Getting toddlers to sleep through the night
It can be difficult for tired parents to get their toddlers to sleep through the night.
Photo Credit: Rafal Zdeb
Most parents of newborn infants understand that night waking and feeding is simply part of the job. And yet, when baby is born, many parents are shocked at how deeply they are affected by sleep deprivation. Furthermore, many parents are equally shocked to discover that night waking typically lasts well into the toddler years. It always seems that your neighbor's kids slept through the night at an incredibly early age and yet you can't seem to get your child to sleep for more than 4 or 5 hours at night without waking up at least once. You've obviously done something wrong and sleep deprivation has driven you to seek some expert advice. So you head to the book store and buy every single sleep expert book you can find--only to find that nothing really works for your child. You're already losing sleep. . .before you loose your mind consider why your child might be waking up and formulate a plan that addresses his needs.
Adjust your expectations
The first step in conquering night time battles with your toddler is to define what is normal and adjust your expectations accordingly. For some reason, we all have this notion that young children should sleep all the way through the night. For adults "sleeping through the night" generally entails at least 7 or 8 hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep. This is not necessarily the case for a toddler.
Night time waking for a toddler is related more to developmental maturity than it is to parenting techniques. To understand better why toddlers wake frequently, we need to understand something about the infant sleep cycle. Infants go through sleep cycles much more frequently and drift in and out of sleep all night long. During their "light sleep cycles" stimuli such as hunger, coldness, etc. will awaken an infant very easily. As they grow older, babies tend to have less "light sleep cycles" and spend more time in deep sleep where light stimuli will not wake them up as easily. Unfortunately for the sleep deprived parent, when this happens, has much more to do with your child's particular temperament and developmental clock than it does to do with anything you do or don't do.
Many parents will note that their child slept better as an infant than as a toddler. This is actually very common simply because the stimuli that will wake a young child up changes as they grow. For infants, stimuli generally include things that ensure their survival such as hunger, pain, temperature etc. As they grow, the stimuli that arouses them from their slumber changes. Things such as teething and illness are the culprits for night waking in young toddlers. You would think that you'd have passed most of the common stimuli for toddler night waking by age two but this is about the age when night terrors and separation anxiety may be keeping you and your toddler awake.
Rest assured, although some children begin having longer cycles of deep sleep and "sleeping through the night" as early as 4 or 5 mos., it is also normal for your child not to sleep through the night as you would define it, until 3 or 4 years of age. With that being said, 3 or 4 years of getting 5 hours or less of sleep in one stretch can make you a very tired and weary parent. While you may not be able to change your child's temperament and development to fit your sleep schedule, there are ways you can encourage your child to sleep better at night.
Tips & Tricks to Get Your Toddler Back to Sleep
1. Take regular naps during the day. Believe it or not, good sleep at night partly depends on your child's schedule during the day. Consistency is essential! Put your child down for naps at the same time every day in the same way. Children, like adults, have biological clocks. Your child gets used to being awake and being asleep at the same times every day and the more consistent you are, the easier it will be to get your child into bed and resting through the night!
2. Try allowing your child to sleep in the same room/bed with you. Although there are varying opinions on this practice, if your toddler is really having trouble sleeping through the night consider this: it is very common for night terrors to start in the toddler years. A toddler who is able to hear or feel a parent for reassurance, may be able to settle back into sleep more easily which means you'll be able to sleep more easily too! You can even lay a sleeping bag on the floor and instruct your child that if he's scared, he can come in and sleep there without waking you. You may wake up in the morning to find he's been sleeping there for half the night without you knowing it!
3. Allow a child to keep a sippy cup or bottle full of cool water near by for your child to drink in the middle of the night. Sometimes a little drink will do the trick and your child will have an easier time settling back into sleep if he/she doesn't have to get up to get you to go get it. Note: Never give your child a bottle or sippy cup of anything besides water as this practice may lead to tooth decay.
4. Use a bedtime routine. It does not have to be elaborate, but it should be the same routine every night. An example would be: after dinner we take a bath, brush our teeth and pick a story to read. You can even give your toddler some control over the situation by allowing him to pick the pajamas and the story . . . as long as the routine stays the same.
5. Let your child bring toys or comfort objects to bed. A comfort object can help ease fears and separation anxiety in the middle of the night. This can be a favorite blanket or teddy bear or stuffed animal. Don't worry about your child playing with the object for awhile before he falls asleep. It may be easier for your child to soothe himself to sleep without you if he has an object to hold onto.
6. Watch what junior eats at dinner! Sugary snacks or sugary foods at dinner may cause your child to have a hard time settling down. Some children are so sensitive to sugars that even fruits or vegetables that are high in sugar should be avoided in the evening. Watch also what your child drinks for dinner. Sugary fruit juices, soda & especially caffeine are not good choices.
It is important to remember that not every trick will work for every child. Some children will sleep longer and some will sleep barely the minimum. However, a consistent routine coupled with sensitivity to your child's needs will be effective in helping your child sleep longer and go to bed more easily.