updated, May 26, 2023 – There’s so much baby sleep advice about newborns and postpartum families. How do infants sleep through the night? When will my baby get on a routine or nap better? But parents of toddlers sometimes also have these same questions. Our team of night nurses, nannies and postpartum doulas assure parents that even if your young child hasn’t sleep through the night, it’s not too late to sleep coach your toddler.
Getting Ready to Sleep Coach Your Toddler
A question we’re often asked at LMS is if we’ll soothe toddlers back to sleep if they wake through the night. Even though the night nannies are there to provide newborn care, the answer is yes we will of course try to care for toddler siblings! BUT, our experience has been that overwhelmingly when the older kids wake up they want MOMMY or DADDY! These little ones aren’t waking up because they’re hungry or need a diaper change. They need cuddles from you. Understanding this goes a long way in the sleep training process.
Pave the Way with Communication
- Explain the changes to your toddler in an age-appropriate manner. Let them know that they are growing up and that the new sleep routine is for big kids! Provide positive reinforcement for their progress and remind them during the day., what will happen at night. You can say something like: “Remember, if you wake up tonight, I’ll come in and lay you back down to sleep but I won’t lay in the bed with you.”
- Some parents also use reward charts. For example, if the child stays in their room for 3 nights in a row, they get to choose a new toy from the dollar store. You know what your child will respond to best.
- Have a family meeting and include toddler in the planning and explain the expected behaviors that are expected such as: staying in bed at night, not coming out of bed until their wake-up clock says it’s time, etc. Review the expectations each night night before bed. If you’re using a reward chart be sure to explain it and make it a fun part of the process.
It’s a Learned Skill
Your toddler must learn the skill of putting himself to sleep without help. But you can teach the skill without making him cry-it-out by communicating and then gradually intervening less and less through the night. Here’s how:
Use a gradual change method that gradually pulls you away from the child while they are falling asleep. Our night nanny and postpartum doula team call this the Slingshot Method. We find this to be most gentle for toddlers. In order to implement Slingshot Method, toddlers should be in their beds calm, but awake. You can do whatever wind down or rocking method you usually do, just be sure they’re still awake when put in the bed.
Next, simply gradually remove yourself from the room.
- During the first few nights, stay next to the bed after laying her down and reassure with your voice and touch. If toddler is standing up, gently place them back in a laying down position. You can try patting toddler’s back or singing to keep them from getting back up, but try not to carry them. Yes, you will most likely have to place them back down in the lying position 10-20 times. You’re teaching them the new way to go to sleep which is probably pretty frustrating to them. But you’re also there so they can feel safe and secure.
- Continuing on to the next nights, sitting a little further away. If they continue to fuss, you can get up and reassure with touch but try to wait a bit longer between each time. Yes, this is very hard when they are screaming, just keep calm.
- During the next few nights, sit even further away from her bed near the doorway. You can get up and touch and reassure if needed.
- Eventually you will be in the doorway and then not in the room at all.
Do the above steps slowly and gradually do this so that it is less traumatic for your child. You’re saying “I’m here to help
you get calm, but it is your job to fall asleep.”
Does this mean you must stop co-sleeping? Nope. It’s completely normal for little ones to go through stages of wanting to sleep in the big bed. Like grown-ups, they may feel anxious or nervous about things. They lack the words to talk it through but they do know that being in the cozy bed with parents is comforting.
Sleep Coach Your Toddler – What if they keep getting out of bed and into my bed?
Here is where consistency is key. If your little one comes into your room and they’re not sick or in need of care you will quietly bring them back to their bed and tuck them in. They might follow you out again and you’ll calmly bring them back to their bed. Like sleep training in the crib, you might do this 10-15 times -and that is hard– but if you stay consistent your little one will learn that staying in their bed is the rule for overnights unless they are sick or need help.
Don’t Begin on Empty
Make sure on the day that you begin sleep coaching that your child has a full “sleep tank”; they’ve had a good nap during the day- if that means that you need to take her for a walk in the stroller, or for a car ride, then do it. Do whatever you need to do to get sleep, and make sure that the nap ends 4-5 hours before her bedtime. This is a major component to sleep coaching, daytime sleep = nighttime sleep!
I have a plan, now what?
Soothing Bedtime Routine:
This is an important part of sleep coaching. It’s important to let them get their energy out and switch gears from wakeful to sleepy. Toddlers need help with a soothing routine, just as babies do so a bath and reading books for example provides a good step-down to sleepiness. Just like all babies and adults, when toddlers are drowsy, they’re more likely to fall asleep.
What Time is Bedtime?
Pay attention to your toddler’s sleep cues. They are not that different from baby sleep cues. Is he rubbing his eyes and yawning at 6:45pm? Then it’s time to start his bedtime routine. If you miss these cues, kids can become over tired, and their brains begin to release cortisol. This happens because the brain thinks, “oh, I need to stay awake, better pump out the hormone that helps!” When this happens, it becomes more and more difficult for them to settle down and fall asleep.
Sleep Coach Your Toddler – what about when I have a newborn too?
In a perfect world, toddlers would be sleeping through the night before the new baby arrives. But we all know that the perfect world gets turned upside down pretty often in early parenting! Here are some strategies to help maximize sleep for your baby, your toddler and hopefully you:
- Divide and Conquer – This is the man-to-man defense phase of parenting! One parent gets the toddler to sleep and the other handles the infant. Getting both children to bed at the same time can help both children wind down properly, giving the toddler a better chance at uninterrupted sleep.
- Gradual adjustments– If your toddler is used to certain sleep habits, such as being rocked to sleep or having a parent present, gradually transition them to new sleep associations. For example, you can slowly reduce the amount of time you spend rocking them or move from sitting beside their bed to sitting farther away over a few nights.
- Hire help – This is a great time to hire a mother’s helper or neighborhood babysitter who can look after your newborn while you concentrate on your toddler’s bedtime routine for a few hours each night. This special uninterrupted time can help pave the way for restful nights.
Once you begin, try your best stick to sleep training. Don’t go back to old habits like lying down beside your child until they are asleep, as this sends a mixed message. And that’s not fair to your toddler! It’s hard when you’re in the thick of sleep deprivation, but try to remember that your child is seeking reassurance when they wake up in the night.
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