Few self-respecting toddlers will go to bed without a fuss or a fight. Your child just has too much that they want to do to welcome rest, no matter how reinvigorating it might prove. What's going on elsewhere around the house? Where are mommy and daddy? What am I missing? Such questions—even if not articulated—consume your toddler's feverish mind. That's why it's not at all uncommon for parents to use every trick in the book to try to get their toddler to go to sleep: rocking, cuddling, nursing, feeding, reading, singing, stories, sitting with, leaving, and punishing. And that's just in the first hour. Many parents then concede defeat, giving up until later. Of course, they'll just have to start all over then, again trying anything they can think of.
Toddlers need help going to sleep in different ways at different ages. Here, we offer suggestions at every level.
1 Year Old
The younger you start encouraging your child to go to sleep by himself, the easier it will be. But when you finally decide your child needs to learn how to go to sleep on their own, you may wonder about the best way to do it. Do you need to shut out your toddler entirely? Should you stay until they finally drop off to sleep?
Never use your child's crib or bed as a place of punishment. Nothing destroys your child's comfort at sleep time more than seeing the bed as a prison.
Try to picture each of these scenarios from your toddler's point of view. Up until now, everything's been fine. Whenever thy got tired, you would rock them, sing to the, feed them, and off they went. If they later woke up, you just came back to go through the same routine again.
Then, suddenly—at least to your child, no matter how gradually it actually took you to come to this point—you decide that you've had enough of this routine. It's high time that your child learned how to go to sleep without you.
So what happens? One night, out of the blue, you nurse your baby or give him a bottle, say "good night," place him in his crib or bed, and disappear. Naturally, your child will object. He may cry and cry, but you stick in the earplugs and remain firm in your commitment to let him "cry himself to sleep," no matter how long it takes.
Is this really fair to your child? Without warning, you've abandoned your toddler totally to their own devices. Do you think that it will be easier the next night if only you can stick to your guns tonight? It won't: Sleep will come to be something dangerous and frightening for your child. From the moment that you say, "good night," your baby will start screaming and clinging desperately to you. Will you entirely abandon your child again? Or will your resolve crumble on the second night—or if not, then on the fifth or 12th?
The alternative extreme is almost as bad. Again, everything's fine until the night when you "suddenly" decide to put your child to bed before they've fallen asleep. Because you don't want your child to be scared, you decide to stay until they fall asleep. Though your toddler may not be as scared as they would be if you left, they certainly won't like it either.
For your one-year-old, it must be torture for you to stay visible but out of reach: to be able to see you, but have you refuse his pleas to pick him up. You may not have "abandoned" your child, but all the same you have "rejected" him. If you let your toddler's crying sway you, if you decide to pick him up again—or maybe even give up for now and try again later—he now knows from experience that if he cries long and hard enough, he will get the relief he wants from you. Is this helping either one of you at all?
The Sleep Solution
The ultimate solution to the problem of getting your toddler to go to sleep on their own involves a compromise between those two extremes. Leave the room, but come back periodically. You're not abandoning or rejecting your child (though they may still feel you are). You're simply leaving for a while, but available to come back if really needed. When your baby cries (you know they will), come back, perhaps settle them back down in the crib, say "good night" again, and then leave immediately.
Keep contact short and avoid cuddling, rocking or any of the comforts you once used to get your child to sleep.
You need to send a clear and firm message that playtime is over and rest time has begun. If your child continues to cry—as they no doubt will for at least several nights—return every few minutes just to reassure them that you're still within earshot. Or promise your toddler that you'll check on them every five (or seven or 10) minutes until they fall asleep.
If you do, make sure to keep your promise. Your child needs the security of knowing that you're close by and that they can depend on you. But they really don't need you to pick them up to receive that reassurance.
Be a bore: Do the same thing in the same way every time you come back into your child's room.
When you leave your toddler's room, try not to maintain total silence to "help" them get to sleep. That may actually do your child a disservice, making them hypersensitive to things that go bump in the night. More important, if your child hears you cleaning up or walking around in a nearby room, they'll be comforted by knowing exactly where you are as they drift into unconsciousness. (It may help to let your child know where you're going and what you'll be doing when you leave the room.)
If you decide to try this compromise method, keep these suggested guidelines in mind:
- Never stay away for more than five minutes if your toddler is still crying. If your child is very upset, visit as often as once a minute.
