We’ve all been there.
You think you have your baby all figured out. For months, they’ve been sleeping through the night and waking up at a (somewhat) consistent hour. Sometimes your little angle even tells you that they’re ready to go to bed, and once there, happily drift off to sleep with little more than a bedtime story and a song.
Then, all of a sudden and seemingly out of nowhere, it happens: a sleep regression. They can walk and they can talk, and they’re telling you that they don’t want to go to sleep. Night wakings return in full swing, and there’s no nap or bedtime to be had without putting up a fight.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Toddlers and older kids have their own unique set of sleep problems. It’s a thing. It’s a real thing. And while there’s no real science to it, there’s some decent advice out there to offer a few solutions for the two most common problems — stalling and night wakings.
Here we’ve rounded up the most common problems that many toddlers and older children face — and the best advice from around the internet about what you can do about it.
Bedtime Stall Tactics
Stalling bedtime is practically a professional sport for most toddlers. They just need one more story read, one more song sung, another sip of water. Oh wait, they “forgot” they needed to use the potty again. Did I get a hug? Pretty sure I didn’t get a hug...You get the picture. What was once a quick and easy bedtime routine has become an epic and exhausting battle that really starts cutting into your adult time. While incredibly frustrating, it’s also incredibly common.
The problem is that once you start giving into that one more story, one more song or potty break after the lights are out and everyone is tucked in, it can soon become the expectation and another hard-to-break habit.
How to deal
There are a few clever techniques we found that have worked for parents. Of course, every kid is different, so if one doesn’t work for your family, try another. Then, try again.
1. Give fair warning. First, always let you kid know that bedtime is approaching. Go over the schedule of events that are about to happen, and then repeat it again and again. As in, “we’re having dinner now, then we can play for 5 minutes before bath time and bed.” Never surprise your toddler with bedtime. That will almost certainly always backfire.
2. One more thing. Don’t get involved in any long activity right before bed. If your kid is playing right before it’s time to do the bedtime routine take some advice from Daniel Tiger: that was fun, but now it’s all done. So pick one more thing to do and call it a night, baby.
3. Make bedtime and the bedroom soothing. On the same note, bedtime and the bedroom should be as soothing as possible. It shouldn’t be a time to introduce a new game or active play with your toddler — it should be a time to wind down and put your babe in a drowsy, peaceful state of being (you know, like the one you’d ideally love to be in). Creating the right space for sleep, including a dark and cool room and a comfy bed, can also help bring on the sleepy vibes. Or, even better, make it a magical place they look forward to going to. Ziraffe’s line of of Forivor’s 100% organic nightwear and bedding achieves just that, with hand-drawn illustrations of woodlands and wildlife that reveal a fun and fantastical nighttime world.
4. Goodnight to everything. Next, try saying “goodnight” to everything — stuffed animals, toys, the moon, the potty. If your tot know that everything is going to sleep (not just him) they might not feel so much FOMO. Also, if the potty is asleep, then one more trip to the potty can’t happen.
5. Sticker charts. For crafty parents, a sticker chart can be a great way to incentivize a kid to stop stalling and get through a bedtime routine efficiently. The way it works is by sketching out each part of the bedtime routine, such as bath, brush teeth, pjs, book and bed, on a chart. Then, as soon as your child does each step, he or she can put a sticker next to the completed task. It can be super rewarding for lots of kids. If your child is one that needs more incentives than just stickers, you can say there’s a “special treat” at the end of five completed sticker charts (or whatever).
6. Give independence. For some toddlers, it might work to give them a little independence and let them wind down on their own. Give them a few soft books in bed, play a little soft music or give them some “quiet toys” — such as stuffed animals — to play with until they drift off to sleep when they feel like they’re ready.
7. Reconsider sleep schedules. Sleep time stalling could get really bad if your kid actually just isn’t tired. Or, of course, is overtired. You might need to consider scaling back daytime sleep. Most kids drop to one nap between 15 and 18 months for no more than two to three hours. Also, most naps shouldn’t start after 2 p.m. or last longer than 4 p.m. If your toddler is sleeping too much or too late during the day, he or she might have a much harder time settling down at night. At the same time, if your toddler is going to bed too late or at an inconsistent time each day, he or she might not be tired enough at what should be a decent bedtime one night, and totally hyper and overtired the next night.
8. Eliminate screen time. By toddlerdom and certainly by preschool age, many of the things that affect adult sleep also affect kids — including screen time. The blue light emitted by televisions, tablets and smartphones has been found to suppress melatonin production, tricking your brain into thinking it’s daytime making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Limit or eliminate screen time at least 1 hour (but really more) before it’s time to turn the lights out.
9. Lay down the law. If nothing else works, it’s probably time to simply lay down the law. Bedtime means bedtime. And by laying down the law, your toddler will soon know that lights out means the day is done and it’s time to sleep. Remember, you’re the parent here.
New Night Wakings
Even if your kid has been sleeping through the night for months, a resurgence of night wakings are a common problem faced by toddlers and big kids — and the cause is usually tied to something specific.
To be clear, everyone wakes up multiple times per night in between sleep cycles — from babies to adults. We all have simply trained ourselves to go back to sleep. It becomes a problem when every time a child wakes up, he or she screams bloody murder for a parent until they appear.
Nightmares are extremely common among toddlers, and can start as early as 18 months. At this point kids can have a very active imagination and are experiencing more things they can internalize. There are several things that make kids more prone to having nightmares. They include fevers, overtiredness, irregular sleep routines, developmental milestones and stress or anxiety related to any new situation (starting school, a new sibling, etc.).
Night wakings can be caused by a number of other things, too. There’s stress from changes or big moves, like starting school or getting a new sibling. For all of these things, the solutions are similar.
How to deal
For nightmares, the advice is simple. While understanding the difference between a dream and reality will depend on a kids age (after age five is when they can truly grasp the concept) there’s not much you can do beyond reassuring them back to sleep once they’ve had one.
1. Offer comfort. Recognize that your child’s fear is real and offer comfort. Try singing a song or simply a hug. Try to not add to his or her fear by overreacting. If you’re (understandably) irritated or agitated being woken up in the middle of the night, it will be more difficult for you to reassure your babe that everything is okay and they need to go back to sleep.
2. Monster spray. If your child is waking up because of something imagined — say, monsters — techniques like putting “monster spray” around the room or making a “ghost catcher” are adorable and can work for some kids. But beware — they can also backfire, as they reinforce to your kid that what they’ve imagined is real. Sometimes the best method is to reassure your kid that those things aren’t real. The baby sleep site has a number of resources on dealing with nightmares. **Link listed in the Resources below.
3. Reassure them. If night wakings are related to stress of a move, new sibling or starting school, be patient. There are plenty of ways in which you can reassure your little one that what they’re experiencing is totally normal. For a new sibling, it’s getting dedicated one-on-one time with your tot and telling them they’re still loved and important. For school, it might be talking about their day and working through their feelings or frustrations.
4. Again, check your sleep schedule. Remember, children who are overtired tend to have more sleep issues in general than those who are well-rested. Maybe putting your child to sleep a little earlier or adjusting your sleep routine so that it’s consistent every night could be a good first step in nipping those night wakings in the bud.
As much as there is a science to sleep, there’s no real science around toddler sleep problems, as each child is unique and each family has varied, individual circumstances. Try all the advice out and, eventually, something should stick. That is, until the NEXT sleep regression!