There’s no shortage of books, advice, and training methods when it comes to babies and sleep. But what about toddlers and sleep? I was surprised to learn the hard way that it’s actually very common for toddlers to have sleep regressions around age 2. In our case, this age also corresponded with a difficult adjustment to becoming a big brother, so it felt like a double whammy.
My then 2-year-old, previously sleeping peacefully and well, started refusing to stay in his bed at bedtime, waking up multiple times throughout the night and legitimately sleeping worse than his newborn sister. This was new territory for me, and after talking to experts, I now know that plenty of other toddler moms face the same challenges. The good news? This, too, shall pass. It just may take some time and some consistent routines.
It’s important to note that, as with everything in parenting, there’s no one right answer for everyone when it comes to sleep and really, anything else. All children have different temperaments and needs. As moms, we know our children best, and in the end, we have to do what feels right for us and them.
If you’re like me and looking for some ideas about how to help your toddler stay in their bed—here’s what experts recommended.
1. Let Them Learn to Wind Down
“Think about it: not many of us get into bed and fall right asleep,” said Rebecca Schlegel, a pediatric nurse and Sleepably Sleep Consultant. In fact, it takes most adults at least 15-20 minutes to calm their minds and get into a state of relaxation where they can drift to sleep.
“Some people read, pray, watch TV, meditate, and so on,” Schlegel said. “We can’t just expect a child to get into bed and fall asleep. We have to allow our kids this time and this space to learn to calm their bodies.”
Allow your little one to find ways to wind down in their bed, like looking at books or playing with stuffed animals, and falling asleep on their own without you in the room (more on that later). The quiet “play” in their bed will help keep them from getting out of bed to find you for something and ensure that’s where they fall asleep—and stay.
2. Don’t Stay in the Room Until They Fall Asleep
Adults wake up multiple times a night and fall back asleep. Like adults, kids also wake up multiple times a night. Parents can help them feel comfortable falling asleep on their own when they first go to sleep for the night. Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, a psychologist at Yale Medicine who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine and wrote a book on sleep coaching told me this is one of the most important things parents can do to help their kids fall back asleep in the middle of the night.
“Whatever you do at bedtime, they’ll come to seek the same thing in the middle of the night,” Schneeberg said. “Your child might fall asleep easily with you next to them, but it’s really hard if they wake up a lot at night, and they always need your help to get back to sleep.”
Of course, there will be circumstances when the best thing for your child is for you to help them fall asleep, especially if they’re going through difficult transitions, not feeling well, or experiencing other unique stressors. Trust your mom-intuition.
3. Provide Security Items—and Get Creative
For a lot of toddlers, this might be a stuffed animal or a favorite blanket. I have a feeling many of us are doing this already. So, what should you do if your child has these security items but still wakes up and gets out of bed to find you because they’re scared?
Then, it might be time to get a little creative at bedtime, Schlegel told me. A number of kids start saying they’re scared of monsters in the toddler years. Schlegel suggested getting a bottle of “monster spray” that’s filled with lavender or another soothing scent that your kiddo can spray around the room before bed to keep the monsters away.
Bad dreams are another common toddler complaint. Schlegel recommended putting a dream catcher above the bed and explaining that all the bad dreams will be caught in there. In the morning, shake it out together to watch the bad dreams go away.
It’s normal for kids to seek out their parents for comfort. After all, we’re their biggest protectors. Because scent is such a strong emotional trigger, Schlegel also suggested leaving a shirt that smells like mom or dad with them at night to help them feel secure.
4. Gamify Their Routine
If the issue is less middle-of-the-night waking and more refusing-to-stay-in-their-bed, consider giving what Schlegel calls the “kissing game” a try. Once you’ve gone through your bedtime routine, and they’ve settled into bed, sit on the side of their bed and tell them “in one minute, I’m going to give you a kiss.”
Do this over and over in the room with them, and then tell them that this time, you are going to leave the room and come back in one minute to give them a kiss. Keep coming back to give them a kiss (you’ll probably want to stretch it more than a minute at a time), and eventually, they’ll fall asleep before you come back, Schlegel said.
Or if your toddler is anything like mine, he’s full of excuses at bedtime for things he “forgot” to do once we’ve gotten through our bedtime routine and I’m getting ready to leave the room. From forgetting to give the dog a kiss goodnight to forgetting to bring his favorite car to bed, he’ll come up with a reason to prolong bedtime and get back out of bed.
The whole excuse thing isn’t uncommon, Schneeberg told me. In fact, she has a game she recommends to parents struggling with this; give your child two “tickets” that they can exchange for one request each. Let’s say you get ready to leave their room, and they say, “I forgot to give Daddy a kiss.” They hand over a ticket, they go give Daddy a kiss, and come back to bed. As you leave the room again, they say, “I forgot my green truck.” Same process again. The third time around if they make an excuse, you explain that their tickets are gone, but they can play quietly in their bed until they’re ready to fall asleep.
5. Give Yourself and Your Child Grace
And finally, some advice from one toddler mom to another: remember that everything is a phase, give yourself (and your child) some grace, and remember that it’s totally normal if these don’t work magically for you. We’re certainly still navigating through uncharted territory and figuring out what works as we go. You’re doing great.