- Never stay for more than the minute it takes to resettle your child and repeat that quick "good night." Ignore them if they pop back up to their feet again.
- If your child is used to going to sleep in the dark, try to avoid turning the lights on when you go into the room. Don't do anything to disturb the monotony of your routine.
- Never take your child back out of the crib unless their diaper is dirty, they've vomited or the bed is on fire.
If you maintain your resolve, bedtime should become much more peaceful for both of you within a week or two. Until this becomes the established bedtime routine, though, you can ruin it in a single night. If you leave your child to cry for too long or pick them up and then try again later, you'll have to start the "weaning" process all over again from the beginning.
2 Years Old
The second year is a strange in-between time for sleep. Your child is probably taking a couple of naps a day. At the same time, you're either still dealing with diapers or potty training. Both of these can make a regular sleep schedule tough.
The best way to get your child to sleep at night is to establish a routine that signals sleep.
In choosing the elements of a bedtime routine for your toddler, choose activities that are quiet and calming. It makes little sense to work your child into a state of excitement right before bed.
Your child is no longer a baby. She won't suddenly drop off as a defense against over-stimulation. Your toddler is not going to crash out of exhaustion either.
If you've already established a bedtime routine (a song, a story, a quiet game) in your baby's first year, you can continue with that or you might want to create a new routine.
Your child's best soother is, of course, you. So by all means rock in a rocking chair with your toddler, sing to her, hold her while you take a stroll around the room. But these routine activities should get your child calm and ready for bed. They should not actually put your baby to sleep.
If you let (or continue to let) your toddler fall asleep in your arms, it'll be a hard habit to break. So stick with the practice of putting your child down in their crib or bed before they fall asleep. (If you didn't do this when your child was an infant, start doing it now.)
This doesn't mean putting your baby down when they're wide awake, but rather just before she falls asleep. Choose a moment when your toddler looks drowsy.
In creating your bedtime routine, choose elements that soothe both of you, quiet activities that you both enjoy. Remember: The less complicated the routine, the better.
Simplicity also leaves open the possibility that someone else can pinch hit for you and quickly master the routine, too. Whether your toddler will welcome this substitute is, of course, another story.
Any of the following can add richness-and hopefully relief-to your bedtime routine:
- A long walk together after dinner
- A warm bath before bed
- A snack before brushing, which may help fill your toddler's stomach (try to include milk or other protein)
- Reading together, perhaps followed by letting your child "read" a book or two on her own
- Bedtime stories (not too exciting though), which you can tell to your child: perhaps a true—or at least believable—story about you when you were a child or when she was little or a make-believe story in which your child plays the role of hero
- A brief and gentle in-bed massage
- A game in which your toddler puts all the stuffed animals or other dolls to bed before climbing in after them (lucky kid gets to be the last one up)
- Looking around the room and saying good night to various animals, dolls and other objects (à la Good Night, Moon)
- Soothing music: either your singing or a lullaby playlist
- Comfort items (a soft blanket, a favorite stuffed animal, anything that your child finds soothing and relaxing)
- Sucking a thumb or pacifier (though the latter may be more trouble than it's worth if your toddler constantly loses it)
Don't overlook any possibility if that's what it takes for your toddler to fall asleep. After all, that's the whole idea, isn't it?
3 Years Old
You might want to establish a rule that your toddler can't get out of bed except to go to the bathroom. But make sure that your child has a way to communicate with you if she needs a cup of water, and so on. Use an intercom or baby monitor. Or leave the door slightly ajar.
Your three-year-old needs less sleep than they did just a year (or even just six months) ago. That may wreak havoc with bedtime if you don't adjust accordingly. So if your child has difficulty dropping off to sleep, ask yourself: Does your child really need so much sleep or do you just need some time to yourself at night?
If your child doesn't need as much sleep as you're trying to force on them, you might have more success if you either shorten (or even eliminate) her afternoon nap or move her bedtime back a half hour or so. After all, if your three-year-old isn't tired, you can't reasonably expect her to want to go to bed.
As with younger children, you'll do best to establish a regular, soothing bedtime routine. Make it as pleasant as possible for both of you. Before starting the routine, let your child know that bedtime is coming. You'll start off on the wrong foot if you try to pull them away from whatever they're doing because, "It's time for bed."
Make a bargain with your child instead: "Just one more puzzle now, and then it's time for bed." Then read or tell a bedtime story. You'll probably have more success in preserving a soothing atmosphere if you hold storytime in your child's bedroom rather than in another room.
