Strategies for helping a toddler sleep through the night

Many parents expect that, by the time their little ones are up for toddling around during the day, they’ll have mastered the art of staying asleep during the night – and in many cases, they’re right. Toddlers who have trouble staying asleep often have their very own set of sleep challenges to face, however.

Late night wandering

One of the ways a toddler may break up a night’s rest, that may not have been open to her when they were younger, is by waking up and going on a little adventure, whether it’s into your bed or just over to her toy chest.

When this happens, keeping the area dark and boring as you quietly walk her back to bed is probably one of the best ways to discourage her from making a habit of it. Another way to prevent nighttime wandering is to start Baby’s nightly winding-down period before bed a little earlier, so she doesn’t feel like she is being pulled away from something fun and exciting when it’s time for bed. Starting this winding-down period by putting away her toys, especially the ones visible from the bed, can help the room feel a bit less way-too-fun-to-sleep when it comes time for lights-out.

If firmness and making her surroundings at night feel as boring as possible aren’t helping, there are also a few ways to deal with nighttime wanderers that can feel a little like giving in, but that many families find are better for everyone’s sleep than continuing to battle over bedtime. First, if there’s a dim night light in Baby’s room, you can offer her the option of taking a book to bed with her. That way, if she wakes up in the middle of the night, she can “read” herself back to sleep, but she isn’t allowed to get out of bed. This is generally only a good idea for families who already use a night light, since introducing one unnecessarily can cause sleep difficulties of its own.

Some families even find that a little occasional bed-sharing with a wandering little one now and then can be good for everyone’s sleep, as long as it doesn’t become an unwanted habit.

Sleep associations 

Just like when Baby was an infant, the associations she has with what falling asleep is like can cause trouble in the toddler years. Maybe you don’t rock Baby to sleep anymore, but if she is used to falling asleep with you in the room, and then she wakes up to find that you’re not there, that can cause problems. 

It’s normal for children to wake up during the night, just like it’s normal for adults to wake up during the night, even though adults are often so good at falling back asleep that they don’t even remember it. Now is the time for Baby to start building those very same skills, and one way to help her is to make sure she isn’t counting on any conditions to fall asleep under that she won’t be able to find again if she wakes up during the night.

This means that playing music or white noise that she can fall asleep to could be a problem unless you’re planning on playing it all night. This doesn’t mean that songs shouldn’t be part of a bedtime routine. It just means turning off lullabies that won’t be playing all night while Baby is on the way out in that sleepy but awake state. Sleepy but awake can also be a good state for you to leave the room in, if she is having trouble falling back asleep at night without you around. Other strategies, like bed rails to keep a favorite stuffed animal from falling away during the night, or keeping a few pacifiers in the bed so she can find one more easily when trying to fall back asleep during the night can also help. If you’re trying to weed out a sleep association, introducing a new one, like a security blanket or special toy can help to fill the gap.

The important thing about sleep associations is to figure out exactly what it is that Baby is depending on to fall asleep, and seeing if you can figure out a way to alter those conditions so that they’ll be stable enough that she will be able to depend on them during nighttime wakings, too.

The cumulative effect

If a toddler has been having trouble sleeping for a while, she may be overtired, on top of whatever the original problem was. Moving her bedtime a little earlier, at least temporarily, may help any other strategies you might use to help Baby get some uninterrupted rest. No matter what the problem was to begin with, solving it will only get harder and harder the more tired Baby gets. 

  • Jodi Mindell, et al. “Behavioral Treatment of Bedtime Problems and Night Wakings in Infants and Young Children.” American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 29(10). Web. 2006. 
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