Getting a toddler to go to bed, stay in bed and sleep through the night can be a battle and exhausting.
Jenn Kelner, a sleep consultant and owner of BabyZzz helps infants, babies and toddlers become well-rested families through sleep solutions and support.
She shares 10 toddler sleep habits with solutions to help children – and parents – get a better night’s rest.
1. Early risers
A reasonable wake up time for a child is anywhere from 5:30-7am, but some children are up before that time wide awake or their wake up time is too early for mum and dad.
Solution: Room darkening shades to block out morning light, white-noise machines to block out morning street noise, a timed light or child alarm clock that changes colour when it's time to get up, and an earlier bedtime. It's counterintuitive, but the earlier a child goes to bed, the later they will sleep.
2. Refuses to nap but still needs a nap
A nap may be missed due to illness, travel or change in routine. As the child gets more overtired, it becomes more difficult to nap. This will have a cumulative effect, which may cause the child to refuse to nap altogether.
Solution: Earlier bedtime to help make up that sleep deficit and make it easier to nap, get the child outdoors in the morning for fresh air and exercise, very soothing routine before naptime, and leave the child for 60 minutes to give them the opportunity to fall asleep without stimulation. Once the nap has been re-established, bedtime can be moved a little later.
3. Unable to fall asleep
Many children have difficultly falling asleep on their own if they have been used to being rocked to sleep, or if they have been falling asleep next to their parents. If a child is not used to falling asleep by themselves, it is very difficult to suddenly start doing so.
Solution: Make sure the bedtime routine gets the child nice and drowsy. Turn off all electronics (TV, computer games etc) 60 minutes before bedtime. If the child needs mum and dad close by to fall asleep, gradually remove yourself from the child's room as they fall asleep. For instance: Day 1-3 sit by the child's bed or cot until they fall asleep. Day 4-6, move the chair to the middle of the room. Day 7-9, move the chair to the doorway. Day 10-12, move the chair outside the doorway.
4. Night waking
Waking during the night is normal, but it becomes a problem when the child cannot return to sleep unassisted. They will call out for mum and dad, disrupting everyone's consolidated sleep.
Solution: Have a consistent soothing routine in place to get the child nice and drowsy. Ensure the child is getting enough sleep, as overtiredness leads to frequent night waking. Make sure the child is able to self-soothe, and implement some sleep training/coaching if necessary. Remove all reinforcement (negative or positive) when the child wakes as this is an incentive for the child to wake up fully and call for the parents.
5. Afraid of the dark
Fears in children are common, and it can easily prevent a child from falling asleep.
Solution: Make sure the child has lovey or comfort item like a teddy bear to help them feel protected. Give the child a very soothing routine before bed to get them nice and relaxed. Give them some extra attention at bedtime, and reassure them that you are nearby. Provide the child with a very low watt nightlight.
6. Repeat bedtime requests or "curtain calls"
After saying goodnight, many children will stall by asking mum and dad for "one more thing!" They may ask for a glass of water, one more hug, or say "I forgot to tell you something." This tactic delays bedtime, which makes the child overtired, which then makes it more difficult for the child to fall asleep.
Solution: During your soothing routine, set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, and explain that once the timer goes off, it's time to say a final goodnight. Ensure that before the timer goes off you anticipate what that child may ask for -- so get them a drink, take them to the bathroom, and give the child lots of hugs. If the child is still requesting extra attention, implement some sleep rules with consequences, or simply ignore their requests.
7. Getting out of bed or "jack-in-the-box syndrome"
Younger toddlers may be climbing out their cot, which can be very dangerous. Older children may be repeatedly getting out of their beds, which is tiresome to the parents.
Solution:For children who are still in a cot, turn the cot around so that the higher side of the cot is facing out (if possible). Use a sleep sack to prevent the child from climbing over the side. Use a video monitor, and as soon as the child lifts a leg to climb over, enter the room and give a stern "no!" This is usually enough to prevent the child from trying it again. For children who are in a toddler bed, implement some sleep rules and install a baby gate at the child's door and call it his "big boy castle gate" or her "princess castle gate" to keep the child in the room but with the door open. If the child gets out of bed, silently return them to bed. This needs to be done consistently and without any interaction (positive or negative) so that the child is not getting any reinforcement for getting out of bed.
8. Child will only sleep at home
Some children can only sleep at home and will not sleep at a relative's house.
Solution: Bring some items from home, keep the same schedule and bedtime routine that is done at home, and ensure the child has a transitional item that will help them feel safe and keep them company at night.
9. Nightmares or night terrors
Children may experience nightmares or night terrors, which may appear similar but are actually quite different. Nightmares are frightening dreams, whereas night terrors occur when the child is between sleep stages and is almost trapped between being awake and being asleep. The child may appear awake because they are screaming or thrashing around, but they are actually asleep and will not be aware of your presence. Once the episode is over, they will often go right back to sleep and have no memory of the event.
Solution: If it is a nightmare, reassure your child that the dream was not real and help them understand reality vs. fantasy. Comfort the child with your voice and your presence. If the child is having night terror, do not interfere as this may prolong the episode but rather sit back and watch and make sure they are safe. Avoid talking about the incident the next day, as this can be confusing for the child. Night terrors often occur because of a change in routine or overtiredness, so ensure the child has a consistent routine and put them to bed a little earlier. Night terrors are very common in children and will usually disappear by adolescence. Rest assured that night terrors are worse for the parents watching than for the child experiencing the event.
10. Snoring or mouth breathing
Some children may snore loudly (you can hear it from the next room), or mouth breath. This can be an indication that the child has enlarged adenoids or tonsils, which can result in sleep apnea. When a child has sleep apnea, this effort to breathe interrupts their consolidated sleep at night.
Solution: If your child snores or mouth breaths ensure you talk to your pediatrician about it and have them check out their tonsils and adenoids.