After storytime, your child might like listening to music as she drifts off to sleep.
Don't punish your child by sending her to her bedroom or by sending her—or even threatening to send her—to bed early. This will ruin all your efforts to make your preschooler's bed and bedroom and bed a soothing and pleasant place for her to be.
In leaving your todder's bedroom, promise to return to make sure she doesn't need anything else in 10, 15 or 20 minutes—or as soon as you've finished up what you're doing. (Your child may be more willing to let you go if you let her know that you have dishes to wash or a shower to take or some other business that demands your attention.)
Then follow up on your promise—or expect your child to come looking for you.
If you haven't done it yet, try to make your toddler's bed and bedroom as appealing as possible. If you make the bedroom a place where your child enjoys spending time, they'll put up much less resistance when they have to go there. So put some effort into making the bedroom a special, private place and honor that privacy.
One way to do that is to let your child help decorate. When your child switches from a crib to a big bed, for instance, let them help redecorate the room.
Your preschooler can do a lot to transform their room into their own special space:
- They can help pick out sheets they like.
- They can help rearrange the furniture.
- They can help pick out pictures, posters and other ways to decorate the walls around the bed.
- If you put shelves next to your preschooler's bed, they can stock them with their favorite books, stuffed animals and toys.
- To facilitate storytime (and "reading" by herself), install a reading light above your child's bed.
More Sleepy-Time Tips
Now that we've covered bedtime routines at every stage of toddlerhood, we'll leave you with some parting tips from our readers to make absolutely sure your toddler goes to sleep and stays asleep.
Comfort Is Key
Your child's sleep can be disrupted if they're too hot or too cold. Dress your toddler in layers for maximum comfort, generally in one more layer than you would normally wear. Make your child's bedroom as cozy and soothing as possible. Install a dimmer switch on the overhead light and get a sound machine or a white noise machine to help drown out any background noise.
Although warm and cozy bedding and stuffed animals are nice, too, make sure any objects placed in your child's bed are safe for sleeping. Avoid heavy pillows and big stuffed animals, since those can be a suffocation hazard, and keep battery-operated toys away as well, since leaking batteries are toxic.
Give a Bedtime Pass
If your child gets up frequently after going to bed (for water, another hug, more blankets, less blankets — you get the idea), try creating a bedtime pass. The pass can be an old credit card, a homemade coupon, or anything else you have lying around. Tell them that if they need something after bedtime, they can use the bedtime pass to come out one time. They'll likely save it for something they really want or need.
One of our readers says, "We gave our daughter an old department store card to keep under her pillow and told her if she needed something after she was in bed, she could use her bedtime pass and come out just once. This has worked like a charm! She takes it very seriously."
Have a Reward System
The promise of a reward or treat can work wonders. Let your child choose one (within reason, such as watching a special movie ), and if they go to bed without a fuss during the week, they can have it on the weekend. Letting your child choose the reward allows them to feel in control and that their opinion counts. It also ensures they'll ask for something they really want — and will work hard to get it!
Let Your Child Wind Down
Children of all ages benefit from having time to relax before naptime and bed. Kids become over-stimulated and restless easily, making it hard for them to relax enough to fall asleep. Minimize stimulating activities before naps and bedtime: In the time frame between dinner and bed, keep games and play more low-key and quieter than you might during the day.
The amount and type of wind-down time your child will need depends on his age and temperament. Learn to recognize signs that your child is tired — that will keep them from becoming over-stimulated.
Know Your Child's Sleep Requirements
Keep in mind that most children ages 5 and up don't need a nap during the day.
Finally, take note of how much sleep your child actually needs. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers a recommended range depending on your child's age. According to the AAP, children ages 1 to 2 years need 11 to 14 hours of sleep each night, and kids ages 3 to 5 should get 10 to 13 hours per 24-hour period.
Look for cues during the day that your child is well-rested. For example, are they alert and able to concentrate? Do they wake up naturally in the morning, or do you have to drag them out of bed? Using these as a guide will help determine if your child is getting enough sleep and whether or not you need to adjust bedtime and/or naps.
Bedtime changes can be tough on a kid, but they don't have to stay that way. Establishing rules and a good routine around bedtime can go a long way toward getting your child to sleep on their own.
If you need more help at bedtime, check out our handy bedtime checklist. You and your toddler can check off each step together as they head toward dreamland!