Toddles sleep struggles? A healthy 2-year-old will have spent about 13 months of their life sleeping. Most parents will probably roll their eyes right now and say ‘really?’ But actually, it really is true. It may not feel like it if you’re a parent who has experienced relentless, sleep-broken-nights from pretty much the moment your bundle of joy arrived earthside.
But what about if now your baby is an active, non-stop toddler and it still feels relentless? They now know how to grab your attention with their nightly requests. A drink please (no one is thirstier than a toddler at bedtime right?!). Or their pleading to cuddle their favourite teddy bear that got lost yesterday (and is no-where close to being found) Argh! If toddler sleep struggles are real, read on to see what you can do to help…
Every parent needs this big truth about toddler sleep struggles
I’ve written a previous post about toddler sleep struggles, where they might come from and offered top tips on how you might help them. You can read it here. In this post though, I’m going to focus on offering three super important things to remember that will help steer you all through disruptive and demanding toddler nights. I want to highlight the difference between how you might respond to your toddler in the day and the night. As a parent, it can be so easy to fall into the toddler-trap, mixed with exhaustion and emotions, it can be really hard to know how to move ahead gently and positively.
Read on to learn about using the CRAB method I’ve created. If you stick to the CRAB then you can succeed! It’s important to note that if you have any health or developmental concerns about your child, you seek professional medical advice. In my experience, I often speak to parents who are at their wit’s end. They feel they have tried everything and nothing works. And therein often lies the problem. You know the saying ‘you can do anything but not everything’? Not sure who said that but it’s brilliant and if you apply it to infant sleep; if you can just do one thing, not everything, you will more likely see results. Also good to arm yourself with an understanding of the sleep needs of your child for their age (sign up below to get your free copy of the ultimate infant sleep guide with all this info)…
And you can also check out my post all about healthy infant awake times here…
Day and Night for Toddlers
Let’s be clear that the issues I’m talking about here, that can help by using CRAB, are behavioural issues. Things such as habitual waking, bedtime battles, frequent night waking and requests. Only once you are sure your child is not overtired, ill, under tired or has a sleep disorder (such as night terrors) can you focus your work as a parent on the CRAB.
Let’s take a simple day time example. Imagine your toddler is upset because they can’t have something as it’s not safe (playing with sharp grown-up scissors for example; as a former nanny this has totally happened to me). Of course, you wouldn’t allow them to have something like this; you’d find a way to manage the situation appropriately, right? Perhaps you’d offer to hold them with your child so you use them together safely. Or you might find a plastic child’s pair for them to use or you may find some other activity to distract them away from the scissors. I opted for a distraction with some playdoh instead by the way – always a winner!
Back to nighttime sleep. Think of treating toddler behaviour in a similar way – with Consistency, Routine And Boundaries. Remember to have a read of my other post about toddler sleep that offers suggestions as to what the problems might be and how to help your toddler through them. This post is outlining what you can do as a parent to minimize any issues. I say minimize because of course, issues creep in and can change from week to week, especially as your toddler learns new ways and tricks! These three crucial parts are strongly linked together and should work harmoniously alongside each other for maximum effect!
This is basically one of my first golden rules of all sleep and parent-related issues. When consistency goes out of the window, it can be hard to get it back. If your toddler gets a ‘no’ ‘no’ ‘no’ to be allowed to come into your bed and on the fourth request at 4 am you’re so tired you say yes. While that may have solved a short term problem and you can hopefully all get some sleep, you may have created a longer term issue which is the message you sent out to them is ‘if I ask a lot, I will eventually get what I want’. Of course, there is nothing wrong with allowing your child into your bed – it’s your choice as a parent, it’s about being consistent with what’s on or off the table for them.
Remember how we talked about day and night time behaviour. How they can be linked. Let’s take the example of offering your toddler breakfast. Say they ask for cereal. They take a bite and then ask for toast instead. While you might feel like giving them the toast, being consistent and gently explaining that they asked for cereal so that’s what’s for breakfast today but they can ask for toast tomorrow if they’d like. This helps teach them about making choices and reinforces the point that maintaining consistency is good for your child and for you.
This is my second golden rule. Having both a daily and a bedtime routine can so so helpful in both setting their circadian rhythm (their internal body clock) and support the hormones that are responsible for hunger (leptin regulates appetite) and sleepiness (melatonin and cortisol). That’s why it is so important to establish routine not only from the physiological aspect but from the emotional aspect of needing to feel safe and secure. Knowing what comes next…nap time, play time, etc can be so reassuring for little ones. For more detailed information about bedtime routines and a FREE printable bedtime routine have a read of my post here. It’s aimed at babies but can be easily amended for toddlers too!
This is my third golden rule and often the one parents find hardest to put in place. It can feel super challenging to set some boundaries and stick to them. Perhaps you’ve set a 3 book bedtime rule and your little one insists on another one. It’s so tempting to give in but actually, by giving in, you’re enabling them to feel in control and sends the message that you may give in other times too. This might not feel like such a big deal but it’s definitely a slippery slope. Once your toddler has worked out that a parent will give them what they want (remember there’s a huge difference between meeting their NEEDS and their WANTS!) it can reinforce their nightly demands and as you get more and more tired during the night, you’re more likely to cave in.
A couple of points here; firstly, if you have a support team around you; partner and or family, then ensuring they are on the same page is so so important. I often hear from families who struggle when one parent responds differently to their little one than the other parent. Try finding the time to sit down together and work out a way forward that you both agree on. Having a consistent way of responding to your child in the night can help them feel secure and be less confusing for them. If the first few wakes get them a cuddle, then eventually they might get to come in your bed. Especially if they know this has been on offer before! Secondly, ensuring you prepare for the expected requests can help minimise them. Have the potty nearby, a sippy cup of water, a tissue, the comforter soft toys etc. And be consistent!