By Claire GagneUpdated Jun 25, 2019
Delay tactics. Calling out in the middle of the night. Ending up in your bed before daybreak. If this describes your toddler’s sleep habits, and you’re not happy with your family’s quality of sleep, it might be time for some sleep training.
Thought that was just for babies? Not so, says Alanna McGinn, sleep consultant and owner of Good Night Sleep Site, in Burlington, Ont. “It’s never too late to learn good sleep habits.”
Many families are all-too-familiar with what’s known as the 18-month sleep regression. And studies indicate that as many as 20 per cent of children between the ages of one and three still continue to wake up regularly in the middle of the night. "Inappropriate sleep associations are the primary cause of these frequent nightwakings,” says Stephanie Zandieh, director of paediatric sleep medicine at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Zandieh divides the sleep associations into two categories: appropriate (like thumb sucking) and problematic (like rocking, nursing, or a child who requires parental presence to fall asleep). At this age, it’s important that you’re no longer nursing your toddler to sleep, rocking him to sleep in your arms, or giving him a bottle in the crib.
“Our endgame with sleep training, at no matter what age, is for the child to fall asleep in the crib on his own,” says McGinn. If you’re rocking him to sleep, he’ll probably want rocking again after a 2 a.m. wakeup. If you’re letting him fall asleep with a bottle or a boob in his mouth, he’ll want that same sleep crutch at 4 a.m.—requiring parental presence.
McGinn explains that a bedtime bottle, if given earlier in the nightly routine and followed by tooth brushing, isn’t a huge concern for her. “But don’t let your toddler fall asleep on the bottle, and he definitely doesn’t need it in his crib.”
With toddlers, parents have to focus on “consistency, setting limits, and taking that control back,” says McGinn. “I always say to parents, ‘who’s training who?’”
Before you embark on a new “parents-in-charge” bedtime routine, make sure the sleep basics are under control. Your toddler should be well rested during the day with one or two naps, and should be going to bed at an age-appropriate time. (McGinn suggests around 7 p.m.) It may seem counterintuitive, but the more tired your child is, the more times he will awaken during the night, adds Zandieh.
Yes, keeping to a consistent daily routine is hard, especially during travel or big life transitions like starting at a new daycare. But an irregular schedule, and an ever-changing, flexible bedtime, may be precisely what’s causing those interrupted nights.
Jennifer Garden, an occupational therapist and owner of Sleepdreams in Vancouver, says that keeping a strict bedtime is an important parental responsibility: “You don’t let your child run across the road without holding your hand, you don’t let him use a sharp knife at age two, and you don’t let him choose his bedtime.”
A consistent bedtime routine should be around 30 minutes long. The routine can be as simple as a bath, then a story, a song and lights out. In addition to setting the stage for bedtime, this type of routine lets your toddler spend some time with you to “fill his attachment” tank, says McGinn, and makes him more willing to say goodnight when it’s time. His room should also be conducive to sleep: dark and cool is best.
Toddlers love control, so here’s the time to give them some. Garden suggests getting your toddler to help you make a chart for the bedtime routine. Then, offer him some choices, like letting him choose between two pairs of pyjamas, or which book he wants to read.
Once you’ve gone through the routine and it’s time to say goodnight, you can expect some pushback. “The difference between sleep training a toddler and a baby is now they’re pushing boundaries and trying to take control,” says McGinn. Toddlers are also more cognitively advanced than infants, and benefit from understanding expectations and rules. “Tell him, ‘We all sleep during the night. We don’t get up and play,’” says McGinn. And be sure to talk with your kid about the bedtime game plan—that he sleeps in his crib and Mommy and Daddy sleep in their bed, as well as where you’ll be (downstairs, in the hall, etc.) as he’s falling asleep—before you begin sleep training, adds Garden.
When your kid kicks up a fuss, you can try redirection, leaning on that routine chart you made with him. “If he's not going to bed, you could say something like, ‘I see you’re not tired. I can’t remember what we do next in our routine—could you help me check the chart?’” says Garden. She warns that this is not the time to lose your temper. “If you lose your cool over this, your child is going to do the same. You need to be very patient and consistent,” she says, noting that changing sleep patterns for a toddler can take a couple of weeks.
Ultimately, how you deal with your toddler fighting back at bedtime is up to you, and every family has a different comfort level. You could let him cry it out, you could periodically check in on him or you could stay in his bedroom—sitting somewhere away from the crib—until he falls asleep.
McGinn thinks that checking in on your toddler at intervals—also known as the Ferber method of sleep training—works better for babies than for toddlers, who are able to communicate and manipulate their parents a bit more. For toddlers, it may be more effective to commit fully to a no-checks method (also known as extinction or cry-it-out).
The method you choose also depends a lot on whether your toddler is still in a full crib, is in a crib with the front rail removed, or has transitioned into a big-kid bed already. “Do not make the crib-to-bed transition before you absolutely have to,” says McGinn. “It’s a lot easier to sleep train in a crib.”
If you have an “escape artist” toddler who keeps getting out of bed, then you’ll have to “crib the bedroom,” says McGinn. Make sure his environment is safe, toddler-proofed, and free of distractions.
With some kids, the “silent return” method (avoiding eye contact or speaking while marching your child back to bed repeatedly) may be effective, but it can be hard for a two-year-old to comply. “In that case, you may have to go as far as putting a baby gate on the bedroom door, or installing a child-proofed handle on the inside of the door,” says McGinn.
In her experience as a peadiatric sleep doctor, Zandieh has found that the second and third nights of enforcing the new sleep rules may be worse than the first night, but that you’ll begin to see some improvement within a week of sticking to it.
McGinn has seen the same thing: Toddlers might go along with your new sleep rules for a few days, but then they start testing you. Stay the course. “It’s hard, because they pull at those heartstrings. They know what they’re doing. But setting boundaries helps them to feel more secure because they know the expectations. That’s why routine is so important.”