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Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep--Preparing Success

You can help toddlers prepare for sleep

There are several things parents and caregivers can do to prepare young children for sleeping.

1. Avoid media, especially scary images: Children under age 6 are fear-reactive to things that look strange or grotesque (like shadows, or transforming characters in movies; Cantor, 1998). Avoid exposing young children to things that scare them because these things can keep them awake too. Generally, avoid exposure to television and videos in the 90 minutes or so before bedtime (for everyone) because it interferes with sleep quality (Owens, Maxim, McGuinn, Nobile, Msall, & Alario, 1999; Thompson & Christakis, 2005; for a review of the link between media and sleep problems, see Cain & Gradisar, 2010).

2. Offer support: Some toddlers need support to make the transition from awake to sleep for a range of reasons, the most obvious one is they do not want to miss any fun that be happening. Others suggest that if a toddler is not feeling safe and secure, they may find sleep times difficult, most likely based on research showing children with anxiety disorders often suffer sleep-related problems (Alfano, Ginsberg, & Kingery, 2007) . Whatever the cause, being sensitive and attempting to understand what the toddler is experiencing, and remaining emotionally available will be more helpful to the toddler than threatening punishment for their behaviours.

3. Have a bedtime routine: If the bedtime routine is the same (or similar) each time, then the toddler can more than predict what’s going to happen, they can partake in and even guide the activities. Getting their night clothes ready, or selecting their snugly and or book, all allow the toddler a sense of control. But as mentioned earlier, a bedtime routine is positively associated with multiple aspects of toddler sleep and parental mood (Mindell et al., 2009).

4. Build in quiet time: Busy little toddlers are not always skilled at winding down. From our experience, quiet games, book reading, a lullaby, massage or just a quiet rocking cuddle can all help the toddler quieten in preparation for sleep. Quiet time is a lovely time for a breastfeed, for both parent and toddler. It is quiet peaceful and unrushed, enjoy!

5. Be positive: Toddlers love attention and will seek it. In the absence of positive attention they will seek negative attention, so be positive in noting when they have been sleeping well. We recommend looking for anything tiny the toddler does or tell them how much fun you had with them during the day or how much you love them… and how with a good nights’ rest, there will be new and fun things to do tomorrow. This is a much better head space for anyone to drift to sleep from. Never underestimate the power of positive attention and participation throughout a transition, especially a transition to sleep. [?wm]

6. Take your child’s perspective: Tired frustrated parents can, understandably, struggle to stay gentle and kind if their toddler is difficult to calm or unable to happily settle for sleep. It is a very powerful tool to show calm and kindness. Parental empathy and perspective-taking are linked with greater responsiveness and more positive child outcomes (for a review, see Feshbach, 1987).

7. Be company: Toddlers love company and may find separation at sleep time overwhelming (after all, it’s unnatural for a mammal youngster to be apart from a parent; Smith, 2006). This is what we recommend. Stay with the toddler, lie with then, sit on a chair, or find a comfortable place, THEN while they are calm and wide awake, find a reason for a brief absence, such as the bathroom or let the cat out ... and RETURN after a very brief time. Gradually, overtime, extend that time out of the room. Over time the anticipation of your return will allow the toddler to trust that when you are not there, you will come. Of course, if your toddler is upset, there is no need to leave the room at all, you can simply remain with them until they fall asleep. All this can be accomplished without generating anxiety or distress—establishing an expectation of security while guiding toddlers to be comfortable settling to sleep.

8. Respond: It is normal for mammal young to call for parents when alone (Smith, 2006). So when your toddler signals for you overnight, we suggest that you offer voice reassurance firstly. This may be enough to reassure them you are nearby. Just a few words of reassurance may be enough to be comforting. If they are not calmed, then go and attend to them, quietly and calmly. The idea is to build a trust that you will respond to them and when calm you can begin to create the separation moments in time.

All toddlers, whether sleeping safely in their parents' bed or sleeping somewhere else, are likely to seek out parents' comfort during the night. Toddlers' need for comfort is as real as is when they were little, and just as is appropriate then, attending to toddlers distress is the best step to helping toddlers return to sleep. Chastising toddlers for waking and needing attention may well prolong the length of time toddlers are awake and contribute to greater anxiety at other nightwakings. Whether in the parents' room or with the parent in their room, helping toddlers back to sleep will be eased by listening to their concerns and reminding that all is okay, Keeping the nighttime quiet, dark, and safe, can help toddlers return to sleep more easily. Remember some toddlers will love to converse for hours rather than sleep, so keep negotiation to a minimal by listening, then reminding them it is sleep time now and we will chat more in the morning.

Parental sensitivity to the toddler’s experience allows the toddler access to the reassurance and care they are entitled to. If caregivers can ‘take on the challenge” of thinking about what the toddler’s experience might be and what might be driving the behaviour, it helps both toddler and parent through sleep-disrupted times. Remember, things will eventually get better!

Posts in Sleep Series:

Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes “Experts” and Parents Make

'Let Crying Babes Lie'? So Wrong

Simple Ways to Calm a Crying Baby

Normal, Human Infant Sleep: Feeding Method and Development

Normal Infant Sleep: Changing Patterns

Normal Parent Behaviors and Why They Won’t Hurt Your Child

Normal Infant Sleep: Night Nursing's Importance

More Normal Parenting for Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep-Tiredness?

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep--Preparing Success

SIDS: Risks and Realities

Bed Sharing With Babies: What is the Hype About?

Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives

Also, check out: Dangers of "Crying it Out"

Varying Co-Authors for Sleep Posts

Tracy Cassels, University of British Columbia,

Sarah Ockwell-Smith,

Wendy Middlemiss, University of North Texas

John Hoffman,

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Texas Tech University,

Helen Stevens, Safe Sleep Space

James McKenna, Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, University of Notre Dame,


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