Getting your toddler’s sleep schedule back on track

You’ve been hearing about the importance of the bedtime routine since Baby was born. You know about rhythms and schedules and how much harder it is to get a child to fall asleep when they are over-tired. But sometimes, things happen, and there isn’t always much you can do about it. Whether it’s an ear-infection that keeps your toddler awake in screaming pain for three nights straight or a few late nights spending time with your extended family on a holiday trip, it isn’t easy to get your toddler’s sleep routine back on track once it’s been disrupted.

General principles

In general, it’s easier for a sleep schedule to slide into falling asleep later and waking later than it is to shift to earlier bedtimes and crack-of-dawn wake-ups, though toddlers, who often like to rise with the sun, can go either way. In either case, though, readjusting a sleep schedule back onto a predictable schedule often goes more smoothly for parents who keep a few general ideas in mind.

  • Changing patterns takes time: For many toddlers, a change in sleep schedule goes more smoothly when it’s introduced gradually, instead of all at once, if that’s possible. A bedtime that’s 15 or 20 minutes earlier a few nights in a row is easier to fall asleep to than trying to fall asleep an hour earlier than usual, after all. And once bedtime is adjusted, naps often start to fall back into their normal patterns, too.
  • Change is easiest with willing participants: It can be tempting to keep a toddler up until their proper bedtime, in hopes that they will crash then, and set their sleep on the right path the next day, but aside from the high chance that you’ll end up with a cranky toddler long before your day is over, letting them get too tired before bed can make bedtime trickier. For many children, adjusting bedtime, and then letting naps settle around a steady nighttime sleep can be easier than trying to adjust naps and bedtime all at once.
  • Sleep hygiene is especially important when adjusting: A solid bedtime routine, dim lighting in the evening, and no technology before bed, are always important ingredients in a good night’s rest, but they’re especially important when you’re working on adjusting sleep habits. Working with your toddler’s biological clock, by making sure the dim lighting and follow a winding-down routine before bed that might include a bath, can be a great way to latch Baby’s new bedtime onto their body’s signals that it’s time to get some sleep.
  • Consistency gets results: Once you’ve made your adjustment, it will stick best if you and Baby stick to it. It can be tempting to let your family’s schedule slide on weekends, or, on the other hand, to try to catch up on sleep on the weekend, but catching up like that doesn’t provide the steady biological rhythms that make for the best rest.

When to throw those principles out the window

In the end, you know Baby best. If you just know in your gut that they will be able to snap back into their usual routine in a day or two if you jump right back into it, instead of transitioning more gradually, you’re probably right. Every toddler is different, and you’ve spent more time watching Baby turn into the person they are than anyone, or almost anyone, in the world.

  • Raising Children Network. “Changing your baby’s sleep patterns.” Raising Children. Raising Children, July 25 2016. Retrieved June 29 2017.
  • “Rolling Back the Bedtimes: How to Get Back on Track and Back to School.” Medical West Hospital. Medical West. Retrieved June 29 2017. 

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