How to help your toddler sleep through the night

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Toddler boy sleeping

Good nighttime sleep for toddlers is based on a parent-led bedtime routine and an optimal sleep environment. Having a parent in charge of the bedtime routine is stress-reducing for toddlers and leads to better sleep for everyone.

An optimal bedtime routine has a clear beginning and a clear ending. Whether it’s reading a book, taking a bath or singing songs, establish a routine that works for your family, and lead your toddler through the steps every night.

Once the bedtime routine is complete and your toddler is in her sleeping place, an optimal sleep environment will help her stay asleep. A safe environment is key, because as toddlers get older, they gain mobility and motor skills, higher cognitive thinking, and lack the impulse control to resist the urge to explore. This means your toddler may climb out of her sleeping place, roam the house, move furniture or play during the time she is supposed to be sleeping!

What to Do

Create an optimal sleep environment – a cool, dark, quiet and safe space

  • A cool sleeping space – experts agree that a cool room (around 65 *F) makes for the best sleep, as the body’s temperature naturally falls during sleep. Overheating can disrupt the sleep process, so don’t over-bundle your toddler.
  • A dark sleeping space – the room should be dark enough that you are unable to read. Avoid using cell phones, TV’s or computers throughout the night in your toddler’s space, as these devices all have LED lights (pure blue hued lights) that negatively impact the circadian rhythm. Nightlights are a normal addition to your growing toddler’s room to allay any nighttime fears. If your toddler needs a nightlight, place it behind a piece of furniture, so she is not looking directly at it. Use a warm colored light bulb that mimics the warm glow of a candle and be sure to leave the nightlight on all night so the sleep environment remains consistent throughout the night.
  • A quiet sleeping space – offer a white noise source to block out extraneous sounds, but remember your toddler’s sleep environment should remain consistent throughout the night. If the white noise is present at bedtime, it should remain on all night. Avoid playing music that changes in pitch or tone, such as thunderstorms or ocean waves.
  • A safe sleeping space – toddlers are known escape artists, so you’ll want to keep their room as safe a space as her crib, toddler bed or sidecar. Bolt all the furniture to the walls and remove any extraneous toys or other items. A gate at the door may also be necessary.

If your child sleeps in a crib, keep using it

Toddlers like cozy spaces and lack the impulse control to stay on a bed. Unless your toddler is climbing out of the crib or is potty training, keep the crib as long as you can.

Limit screen time

Our modern day electronic devices all contain artificial light (or LED lights) that impact our body’s biological signal to be awake. From a behavioral and developmental standpoint, toddlers generally enjoy TV or phone games, but try to limit them, especially at least one hour before bedtime. Instead, read books, sing, dance or play quietly in the time leading up to bed.

Ensure your toddler’s schedule is age-appropriate

As children age, they are able to withstand longer periods of wakefulness. If your toddler is having trouble falling asleep at bedtime, waking numerous times in the night, or waking in the too-early morning, it could be she is getting too much day sleep or is sleeping too late in the day for her age and stage of development.

Remember that a toddler needs about 5 hours of being awake to build up enough sleep pressure, or homeostatic pressure, before she is ready for sleep at night. Plan her nap at about the midpoint of her day, giving her equal amounts of wakefulness in the morning and afternoon. And keeping the time your toddler goes to bed and wakes each day within the same 30 minute window will help her body’s rhythm remain regular as well.

Use pictures to establish the bedtime routine

Toddlers respond very well to visuals. Create a picture chart displaying the elements of your toddler’s bedtime routine with the last thing being her sleeping. Point to the picture as you complete each task so your toddler is ready for the transition into her bed or crib.

Don’t be afraid to include of bit of whimsy or silliness into the routine (without getting her wound up), like tucking in a favorite stuffed animal.