Tips for toddler sleep
Parenting to sleep is part of your life long journey as parents, and people like myself are here to support and guide you through how you want to parent. The best bit of advice I have before you read this article, is ‘don’t do anything that doesn’t resonate with your way of parenting’. There is no right and wrong way to parent, but there are easy and hard roads to follow - the best thing about parenting is you can’t fail.
I love toddlers, they are little people with big personalities and know more than any of us what they want. They can be very testy and territorial, especially when they reach two years of old. I cringe when I hear the phrase ‘terrible twos’, and I often point out to parents that a nicer way to look at this phase and understand what is happening is that their toddler is testy and territorial.
There is no quick fix for sleep issues. Some common advice at this age is to leave toddlers to ‘cry it out’ on their own and not intervene. I believe this is sad – I ask parents if they would ignore their grandparents or an adult they love who was in a room crying for attention. But again, parenting is about your choice. And just because you look to a professional for support, you and your toddler got to this point together, so it is important in my experience to work together to sort it out. Remember what works for your friends or other families won’t necessarily work for you.
Crying is a baby or toddler’s form of communication, and toddlers go between crying and using their new found words.
Babies and toddlers have many sleep progressions – you will know them as regressions - and every time you look at articles another age has been added. These sleep progressions normally happen around developmental milestones and the common ages are 4 months, 8 to 10 months, 11 to 12 months, 18 months and of course at 2 years.
Today we are going to look at toddlers.
Day time routine
A lot of sleep issues are about how we parent in the daytime, so I tend to encourage parents not to embark on any night time changes until the day time is sorted.
Diet does play an important role in establishing good sleep habits, and I believe it is important to remember that toddlers need food before milk. If your toddler is waking during the night and their first meal of the day is milk, then my suggestion is to remove the milk feed and replace it with breakfast. In the beginning breakfast may be a little early, but over time you will be able to push this out to a more reasonable time.
There is a theory that from 10 months onwards if their first feed of the day is a sucking feed and they wake constantly overnight, the night waking is looking for their sucking comfort. Remove this and replace it with solids, then they look for another way to comfort them overnight. This theory was shared with me when I was working as a Karitane Mothercraft nurse in a hospital in Australia. Since then I have trialled it for about 8 years with families who have changed their morning feed to solids and have had a good success rate with it. If your toddler sleeps well at night then I suggest leaving their day time routine well alone.
It is recommended that toddlers have two fruit servings a day and adults one serving a day. Over the years the foods that I have found contribute to sleep issues are fruit, processed sugars, yoghurt and cheese. You might consider removing these from their afternoon or evening diet – it may not be effective for everyone but may be a good place to start.
Day time naps for toddlers
No toddler is the same as the next, so naps will vary considerably by age and in time. Nothing is set in stone and it is important to look at an article like this as a guideline and then take what you want from it and make it work for you.
In my experience toddlers up to 15 months will be having two naps a day either the same length of time or one at less than 30 minutes and one long nap a day.
From around 15 to 18 months they may be having one nap a day of around 1 ½ to 2 hours. Some toddlers may sleep slightly longer as well.
The time to change the length of their day time sleep is when they start to take longer to fall asleep at night, or start night waking when they have normally slept through the night.
My favourite expression is not to pay attention to the small stuff and always try and deal with our toddlers in a positive way. I often say to stop and think about what you are saying and how you are saying it, then try and make your communication with your toddler clear and positive. This will in turn make for a better day and an easier evening.
Do you find yourself saying, ‘if you don’t do this, then we won’t do this’? I have been in this situation and it’s even more difficult if you are sick, sleep deprived, or have a busier schedule than usual. Some important advice is not to give an action and a consequence unless you are prepared to follow it through. When it comes to the bedtime and overnight sleep, it could mean you toddler will just push until they get what they want.
Consistency in the evening
Once you have your day time sorted, then look at the evening routine. Parents who work may tend to rush the evening routine. Having over-tired toddlers or busy evening routines may contribute to going to bed issues and also overnight sleep issues.
Look at the activities you do with your toddler after dinner. These can also have an impact on the bedtime routine, so try and avoid television and books that do not have a calming influence.
Good black out blinds are a must and I tend to make their room ‘night time’ dark before taking them to bed for the night.
For others it is not quite so simple, so by following the same routine and keeping it in place until you have a good going to bed routine you can help your toddler understand what is expected of them and this will avoid too many fallouts.
Early morning wake up
In my experience, the two most common reasons toddlers wake at this time of the day is the outside world is waking up, or the light is creeping in around the sides of the curtains. The reason why it is so hard to resettle at this time of the morning is that the toddler feels they have had a good night’s sleep and we feel they haven’t.
Toddlers can experience one or the other and one thing I look at is their diet, as some foods can contribute to this. Night terrors often happen 1 to 2 hours after your toddler has settled and can be very frightening. Your toddler may not recognise you, they may try and push you away and they may also scream. It’s like their mind is still asleep but their body looks awake. With night terrors, once your toddler goes back to sleep and wakes in the morning, they tend not to remember what happened.
For both nightmares and night terrors it is also important to check there are no medical conditions such as sleep apnea, so always check in with a medical practitioner if you are concerned.
Self settling and resettling
Regardless of whether you are having issues with self-settling and resettling, I believe you need to be there in some way for your toddler. Whatever steps you take to show your toddler how to self-settle and resettle, remember to take small steps – it takes time, acceptance, consistency and touch.
If your toddler doesn’t self-settle in an appropriate time, the most effective step can be to take a pillow and lie on the floor and face the cot and pretend to go to sleep. Yes, you may go to sleep, but toddlers mimic what we do - you can either do this with the toddler in the cot or you can lay the toddler next to you and then transfer to the cot when they are asleep. The goal is to be there with your toddler but allow them the ability to find their sleep themselves, and you only intervene when they can’t. It won’t happen overnight so don’t feel deflated – it will take a minimum of six weeks to change their circadian rhythm.
It also takes a minimum of 10 days to see some light at the end of the tunnel and in this time the first 3 to 4 days can be the hardest. We all give up (and trust me I have as well at times) around day 2 but at some stage you need to get through to day 10.
If you are feeding to sleep or co-sleeping and feeding overnight, or your toddler has a dummy - go slowly and take little steps to wean them off rather than dramatically stopping or taking away the dummy.
Co-sleeping and feeding a toddler overnight is one of the hardest routines to break. You only do this if you want to, not because of what others are saying. The first step is that when your toddler is wanting a feed overnight then get up out of the bed (yes it’s tough) and feed either sitting up or in a chair and then lie back down to sleep.
The most important thing about parenting is not to be judgmental of others we all parent differently. With parenting you have good days and bad days and with toddlers it is important to pick your battles, be as consistent as you can and if you are doing action and consequence make sure that your follow through with the consequence – don’t let it be empty words as this then follows through to the night time issues.
Toddlers can manipulate you and yes you can spoil toddlers – isn’t that what parenting is about? To me spoiling a child means they are a well-loved, nurtured individual, with boundaries that they like to push. You are the parent, just like a teacher or a CEO of a company, so remember someone needs to be at the head of the family unit.
If you feel you need additional support, I am available to provide you with the support you need. Pricing is available on my website along with a range of different packages to suit your needs.
Dorothy Waide is a Karitane nurse and a leading sleep consultant who has almost 30 years’ baby nursing and sleep-settling experience in homes in New Zealand and abroad. Her consultancy BabyHelp is dedicated to teaching new mums everyday parenting skills and ‘mothercraft’ – find it on Facebook here. She has also released the book You Simply Can’t Spoil a Newborn – a guide to nurturing your baby in their first three months.