Sleep issues are the most common toddler problem I see in my child therapy practice. Toddler sleep can be an ongoing issue because they just won’t sleep! They fight going to sleep, they fight staying asleep and they don’t get enough sleep. It also seems like they instinctually know that we, as parents are the most vulnerable when they threaten our own sleep!
This article is written for those parents who desperately want their sleep back, but feel like they have been hijacked by a very short, cute (only during the day) dictator. This is not written for the parent who is content and happy with co-sleeping. Every family has their own parenting style – and I support and encourage what works for each unique family. This is written for the families that want their child to sleep independently, in their own rooms – and yet their little person has a different agenda.
We have all been there. I have encountered very few parents who have not hit a bump at one point or another with sleep. Fortunately, if handled correctly, most sleep challenges will just be a phase and you will be off to a
sound sleep once again.
Why won’t my toddler sleep?!
To fix any issue with a child – we must look at the origin of the problem. Why do toddlers have a hard time sleeping? Often sleep problems can come on rather suddenly and it can be baffling as to why it is happening. Toddlers are in a transitional stage – where they spend their days fiercely defending their independence, while clinging to our leg. They are walking contradictions. Many toddlers start to develop separation anxiety at this age and start to have regressive behavior. Toddlers are also expanding their world and their knowledge – and with that unfortunately comes a degree of anxiety. So, with that being said, how do we get some sleep? Here are some tips to start that process:
Brace yourself for the challenge and be consistent!
It is important going into this that you realize that how you handle this issue is critical for your long term sanity and sleep. Children can sense cracks in your parental foundation and will pounce on your weakness. Realize that this may take some time. Initially you will have to put forth more effort than it might seem worth, but trust me, what you do now will set the stage for what will come later. I have worked with families with teens who still sleep in their parents’ bed. Yes, that may be rare, but trust me it happens. The more consistent you are with the approach you decide to take, the more effective you will be in the long run.
Children need to sense that you are confident with what you are doing. If they feel that you are wavering, they will become more insecure as well. Whatever you do, do not cave and let your toddler sleep in your bed (unless this is a conscious parenting choice and not a desperate act for sleep). This will be incredibly tempting and you might think it will make the situation better, but you have just taken your issue to another level of difficult! Hold strong and deal with your child’s sleep struggles in their room, not yours.
Make your child’s room feel safe and comfortable.
Your child is going through a normal stage of development where they are feeling more fearful and clingy at bedtime. You want to help your child realize that they are safe and secure in their room. Ask them if there is anything that scares them in their room. Sit in the dark and remove any harsh shadows on their walls. Provide a night light that gives them enough light – it might be too bright for you, but to them it might be perfect.
Make sure your child has blankets and stuffed animals that provide them with an extra feeling of security and comfort. If they don’t have a comfort object, develop one. Close closet doors that create ominous black cracks that might scare your child. Spray lavender mist on their pillow and tell them that the smell can give them good dreams. Play soft music that encourages relaxation. You can actually get soft music with delta waves that might facilitate sleep.
But, most importantly – don’t fool yourself to think that any of this will get rid of the problem! What am I talking about?! Why would I tell you to do all those things and then tell you it won’t change the problem? The problem is bigger than what I just recommended. If you don’t have these things in place, your problem will be much, much worse, but those issues are usually not the core problem.
Your child wants to be with you. They don’t care if they have a super cool car bed or a new princess bed spread. They want to be kept safe and they think that only you can do that for them. Your bigger challenge is to train your child, over a period of time, that they are brave and safe and that going to sleep is nothing to be anxious about.
Help your child feel empowered.
Tell your child that everyone in the house is safe. I tell parents to try and avoid telling their child, “I will keep you safe.” As strange as that might sound, you don’t want to inadvertently convey to your child that you are keeping them safe from something. Changing your wording slightly to say something like, “we are all safe” can go far in making your child feel more secure.
I also usually discourage the concept of “monster spray” to ward off the monsters. As much as you cannot convince an irrational toddler that there are no monsters (nor should you try), you do not want to join them by validating their fears. You can utilize the spray concept (which I like), but tell your child that it will help them “have good dreams and good thoughts.”
Give your child something to think about while they are falling asleep.
Left alone in a semi-dark room with their fears can bring on some pretty scary thoughts. The longer your child sits with those thoughts, the harder it will be for them to relax and go to bed. I like to do some guided imagery on a toddler scale.
I will often have children create a world or I will have the parent create one for them. This can be a candy land world, a Frozen world, a Lego land world, a Thomas world – whatever is their thing. Be creative and have them help you design what is in that world. Are the clouds pink cotton candy? Are all the people little lego mini figures? Are there rainbows and unicorns galore?
Discuss and create the same world each night so it become very real to your child. Before you leave their room for the night, tell your child to continue thinking about their world. If your child has a hard time with their imagination, you can purchase a guided imagery cd for children.
Inch worm your way out of their room.
Okay – here is the heart of the plan. Nothing matters more than this last tip. Do not sit or lie down on your child’s bed. They will become hyper-vigilant about you leaving and their senses will be heightened.
Any shift on the bed will have them bolt upright in fear. Many parents lie down with their child and wait until they fall asleep. Those parents always ask me – “How do we stop our child from coming into our bed in the middle of the night?” If you lie down with your child as they fall asleep, their last memory is of you lying next to them. Waking up alone can be very scary for a toddler who thought their parent was lying next to them when they closed their eyes.
Instead of lying on their bed, sit in the door frame. By sitting in the door frame your child will still be able to see you and they can get the assurance that they are not alone without the physical contact they would be getting if you were sitting on their bed. You don’t want to take a sink or swim approach and leave them alone completely because more often than not – they’ll sink. This is training, not boot camp. You want your child to naturally develop feelings of security and independence and this will be on their schedule – not yours.
As you sit in the door frame, do not talk to your child. If they get out of bed, tell them they need to get back into bed or you will not sit with them. Make sure that they have gone to the bathroom and that they have a cup of water next to them (if they don’t have issues with potty training or are in a pull up).
Eventually over time – and this may take some time – you should move to the outside of their door frame, into the hall where they can’t see you, but they can hear you. When your child calls for you, tell them something like, “I am right here. Go to bed.” Do not get into a conversation with them. Down the road, once your child can go to sleep easily without visually seeing you, tell them you will be on the couch (do not sneak to the couch). From the couch you can verbally give your child reassurance as they go to bed. This is a process and some children are quicker to respond to this approach than others.
If your child comes to your room in the middle of the night, place them back in their bed and sit in their door frame (or hall) whatever stage you are currently in. Whatever you do – do not let them fall asleep in your bed! This plan is simplistic, but the execution of it tends to be the difficult part.
You might have set backs, you might have weak moments where you veer off the plan – that’s alright. You are human and you are tired. Just reset and remind yourself every day is a new day.
This is a brief overview of how to conquer sleep issues. There are children who might have acute anxiety beyond what is developmentally typical.
I have devoted a whole chapter in my new book How To Parent Your Anxious Toddler on toddler sleep issues.
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