From the time we sleep trained at 4 months until about 25 months, Charlie was an excellent sleeper. As he became increasingly verbal and curious about everything in the world, he started fighting bedtime. At first it started off with us holding his hand through his crib slats until he fell asleep. That of course led to us regularly falling asleep on the floor of his room. Soon he figured out how to climb out of his crib in his sleep sack, and once we transitioned him to a toddler bed, the bedtime battles began full force.
Charlie's sleep was up and down for most of 2-3 years of age, and we've tried a little bit of everything over the past year and a half. Usually something would work for a little while and then stop working. Ultimately what's worked for us best has been a combination of several things:
- a night light
- a new lovey Charlie adopted (Mr. Bee's t-shirt that he frequently wears to bed)
- letting Charlie play quietly with toys in his room if he's not sleepy
- keeping his door wide open and telling him that we'll close the door if he comes out of his room
Some days he falls asleep quickly and some days he plays with his toys for a little while before falling asleep. And while his sleep isn't perfect like it once was (oh the good old days!), he does stay in his room and puts himself to sleep every night without too much fuss.
The following tips and tricks includes things we've tried, as well as things that have worked for friends and other parents in tackling bedtime battles and early morning wakeups. You can also check out our post on 23 Tips to Help Your Baby Sleep Better.
- Sleep begets sleep. Try putting your little one to bed earlier, not later. Often when kids don't seem tired, they're actually overtired because adrenaline has kicked in.
- Limit daytime naps so they're tired enough at bedtime. Throughout his 2's, Charlie used to take monster 4+ hour naps and they didn't affect his bedtime. Now that he's closer to 4 years old than he is 3, he is getting ready to drop his nap. At this point I think he only needs an hour nap, or even no nap at all.
- Be consistent. If you respond to all your child's bedtime stalling tactics (water, extra stories, hugs), you're reinforcing their behavior. Remove attention, eye contact, speaking, and interaction and quietly return your child to bed as many times as it takes for them to stay there and fall asleep.
- Stick to a strict bedtime routine done in the same order every night, but give them some choices. We usually let Charlie pick the books, or decide on 2 books and a story we make up.
- Use blackout shades and white noise. Even if you didn't need them when they were a baby, they may be helpful now, especially for early morning wakeups. Aluminum foil or garbage bags work in a pinch!
- Have a bedtime lovey. It can be a special blanket, toy, or anything that gives your child comfort. Charlie likes his lovey more and more as he gets older.
- Use a nightlight. The Cloud B Constellation Night Light Turtle is a huge hit in our house, but we also keep a lamp with a 25w bulb on in Charlie's room.
- Remind yourself that this is a phase. Sleep problems are common as toddlers become increasingly independent, start having nightmares, transition to a toddler bed, go though potty training... there is a lot going on in their little worlds! This too shall pass.
- Start the wind down process well before bedtime, dimming lights, avoiding tv/computer and playing quietly.
- Tire them out and make sure they're getting enough exercise during the day. We take the kids to the playground after daycare every day, and sometimes we go to the public pool. On days we go to the pool, the kids get knocked out! Even if you can't make it outside, try to do something physical at home like throwing around a ball.
- Make sure they have everything they need before you leave the room so they have no excuse to call for you -- a drink of water, lovey, blanket, pillow, etc.
- Use a rewards chart where they get a sticker every morning if they go to bed without a fuss. Once a certain number of stickers are accumulated, rewards can vary depending on what works best for your child (videos, toys, snacks).
- Print out our bedtime routine and let them check off each step they complete.
- Like in the book Goodnight Moon, have your child say good night to everyone in the house (parents, siblings, pets) and everything involved in the bedtime routine (toothbrush, books, nightlight, etc.) to reinforce that everyone goes to sleep.
- Sit next to their bed, and progressively move farther and farther away from them each night until you're sitting outside their door. Eventually will not need you in their room to fall asleep.
- Tell your little one that you have to do something and that you'll be back in 1 minute. Keep leaving the room but stay out for longer and longer intervals until they fall asleep. This gets them used to falling asleep on their own again, and soon won't need you in the room.
- Don't lie down in their bed with them so there is no expectation of sleeping with you.
- Tell them about all the fun things they're going to do the following day, but they have to fall asleep or tomorrow will never come. This worked really well for naps and bedtimes for a while!
- Read bedtime books outside of the bedroom and then go into the room only when it's time to sleep. That way they associate the bedroom with sleep.
- Keep reminding them that they have 3 books, 2 books, the last book so that they know bedtime is near!
- Leave their room door wide open as long as they promise to stay in their beds.
- Install a pet gate at their door so they can see out but cannot leave their rooms.
- Give your toddler some quiet toys or books to play by himself at bedtime if he's truly not tired or if he wakes up early. Charlie usually does a puzzle or plays with his blocks, but falls asleep on his own when he's tired enough.
- Plug a lamp into a timer and set it to turn on when it's ok for your child to get up for the day. Or you can also set a radio alarm to play music.
- This worked for Charlie's friend to both fall asleep at naptime/bedtime, and stay in his room when he woke up early in the morning. Put a digital clock in your toddler's room and tell them they can get up when the first number turns "7" or whatever number you designate. If your toddler doesn't recognize numbers, you can write out the time on a piece of paper -- 7:00 for instance -- and put it next to the clock. This also works for bedtime and naps. You tell your toddler that you'll be back when the number turns "x." Charlie's friend would fall asleep just staring at the clock waiting for the numbers to change!
- If they're scared or wake up from nightmares, spray some "monster spray" in their closet and under their bed to assure them that there are no monsters.
- Give them 1-2 paper "bedtime passes" that they can use to leave their room to get a hug, to the bathroom, get a drink of water, etc.
- Set up a timer and let them know that you're leaving the room when it goes off. This has actually worked for us in other aspects of life beyond bedtime like allowing Charlie to play with a toy for x minutes before bathtime. He can see the timer winding down, and he is much less likely to complain when the timer tells him to do something rather than his parents telling him to do something.
What are some of your best tips and tricks to get toddlers and preschoolers to sleep?
Toddler Sleep part 1 of 31. 30 Tips to Help Your Toddler & Preschooler Sleep by Mrs. Bee
2. How to avoid laying next to your child until they fall asleep by Mr. Bee
3. Thoughts on Sleep (and the lack thereof) by Mrs. Superhero