Can You Sleep Train a Toddler? How I Did It After Baby #2

It was 4 a.m. and I’d just finished the third night feeding with my newborn son. I gazed lovingly at my pillow across the room as I envisioned the two glorious hours of sleep that would soon be mine. “You complete me, pillow,” I whispered.

As I crept closer to my bed, I felt something move right behind me. My stomach dropped—our sweet toddler was out of her bed again! She had snuck into our room with such stealth that she could’ve been recruited for a secret ops mission. She was asking for things: a sip of water, a hug, a stuffy. As I took her hand and began guiding her back to her bedroom, I looked back to see my dear pillow fading away in the distance.

 

Toddler sleep regressions are a thing

We started thinking about sleep training options for our toddler soon after having our second baby. My husband and I had anticipated sleepless newborn nights for ourselves, but didn’t realize our 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter would go through a major sleep adjustment period, too. She started struggling to fall asleep on her own and self-soothing after night wake-ups.

Pediatrician Malini Kumar said this is normal. “After a new baby arrives, sleep disturbances and behavior changes are very common in the older sibling,” she said. “It’s imperative to keep a sense of consistency and sameness, especially at the toddler age.”

 

After a new baby arrives, sleep disturbances and behavior changes are very common in the older sibling.

 

We tried our best to keep structure where we could, and while our daughter’s love for her “baby bruddah” blossomed, her confidence around bedtime still regressed. We wanted so badly to give her the gift of sleep again. After one super long night of newborn and toddler wakings, my husband and I locked bleary eyes and realized we needed a plan. We didn’t know much about sleep training past the baby age, but we were ready to try something, no, anything

 

Deciding to sleep train our toddler

A friend referred us to sleep consultant JoAnna Inks from Sleep Solutions Unlimited. “Toddlers have a certain level of reasoning,” she noted on a call later that day. “We use this reasoning on their level to empower them with sleep skills and reduce fear.”

Enter: the reward and consequences sleep method. The method started with a stay-in-the-room approach and had us working our way out over time. Reasoning, sticker charts, immediate rewards, and immediate consequences were a part of the system. For example, rewards like tiny toys or special experiences acted as short-term incentives for the behaviors we agreed on with our child. Led by hopefulness and pure exhaustion, we decided to give the plan a try. Read on for the foundations of successful toddler sleep training from sleep consultant JoAnna Inks and how it worked for our family.

 

 

Why is the reward and consequences sleep method fitting for toddlers?

Inks: The toddler age is amazing to work with because you can reason with children and get them involved in every step of the plan. When you have a clear, consistent, age-appropriate plan in place, you can communicate with your child about the expectations around sleep. 

If that expectation is not met, there has to be a consequence or there would be zero reason for the unwanted behavior to stop. We use a reward and consequence system that varies depending on the temperament of your child and the parenting style of the parent. Our goal is to always empower a child with sleep skills. Children this age love to learn new things, and sleep skills are no exception. 

 

What is sleep pressure, and why is it important?

Inks: The very best sleep we can offer our children is consolidated nighttime sleep. Toddlers, 2-and-a-half years old and older, typically need about 12-13 hours of sleep in 24 hours. Often, a child who isn’t sleeping well at night tries to make up for that sleep with too much sleep during the day. 

Limiting daytime sleep at this age to one and a half hours so that a child can get 11 hours of consolidated nighttime sleep is the best solution. This gives a child time to build up enough sleep pressure to fall asleep more easily at bedtime. 

We also want to be consistent about the timing of the nap. We want the same amount of awake time before and after the nap. This allows a child to build up enough sleep pressure for both a nap and a successful bedtime. 

 

Can you explain the importance of self-soothing in sleep training?

Inks: Removing external props—such as rocking, bouncing, feeding, mom or dad lying with a child—while teaching our children to self-soothe is an important piece of sleep training. We all cycle through sleep. We start in light sleep and get deeper, deeper, and deeper until we get lighter again. If the thing that helped you fall asleep in those light stages of sleep is no longer there, you won’t be able to get to the next sleep cycle. Fragmented sleep occurs. 

We want to teach our children internal sleep skills so that they can go from point A, awake, to point B, asleep, entirely on their own (just as adults do at bedtime). This will allow them to put their sleep cycles together seamlessly and sleep more peacefully at night.

 

Why is consistency important for toddler bedtime routines?

Inks: Humans are very protective of our sleep environment. We don’t like surprises or changes to our routine. So, having a consistent bedtime routine and setting a consistent expectation around sleep is really important for your toddler. 

 

 

What should I do if I run into sleep training setbacks?

Inks: Know that this process is not linear. It doesn’t just go straight up, and it’s not great every single day. Your child is human and they’re going to have bad days, bad dreams, setbacks from vacations, and so on. 

If those sleep skills are there, the good news is that it’s always easier to get back on track. We can’t force your child to sleep, but we can give them all the tools they need to become amazing sleepers. Sleep is a skill (not unlike swimming!), and I’m a firm believer that every child or baby can learn to be a great sleeper if they’re simply taught that skill. It’s such a gift to give your child because this skill will be with them for the rest of their lives.

 

When is the best time to sleep train?

Inks: I’m often asked this question. My answer is always this: If you’re ready, then your child is ready. I work with newborns and children up to 10 years old. I’m happy to report that they’ve all become amazing sleepers. It’s never too late to teach your child how to sleep well. Sleep affects every area of our life, and since we spend a third of our lives sleeping, we might as well be good at it! 

 

Takeaways from our toddler sleep training experience

Working with a sleep consultant kept us accountable and on track through a process that can sometimes get derailed with all of life’s distractions. Designating a coach within the family is also a great option if hiring a sleep consultant isn’t in the budget.

Every child is different. The effectiveness of a plan driven by reasoning “depends on where the child is cognitively,” noted Dr. Kumar. In our situation, the reward and consequences method ended up being the right fit. The sticker charts and treasures faded away after a few weeks, but our daughter’s new sleep skills prevailed! We also found that it became much easier to get her back on track after setbacks. While our daughter found peace in her new consistent sleep routine, our whole family became more restful, and I finally fell into the embrace of my beloved, soft pillow.