bring consistency.
Try these practical tips for healthy sleeping habits (9).
- Follow a consistent bedtime routine that your child will grasp gradually and become familiar with.
- Sleep training need not be about the total elimination of parental security but about setting clear boundaries. It means that they should learn to sleep on their own in their bed. It may get difficult for them to sleep alone if you share a bed with your child.
- Do not change or redo your child’s room during the training. Let the setting be cozy yet familiar.
- Set a limit on the time you spend with your toddler for stories or lullabies. Keep the goodnight kisses sweet and short!
- Leave water within reach and keep a nightlight on, in case they feel anxious about being alone.
- Let them have their security items, such as a favorite blanket or soft toy, that makes them feel comfortable.
- If they do get up, take them back to bed without much fuss and eye contact and talk as little as possible. Consistency is the key here.
- Praise them when they follow instructions. However, do not use bribes to make them sleep.
Troubleshooting Toddler’s Sleep Issues
Parents may face difficulties in getting toddlers to sleep even after persistent efforts. In such a case, assess your training method and check for any hurdles for your toddler. Speak to your toddler and check if they have any concerns that you missed out on earlier.
You may also try these tips to troubleshoot the sleep-related issues (9).
- Your child may be afraid of something in the dark. It may be an object or even shadows. You may use a nightlight or keep the hallway lit. You may also try to remove or move some of the objects in your toddler’s room that may be interrupting their sleep.
- Often, putting your child to bed too late or too early can lead to cranky behavior. Look for the signs such as drowsiness and low activity levels to make them ready for bedtime.
- Limit their screen time before bed as it may stimulate your toddler’s brain, making it difficult to settle down.
- Avoid serving the toddler soda or high sugar drinks a few hours before bedtime.
- Monitor their naps. If they sleep too late or too long during the day, then it may disrupt their nighttime sleep.
- The child may find difficulty sleeping without a parent. If this happens, try to spend enough time together during the daytime. Adequate time spent in parents’ company during the daytime may reduce nighttime anxiety.
When To See A Professional?
- Loud snores/breathing issue: Loud snores, difficulty in breathing, or pauses in breathing while asleep may indicate underlying problems.
- Sleepwalk: It is a disorder where a child is not completely asleep. They may sit in their bed, do repetitive movements, walk around the room, and may not answer when you try talking to them. Therefore, it is important to safeguard the area where your child sleeps and help them get back to their bed without waking them up. If the issue persists, contact your doctor.
- Night terrors: It usually happens around the age of four to 12 months but can also happen when the child is 18 months old. Night terrors are different from nightmares, and the symptoms may include loud, uncontrollable screaming and faster breathing. The child may appear to be awake. If you wake them up in between, they will appear confused and may take a little longer to settle down. Most children outgrow this condition, but if it’s a recurring issue, speak to the doctor.
- Unusual sleep patterns/behaviors: Consult a doctor if your child has other unusual nighttime behaviors, frequent awakening in the night, and worrisome daytime behavior due to lack of sleep.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is it too late to sleep train my toddler?
According to Dr. Craig Canapari, assistant professor of pediatrics at Yale Medicine, “It is never too late to sleep train.” It depends on the child and their sleep habits (10).
2. How long does sleep training a toddler take?
Sleep training your toddler could take three to four nights, but it depends on your technique and may extend longer (11).
Sleep is essential for a toddler’s development. Therefore, sleep training your toddler is critical to ensure their overall development. You can start sleep training your baby from the age of two months. Make use of one of the several methods to sleep-train your toddler. However, it doesn’t mean your baby will respond to training right away. It is a trial and error method, and you need to have patience and keep trying until you find the right method that suits your toddler.
- Sleep training can begin when a baby is four to nine months old.
- Hyperactivity or crankiness can affect toddlers’ sleep duration, which may be detrimental to their overall growth.
- Fading, camp-it-out and chair methods are some sleep-training procedures effective for toddlers.
2. Pacheco, D. Children and sleep; SleepFoundation
3. Anna M.H. Price et al., Five-year follow-up of harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep intervention: randomized trial; American Academy of Pediatrics
4. Sujay Kansagra, Sleep training your child: myths and facts every parent should know; Duke University School of Medicine
5. Jodi A. Mindell et al., Behavioral treatment of bedtime problems and night wakings in infants and young children; American Academy of Sleep Medicine
6. Christina Korownyk and Adrienne J. Lindblad, Infant sleep training: rest easy?; Canadian Family Physician; NCBI
7. Camping out: baby and child sleep strategy; Raising Children Network (Australia)
8. Positive bedtime routines for babies and toddlers; Raising Children Network (Australia)
9. Healthy sleep for your baby and child; Canadian Paediatric Society
10. Kids and Poor Sleep: A Habit That’s Breakable; Yale Medicine
11. When and How to Sleep Train Your Baby; Cleveland Clinic