Developmentally, there is a big difference between a 15-month-old, a two-year-old and a 36-month-old, so there is a big difference in how you should approach sleep training in the respective years. Healthy toddlers should not be waking anymore at night, especially to feed, but this is easier said than done. We have consciously used the controversial words “sleep training” here because sleep becomes more of a discipline with toddlers.
It is not just about creating the foundation for sleep anymore, but more about how to get your child to sleep in their own bed and give them the confidence to sleep on their own. This takes training, and sleep training toddlers take commitment, consistency and follow through. Toddlers will no longer just accept change but will protest change.
“Knowing how to make a kid take a nap is a different challenge, yet just as important as night-time sleep, and most toddlers still need to nap.”
Understanding your toddler
When it comes to toddlers, there are three concepts to always remember as a parent – in general and with regards to sleep.
1. Toddlers cannot tell time. Imagine a whole day without knowing what time it is? Even though they cannot read time, it is amazing how they can create and desire to create order through repeated instructions and tasks. This is why routine and schedule are important, as it helps to give them a concept of time. They know they bath, put pyjamas on, read two stories and then it is time to sleep.
2. Understand and accept the emotional ups and downs. One minute your toddler is happy and the next they are screaming! Most emotions they experience are new and they’re just getting used to dealing with them. Adults don’t always know how to react appropriately to emotions, so you shouldn’t expect your two-year-old to. Parents should teach them how to react, but this takes time and consistency. Sleep training an 18-month-old will involve change and they’re allowed to be angry about the change, but they should also learn how to deal with the change.
3. Toddler years are synonymous with autonomy. They want to do things on their own – independently walking, talking and eating – so sleeping on their own is an extension of their personality.
Common toddler sleep issues
Sleep training on a basic level involves removing sleep associations. A pillow, comfortable mattress or even your partner can be sleep associations – that one thing or person you cannot go to sleep without. Positive sleep associations are things that we can use independently (pillow, blankey, taglet, teddy) whereas negative sleep associations (partner, mom/dad, bottles, breast) requires external intervention. The most common sleep associations with toddlers are sucking (bottle, breast or dummy) or a parent having to lie next to toddler in order for them to fall asleep.
When the toddler then wakes at night (which they will) they will require the same thing to fall asleep again. With toddlers, sleep association has been present a lot longer than with babies and thus involves more consistency and time. Sleep training a two-year-old or three-year-old also involves confidence. They need to have the confidence to sleep on their own and as parents we need to give them this assurance.
Bed or cot?
Toddlerhood also brings other challenges such as the arrival of a sibling, which can prompt parents to want to move their toddler to a bed. When moving your toddler to a bed the only concern should be safety. Most 18-month-olds are too young and often can’t handle the change and being able to roam around their room or the house while parents are sleeping is not safe. On the other hand, an 18-month-old that continues to try and climb out of his cot is also not safe and should then rather be moved to a big bed. The room should then be seen as the cot and made safe as such.
The ideal time to move a toddler would be between 30 and 36 months. Most toddlers are then able to understand and be excited about the concept of staying in their bed, as well as the consequences of getting out. When sleep training a 15-month-old, keep them in their cot even if a new baby is on the way. If they’re already trying to climb out, restrict their movement with a sleeping bag or by removing the pillows and blankets they use as leverage.
Parents often complain that they need to make bedtime later with older toddlers saying “my two-year-old won’t go to sleep too early”. Up until the age of five years, children still require 11 to 12 hours of sleep, so don’t be tempted to move the bedtime later too soon.
Knowing how to make a kid take a nap is a different challenge, yet just as important as night-time sleep, and most toddlers still need to nap. During toddler years there are two nap transitions.
- The first is moving to one nap. This transition takes place between 12 and 16 months. One of the naps becomes shorter and shorter and then either struggles to happen or just does not happen. At that stage, it is time to start gradually moving to one nap a day.
- The second transition is moving to no nap. Most toddlers still need to nap, but some do start skipping the naps around 30 months, but children usually only start skipping naps after toddlerhood (between three and four).
Natural sleep remedies for toddlers
Magnesium in the form of bath salts or Epson salts is a natural anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxant. It helps with sleep and with the absorption of calcium. As toddlers grow, they can become picky and parents can be tempted to give them things they like eating. Make sure to monitor their sugar and caffeine intake and give them a variety of healthy snacks throughout the day, as toddlers on the move rarely have a lot of time to eat.
Toddlers change and grow all the time. This should not be seen as a challenge but should be celebrated. All the cognitive, emotional and social development is a permanent change, not a phase, and it is important to remain consistent throughout this change to create confidence and security.
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