If you have a child who’s an excellent sleeper, we hate to break the news to you, but at some point, you’re probably going to have a child who’s a terrible sleeper. Yep, that’s right: You’ll join the ranks of the other exhausted parents who drag themselves out of bed at 3 a.m. and soothe their child back to dreamland while thinking, “I love you, but please, go the f*ck to sleep.”
After a few days of this waking nightmare, things can seem dire, but don’t despair: This is a very normal stage of toddlerhood.
One likely reason for your toddler’s war on sleep is a huge developmental spurt—in language, motor or processing skills. Experts commonly refer to this as the 18-month regression, but it can happen months earlier or later.
“When they wake up, they’re learning all these new things, and because they’re so focused on that, they can’t fall back asleep,” explains family sleep expert Alanna McGinn, owner of the Good Night Sleep Site and host of the podcast This Girl Loves Sleep. “It’s like us when we wake up in the middle of the night and our brain starts going—we don’t start crying and screaming, but we want to when we can’t fall back asleep.”
And don’t forget the joy that is teething, which hits some children harder than others. Bad dreams may also start around this age.
On the other hand, this sleep disruption can also be behavioural, which means that your toddler may be deliberately pushing your buttons—er, your limits. “They’re testing their boundaries and seeing what they can get away with,” says McGinn, who adds that children who are in control at bedtime usually also rule the roost in other areas as well. “I always ask toddler parents: Who’s training who?”
The good news is that if you once had a good sleeper, you can have one again relatively soon, as long as you don’t choose the path of least resistance every night. Letting your toddler crawl into bed with you regularly may let you get some much-needed shut-eye, but it will sabotage their sleep—and yours—in the long run.
So get out of bed and walk that child back to their room, as many times as necessary and without songs, cuddles or other fanfare. McGinn also suggests using toddler clocks, which give kids a visual clue for when it’s time to wake up and when it’s time to stay put. In tougher cases, a toddler version of sleep training may be necessary. But whatever sleep strategy you choose, be consistent so your child knows you mean business.
One thing that may surprise parents? Rewards aren’t a great idea, according to McGinn. “Once that reward is given,” she says, “they might revert back to what they were doing because they think, maybe there will be a new reward.” Instead, praise good behaviour and let them know what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Also, the middle of the night is not the only time—or the best time—to convey that message. Instead, discuss it during the day, right alongside lessons about healthy eating and kindness. “Even [when] as young as two years old, you should communicate the expectations and sleep rules,” McGinn says. “Not just that you have to go to bed, but why we have to go to bed, how we feel when we’ve had a good night’s sleep, and how Mom and Dad feel when you’ve allowed them to have a good night of sleep.”
Before long, hopefully that won’t seem like such a distant memory.