7 Rules for Toddler Sleep Training

toddler sleep training

Image Credit: Flickr user dherholz

Teaching your baby to sleep through the night is one of the hardest — and ultimately sweetest — things you’ll accomplish as a parent. The good news is that, whether or not you succeed, your baby will eventually learn to sleep at night. The bad news is that now you’ve got a whole new animal on your hands: a toddler.

Although the sleep training challenges that toddlers bring are a very different sort, a lot of the ways to address them are the same. The game-changer is that your toddler has discovered free will. After some success with my own three toddlers, I thought I’d share these ten simple rules for toddler sleep training in case they help you.

1. Stick to the Bedtime Routine

It’s a bit harder to keep toddlers on any kind of routine, just because their days are so filled with wanton chaos. At least, that’s the way it seems with our twins. At night, though, we have a prescribed routine that begins before bedtime:

  1. Warm milk bottles. Yes, we still warm the milk even for toddlers. Someone once remarked “Oh, you do? We’re just too busy for that.” Guess what? Everyone is busy. Anyone who’s not is retired or dead. But we still take one minute and fifteen seconds to warm up the milk, which helps ensure that the kids drink it all (and activates the sleep-inducing proteins in it, too). 
  2. Upstairs for diaper change and pajamas. The boys get a nighttime diaper, and our daughter goes potty. Everyone puts on clean, comfortable pajamas. This is an important part of the routine; the soft feel of the clothes helps signal that it’s bedtime.
  3. Reading bedtime stories. Even if it’s late, we spend 5-10 minutes each night with each toddler reading a couple of our favorite bedtime baby books. We practice word repetition, and identifying animals and objects. The boys only really got into this when they turned two, but once they learned to sit still long enough, we made it part of the routine.
  4. Blankies and bed. We tuck them in bed with their favorite Aden+Anais blankets, put in their music box, turn off the light, and leave the room.

2. Keep Them in the Crib

We transitioned our daughter to a toddler bed when she was about two years old. She’s mature for her age, and had two little brothers on the way, but honestly I think it was too soon. For a few months, we had trouble keeping her in bed. She kept getting out and coming downstairs, or (once we gated off the door to her room) crying for us at the gate.

The crib is a safe and contained place for a toddler to sleep as long as he can’t climb out of it. We lowered our boys’ cribs as much as we could. In the last go-round, we moved their mattresses to the floor (they’re just tall enough to form a barrier with the base of the crib), effectively making it super-deep. As long as toddlers are in the crib, they really have just two choices: (1) go to sleep, or (2) cry a bit and then go to sleep.

3. Block Light and Sound

Our toddlers are good sleepers, but they’re also easily woken by errant noises or (as happened this morning) bright sunlight. The problem is that toddlers are usually excited about being awake and playing with their toys. They understand that if they cry enough, you’ll come get them up, and they can play. So the key is to prevent such wake-ups as much as possible.

We use room-darkening shades and heavy curtains to block out sunlight, and have a fan to provide the steady background hum that drowns out noises.

4. Offer a Soother of Some Kind

Until recently, we used a pacifier as the last touch that comforted our toddlers as we left the room at night. It also worked great as a soothing tool, for unexpected wake-ups. Once we had to wean our babies from the pacifier, however, we couldn’t do that any longer. Luckily, we found a reasonable replacement in the Playskool Glo-Worm. It’s small, cuddly, and lights up / plays a little lullaby when you push the belly.

We made sure to present our toddlers with these glo-worms as part of the “taking the pacifiers away” ceremony. Since then, we’ve used them in the same way that we did the pacifiers: offering them only in bed, as we’re leaving the room, and making sure the boys can find them if they wake up unexpectedly at night.

5. Keep the Early Bedtime

I admit that we’ve let the bedtime slip occasionally over the summer, because the days are longer, we’re playing outside, or going on trips, etc. There are plenty of excuses. We’ve found, though, that our toddlers do better when they have a consistent (and relatively early) bedtime. Usually about an hour after dinner ends. Yes, they’re capable of staying up later, but sometimes they end up a bit crankier the next day. And they usually don’t sleep any later.

6. Wear Them Out

Toddlers, as you probably have realized, have boundless energy. They can run and play circles around us for hours without breaking a sweat. The more energy you can burn off, the more willing your toddler will be to fall asleep when it’s time. This is especially true for the afternoon nap. Some of the best ways we’ve found to wear our toddlers out include:

  • Playing outside in our yard or a park where they can roam and play somewhat freely
  • Swimming or water play with a baby pool, water table, or sprinkler. One of our 3 keys to summer baby sleep.
  • Taking walks around the neighborhood, either in the stroller or (if we’re adventurous) walking on their own.
  • Backyard play on the swing set or their ride-on toys (see this article on the best ride-on toys for toddlers).

7. Make Sure They Sleep Enough

Sometimes our toddlers fight naps, or refuse to fall asleep at night. It’s often about that discovery of free will. They would often rather stay awake and have fun, and they realize that by crying a lot, they just might get it. We try to be firm, because we (as parents) know that toddlers really need their sleep.

Our boys, at two and a half, need about 14 hours per day: a 2 hour nap and 12 hours overnight. When they don’t get it, they’re cranky and short-tempered and fussy. No one wins: not the toddler, and certainly not the parents. Knowing this, we put our children’s needs first. We usually don’t make the 3 p.m. birthday party (smack dab in the middle of nap time). If we’re visiting friends or relatives in the evening, we keep an eye on the clock and leave before it gets too late. No matter how much we and the toddlers would like to stay.

There’s just something to be said for the soft, content sigh of a toddler settling down into his bed. It’s priceless.