Addressing Toddler Sleep Issues

Addressing your toddler’s sleep challenges is so much more complex than addressing a baby’s sleep challenges.  When parents try to change sleep for babies, they can make a plan and if they are consistent there tend to be positive results rather quickly.

Consistency is important for changing toddler’s sleep too, but because they are bigger, have their own opinions and a higher understanding of what is going on, we need to talk to them about the process.  We need them to understand the changes that we plan to implement and why this is happening.  We also need them to be invested in their sleep success, if possible.

Once you have decided on your plan to improve your toddler’s sleep the next step is to sit down with your toddler, have a Family Meeting and let them know the plan and even have them problem-solve with you some potential solutions.  The Family Meeting should be a cooperative process where you have a discussion together, not just talking to your toddler.

I spoke with Mylee Zschech from Building Confident Families, to ask what you can say to your toddler both during the Family Meeting and at bedtime when you are addressing common sleep challenges.

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What do I do/say if my child wakes at night and says they’re hungry?

The best we can do is let them know that we understand they are hungry, but it isn’t mealtime.  Say something like, “I know you are so hungry, sometimes mommy gets hungry overnight too, but it is not mealtime.  In the morning you can get up and have a big breakfast.”  We can’t always fix things for our toddlers, but we can show them that we understand and are there for them.

 What if my child screams and yells for me to lie with them until they fall asleep at nap and bedtime?

First of all, it is important to discuss the sleep rules and whether or not you’ll be lying down with your child when you have your Family Meeting.  That way they are aware of whether or not this will happen.  Then you can validate their feelings and also arouse empathy – both work well.  You can let them know that you understand that they want you to lay with them but that you’ll come back when they are awake and enjoy some special time together then.  You can also let them know that you are tired too and you need to go and rest yourself.

How do I deal with my child who calls me back for the potty or something else over and over again at nap and bedtime?

During the Family Meeting, you can talk to your child about instituting a “1 last request” rule.  Explain that this means that right before being tucked into bed for the night they get to ask for one more thing from you and that anything after that will be denied and ignored.  Mylee recommends that you say: “It is sometimes hard to fall asleep, but when we don’t give our body the chance to sleep, we start looking for things to do.  You can say goodnight to your arms and legs, head and feet, ask for another hug and kiss, but you cannot keep asking for the potty over and over.”

The other thing that you can try is a “hall pass” or “call back” card.  Let your child know that they have the card that they can hand in for one call back or bathroom trip after lights out.  Once they hand it in then that’s it for the night.  If you find that they routinely hand in their card every night, you can start extending it to every other night and then once a week. 

What do I do or say if my child wakes early?

The Family Meeting will be important for this to let your child know the rules surrounding when they can and cannot get up.  If you have an Ok to wake! clock you can let them know how they’ll know they can get up because the clock has changed.  On any given morning you can let them know that it isn’t wake up time, people still need more sleep and they need to wait.   Mylee Zschech suggested that validating feelings can work well here.  You can say something like  “I know you want to get up, but it isn’t wake up time, mommy and daddy are still tired, try to rest and we’ll come back and get you at wake up time.

How do I communicate best that we are all exhausted because my child is choosing not to sleep at night?

Discuss the impact sleep has on your day-to-day functioning – are you having trouble concentrating at work, are you feeling grumpy, etc?  Discuss the importance of sleep in general – to grow taller, stay healthy, to run faster, kick a ball further you need to sleep well! 

Include how it helps both your emotional and physical health – we feel happier, we get sick less if we are sleeping well.  Mylee suggested that you discuss it in a way that shows how their overnight behavior impacts what you do with them.  For example you can say, “Mommy and Daddy are tired from you getting up so much overnight, we don’t have the energy to run around with you at the playground so much or read as many books with you.”  She further suggested that you can also talk about what they can expect when they sleep better – a happier parent with a bigger smile.

As you see improvements in your toddler’s sleep behavior – whether they are small ones like calling out less times or bigger ones like sleeping through a whole night, it is important to celebrate them.  Let your toddler know that you see their improvements and how they are positively impacting you and the family. Every time we celebrate a small success it helps a toddler feel excited for more and provides them motivation to keep going.

Addressing sleep challenges becomes a much more complex issue when we are addressing those of toddlers and older children.  They need to understand what is happening, why we are making changes and to be part of the process.  This doesn’t mean they have to agree to all of the changes that are going to happen, because they are likely happy with how things were.  But if we keep them involved in the process and praise their small success, it increases your chances of sleep success.