Congratulations, you’ve made it through the first year of your baby’s life! Now surely this is when you start to get a bit more sleep? Well... not necessarily. While toddlers are much more likely to ‘sleep through’ than babies, these early years can bring their own set of sleep-related challenges.
Problem: My two-year-old son rises bright and early, around 5am. Aren’t kids meant to sleep-in a little more at this age?
Solution: When our babies were well, babies, we tolerated the early morning wake-ups; those morning cries that sounded out before the sun started to creep through the curtains. We even got used to the 4am infomercials on TV, resigning ourselves to yet another early start to the day.
Moving into toddlerhood, your little one still mightn’t be as keen on sleeping-in as you are. The good news is there are still ways to persuade him to give you that little morning lie-in. Jo Ryan, a paediatric nurse and founder of parenting advisory service Babybliss, has a few tricks up her sleeve.
“Make sure your toddler doesn’t go to bed any later than 7pm,” she says. “Small children need about five hours of deep sleep, which they get before midnight, to help them have a good sleep [the rest of the night]. If they get this window of sleep, they are more likely to sleep for longer the next morning.”
The length of his daytime nap can also directly affect the hour that your toddler wakes in the morning. If you want to increase your chance of sleeping-in the next morning, Jo advises your toddler sleeps for no more than two hours during the day.
But what do you do if all else fails and your little one still insists on waking up with the birds? Well, you can cheat a little! Put some toys in his bed to distract him for just a little while longer.
“If they continue to wake early despite all your good efforts, [there are ways to] teach your child to stay in bed until you’re happy for them to get up,” says Jo. “Make sure they have things to play with in their bed and go in and tell them it’s not time to get up. You should keep the room dark and be quiet as you do this.”
If you find nothing’s working, Jo notes the early rising may be down to factors beyond your control. “In my experience, boys are notorious early risers,” she says, having worked with hundreds of sleepless toddlers.
Not that this will be too comforting at 5am tomorrow... If you can’t get your little one to stay between the sheets, encourage him to stay in his room at the very least with toys or activities like colouring.
Toddler won’t stay in bed
Problem: We’ve moved our two-year-old into a bed, but he refuses to stay in his room and sleep. What can we do?
Solution: The first step is to be strict with the time your toddler goes to bed. “No later than 7pm, maybe up to 7.30pm is okay,” says Jo. Bedtime rituals will also help encourage him to wind-down. But what to do if you do all this and continue to hear the pitter-patter of little feet soon after you get him down?
“Some people recommend closing the door,” says Jo, “but I think it’s more gentle to put a gate on the door so your child can see you. I’d leave them at the gate for five minutes then go and take them back to bed. Keep your response consistent, without much reward – a loving, but firm ‘it’s time for bed’.”
Jo says you may need to repeat this routine at regular intervals until your child falls asleep. Eventually he’ll stop trying to get out of bed and you can get rid of the gate.
If you’ve tried these tactics and your toddler still needs help getting to sleep, resist the temptation to sit or lie with him until he drifts off, says Jo. “It’s best not to start doing this, as you’ll trigger a pattern that will become difficult to sustain. It also teaches your child that they can’t fall asleep on their own; that they need you to help them fall asleep.”
If your child cries out for you after being tucked in, it’s okay to reassure him that you’re still around, Jo says. Sit with him for a few minutes before leaving and popping in again after a bit of time away. “Keep doing this and try to ensure you’re out of the room when your child finally nods off.” This gentle approach will reassure your toddler, creating a sense of safety and security, but, importantly, will allow him to learn to fall asleep without your help.
Problem: My three-year-old goes to sleep easily but wakes up in the middle of the night, calling out for us. How can I get her to ‘sleep through’?
Solution: Before you do anything, stop and think about how you are responding to those middle-of-the-night cries for comfort. Chances are, if your child is crying out for water, milk or her teddy, you’ll go in to respond to her needs. Not only is this your instinct as a parent, but at this time of night you’ll do anything to get back into your own bed as soon as possible! “But”, Jo advises, “bear in mind that every cuddle you give them, every time you pick them up, or get them a drink... these are all sleep associations. The trick is to teach your child that they don’t need these associations to fall back asleep.”
There are some associations that are practical things, however, so the idea is to keep these within your toddler’s reach. For example, put a non-drip sippy cup in her bed if she typically calls out for water. Similarly, make sure her favourite teddy is in the bed with her.
Beyond necessities such as these, try to wean your child off whatever objects she calls out for in the night. To help this process along, Jo suggests using “matter-of-fact” statements to coax your toddler back to sleep. “If your child calls for you at 3am, simply remind them that it’s night-time and time to go to sleep. Don’t reward your toddler’s behaviour by giving them whatever they have asked for, unless it’s something essential. They should have everything they need with them in bed to ensure a good night’s sleep,” Jo says. “This consistent, matter-of-fact response... will eventually teach your child that they can fall asleep, and stay asleep, without any props at all.”
Daytime nap refusal
Problem: My 18-month-old is now refusing her daytime nap, but I need some time to myself during the day!
Solution: The ‘dropping of the day nap’ can be tough. Suddenly you may find yourself with no time to do whatever it is that needs doing in your world (which often is catching up on some of your own shut-eye!) The good news is that, while the days of daytime snoozing may be mostly over, there are ways to bring back some much-needed quiet time.
In place of the day nap, Jo advises parents continue to honour this time of day with a ‘restful ritual’. While your little one may no longer need her nap, she’ll still benefit from the break down time provides. Consider giving her some books to read or toys to quietly play with – whatever it is that will give you both some peaceful time to yourselves.
Jo suggests keeping your toddler in her bed for this rest time, a place that (hopefully!) has a ‘quiet’ association. This strong connection will remind your little one that this time of day is for being calm.
“The key is to keep things quiet during this period and over time they will learn that this is simply what they do in the middle of the day,” Jo says.
However, let’s go to the worst-case scenario: your toddler out-and-out refuses to go along with this rest time. By 6pm you’re exhausted, having been switched on all day for your child. It may seem grim, but all is not lost!
The solution is to make sure your toddler goes to bed early at night. “A 6pm bedtime is not unreasonable if they haven’t slept all day,” Jo says. And the benefits? They catch up on their much-needed sleep and you can start to unwind that much earlier! Now where’s that TV remote…?