How to Get Your Unruly Toddler to Sleep
Getting to watch two kids morph from larval infants into walking, talking people has been one of the great gifts of my life. I love their wobbling steps and their hilariously expressed opinions—except when it comes to bedtime. Their brains are dribbling out their ears, I’m exhausted, and the sink is still full of dirty dishes. These kids need to go to sleep.
Every parent has experienced this particular flavor of desperation, whether they’re trapped in a bed in the dark with a 3-year-old with separation anxiety, or when a toddler pops up at a particularly gory moment in The Last of Us asking for just one more drink of water. I talked to certified sleep consultants for some advice on how to get your kids snoozing.
Tinker With Bedtime
As a sleep consultant and founder of Baby Sleep Answers, a company that provides science-backed customized sleep solutions for newborns and toddlers, Andrea De La Torre says a toddler’s tiredness is dictated by two biological processes—their internal circadian rhythm and sleep pressure, or what we would call tiredness.
A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that might prompt your toddler to bounce out of bed in the morning, but a child’s ability to tolerate tiredness grows as they get older. That’s why babies nap a lot, while an adult can enjoy after-dinner drinks (some of the time). If your child is having trouble falling asleep at the end of the day, you may have to adjust their daily schedule to meet their ever-changing natural rhythms.
“A lot of people assume their kids aren’t sleeping because they’re not tired, and put their kids to bed too late,” says sleep consultant Molly Tartaglia, the founder of MMT Sleep, which provides one-to-one support and digital courses for parents of children up to 7 years old. “But an earlier bedtime is always a good idea.” A good rule of thumb is to aim for 10 to 12 hours of sleep for a 3- or 4-year-old, so if your child wakes at 7 am, try to put them to bed around 7:30 or 8 pm.
This is also the age when children start to need fewer naps. If your child seems way too peppy at 8 pm, you can try eliminating naps during the day or shortening them. “If they’re still doing two naps, cap it at one. If they’re sleeping for an hour, try a 10-minute nap,” says De La Torre. “Some parents don’t realize that they can just do a 10-minute car ride around town.”
Establish a Consistent Routine
When so much of the brain and body is changing on a daily basis, it’s no wonder toddlers crave predictability. “Your routine can really consist of anything, as long as it’s done over and over again so your child knows what to expect,” Tartaglia says. Even at 5 and 8 years old, my kids have the same bedtime routine as they did when they were babies—bath, books, and into bed. A nightlight also soothes fears of the dark, and white noise drowns out the sound of Mom talking to her friend on the phone as she runs down the stairs.
The overarching goal is that you can put your toddler to bed the same way you’d put a preschooler or elementary schooler—with a hug, a goodnight kiss, and walking out the door. No rocking to sleep, endless nighttime snacks, or lying there for hours, staring at the ceiling. To that end, you generally want to keep your response to nighttime interruptions consistent. “Don’t say one time, ‘Go back to bed, it’s OK,’ and then the next time, ‘Come to bed with me,’” says Tartaglia. “It’s sending mixed messages to your child.”