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Friday, June 21, 2024

How to Get Your Unruly Toddler to Sleep

Getting to watch two kids morph from larval infants into walking, talking people has been one of the great gifts of my life. I love their wobbling steps and their hilariously expressed opinions—except when it comes to bedtime. Their brains are dribbling out their ears, I’m exhausted, and the sink is still full of dirty dishes. These kids need to go to sleep.

Every parent has experienced this particular flavor of desperation, whether they’re trapped in a bed in the dark with a 3-year-old with separation anxiety, or when a toddler pops up at a particularly gory moment in The Last of Us asking for just one more drink of water. I talked to certified sleep consultants for some advice on how to get your kids snoozing.

Tinker With Bedtime

As a sleep consultant and founder of Baby Sleep Answers, a company that provides science-backed customized sleep solutions for newborns and toddlers, Andrea De La Torre says a toddler’s tiredness is dictated by two biological processes—their internal circadian rhythm and sleep pressure, or what we would call tiredness. 

A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that might prompt your toddler to bounce out of bed in the morning, but a child’s ability to tolerate tiredness grows as they get older. That’s why babies nap a lot, while an adult can enjoy after-dinner drinks (some of the time). If your child is having trouble falling asleep at the end of the day, you may have to adjust their daily schedule to meet their ever-changing natural rhythms. 

“A lot of people assume their kids aren’t sleeping because they’re not tired, and put their kids to bed too late,” says sleep consultant Molly Tartaglia, the founder of MMT Sleep, which provides one-to-one support and digital courses for parents of children up to 7 years old. “But an earlier bedtime is always a good idea.” A good rule of thumb is to aim for 10 to 12 hours of sleep for a 3- or 4-year-old, so if your child wakes at 7 am, try to put them to bed around 7:30 or 8 pm. 

This is also the age when children start to need fewer naps. If your child seems way too peppy at 8 pm, you can try eliminating naps during the day or shortening them. “If they’re still doing two naps, cap it at one. If they’re sleeping for an hour, try a 10-minute nap,” says De La Torre. “Some parents don’t realize that they can just do a 10-minute car ride around town.”

Establish a Consistent Routine

When so much of the brain and body is changing on a daily basis, it’s no wonder toddlers crave predictability. “Your routine can really consist of anything, as long as it’s done over and over again so your child knows what to expect,” Tartaglia says. Even at 5 and 8 years old, my kids have the same bedtime routine as they did when they were babies—bath, books, and into bed. A nightlight also soothes fears of the dark, and white noise drowns out the sound of Mom talking to her friend on the phone as she runs down the stairs.  

The overarching goal is that you can put your toddler to bed the same way you’d put a preschooler or elementary schooler—with a hug, a goodnight kiss, and walking out the door. No rocking to sleep, endless nighttime snacks, or lying there for hours, staring at the ceiling. To that end, you generally want to keep your response to nighttime interruptions consistent. “Don’t say one time, ‘Go back to bed, it’s OK,’ and then the next time, ‘Come to bed with me,’” says Tartaglia. “It’s sending mixed messages to your child.”

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While De La Torre agrees that boundaries and consistent routines are important for young children, she also counsels parents to be a little flexible. “If you’re having a lot of meltdowns, it’s OK to say, ‘Right now he just needs you, we’ll try it again later.’ The good news is, if you get it wrong, there are many more months to get it right.”

Be Gentle—With Yourself 

As the parent of two young kids, I think I can safely say that by the time you’re Googling “get my toddler to sleep,” all is not going well. At the very least, you’re exhausted, and your toddler probably isn’t doing much better. Whether they know it or not, sleep is a much more important part of their brain development than watching Saturday Night Live

It’s extremely hard to know what the exact problem might be. If a child isn’t going to bed because they’re testing boundaries, then strict routines and consistent routines may solve your problem. “Sometimes giving your child a little more control can help,” De La Torre says. “Try making a chart and having them explain to you the routine and say, ‘After this, I stay in my bed.’”

It could be separation anxiety, in which case playing games like hide-and-seek can help reassure them that even when you can’t see someone, they’re still there. You might even try having siblings share a bedroom (this works for my kids, sometimes). 

If you get it wrong, the consequences seem huge. One night of lost sleep makes you barely functional the next day; weeks, or months, of sleeplessness can bring a frazzled parent close to the brink of the abyss. As my friend once put it, parenting is a little like trying to operate in a foxhole, dodging bullets whizzing around your head while digging in the dirt (or maybe just trying to block out the sound of small children screaming for chocolate milk). 

That leaves De La Torre’s one final piece of advice, which is to not compare yourself or your kids with anyone else and to not judge yourself too harshly. “Choose the option that comes from love and not from fear,” De La Torre says. If your tank is all out of gas, and they really need to go to sleep because you won’t be able to be there for them in the morning, it’s OK to tell your kid that they have to stay by themselves. Just trust yourself as a parent and know that nothing, not even this, is forever.

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