The reasons why toddlers don’t sleep are many and varied; many parents say their toddler has never really been a ‘good’ sleeper, by that they mean the toddler, even as an infant, struggled to sleep, or woke frequent overnight even when they were not hungry, or both. Other toddlers may have a clearly identifiable catalyst to their wakefulness or sleep resistance, the common ones being; moving house, a new baby or being cared for by someone new as parents return to work. Whatever the cause; a sensitive and responsive way of addressing toddler sleep struggles means the toddlers experience can be respected while they are guided to a new way of drifting to sleep.
Parenting normally involves good and not-so-good times, but with a toddler who struggles to settle for sleep and or is unable to settle back to sleep, life can become exhausting, challenging and unhappy. Toddlerhood swings rapidly from exciting to confusing even when there are no sleep challenges or overtiredness. However an overtired toddler swings more frequently and often more dramatically and is definitely more difficult to parent than a well slept one.
Before considering any dramatic ‘sleep training programs’, just start by trying some of the following simple tips to help shift your toddler into a better head space for sleep. These basic ideas have helped parents to help their toddler to find sleep, without any ‘training’ and ‘quick fixes’ that may not be considerate of the individual toddler and their reasons for the sleep struggles.
- Overtired toddlers, and adults for that matter, have difficulty calming for sleep due to the brain wave activity that occurs, so it is good to try to avoid overtiredness whenever possible. When a toddler looks tired it is sleep time, according to the brain. Try to get the toddler into bed when the tired signs begin as it will be easier for the toddler’s brain to move into sleep if it is not overtired. Late tired signs such as yawning and crying, leave a small window of opportunity for drifting to sleep before the toddler is overtired and begins to ‘wind up’ again. It is not wise to let a toddler select the time for sleep because going to bed late can impact on an array of toddler capacities. Studies have shown that settling late for sleep can impact on a preschoolers ability to resolve conflicts, show empathy to others and problem solve.
- Provide an environment that is conducive to sleep. Quite voices, dim lighting and reduced stimulation, help that help to calm the active toddler brain. A cuddle and a book can be calming, as can a gentle swaying dance or a slow, rhythmical nursery rhyme or song. How about just a gentle foot or hand massage for calming while modelling some slow, deep breathing. Active, lively toddlers need to calm down before sleep, this calming time can be a matter of a few minutes or some may need more, ranging from 10 to 30 minutes. Television is not calming for brains of any age, in fact they are brain stimulants, and it is recommended that screen viewing be avoided until the child is 2 years of age, although it could be said that this is not practiced by the majority of families in Australia. It is important however, to give the brain wind down time, without screens, for around 30 minutes prior to sleep, to reduce the likelihood of the stimulating effects.
- Offer a predictable (but flexible) experience with sleep so the toddler can understand what to expect. Anticipation can be a great way to move the toddler into preparing for sleep.
- Allow the toddler some ‘choices’ so they feel some control of their lives, and need to look less for control at sleep time. A choice from two options is plenty, as a toddler can become overwhelmed quite quickly by too many choices. Easy choices such as socks on or off? The zoo book or the red book? Not choices about things that will inevitably result in resistance, for example, don’t ask your toddler if he or she is ‘ready for sleep?’ or if they ‘want to sleep now?’ as the answer will inevitably be ‘NO ‘so where to from there?
- Role play is a great way of getting ideas happening with this age group. Not major, just feed teddy together, have a picnic or something with Ted on the veranda or lounge room rug, then prepare teddy for a sleep. Guide the toddler gently, but allow them to explore and talk with Ted to action the events. You may suggest that Ted might feel a bit lonely at sleep time and ask the toddler what might help Ted, maybe a special toy might help keep Ted company.
- Chat about sleep time expectations during the day, not all the time, but be sure the topic has been covered so lengthy discussion at sleep time isn’t necessary. Toddlers are the delay tactics masters, so rather than entering into debates or lengthy discussions, it is best to be able to say ‘shh we will talk in the morning, sleep time now’. The adult is the calm, wise and kind one who makes decisions for the health of the child, so sleep time needs to happen even if the toddler thinks differently.
- Think about what your toddler associates with how sleep happens, as that may be what they expect to experience when they wake at the end of one sleep cycle, to get them into the next sleep cycle. It is a huge and exhausting commitment to support your toddler back to sleep every 45-50 minutes when a sleep cycle ends and another is to begin. It is better for both the parent and toddler for the toddler to be able to move into another sleep cycle without needing assistance from others.
- Some toddlers may rely on breast feeding to sleep, and we know the WHO emphasises the importance of breast feeding up to two years of age or beyond, so it is beneficial to promote and facilitate breast feeding. Some toddlers however, rely on feeding to drift to sleep which may, for some parents become difficult to sustain. Simply let the toddler feed until almost asleep so the toddler has the experience of drifting to sleep in their cot so that experience is more able to be replicated independently at the end of each sleep cycle.
- Independent sleep associations are easy to create and help a struggling toddler by giving little cues that it is sleep time. A less brightened area, reduced activity and some background sounds (white noise is brilliant for sleeping brain waves), can all be replicated with or without you. Long term is helps the toddler to be able to sleep somewhere when you are elsewhere, like having a massage! The independent associations only need to be until the toddler has mastered the art of drifting to sleep and returning to sleep effortlessly.
These tips may seem simple ( see Safe Sleep Space DVD & Book available at www.safesleepspace.com.au) but are easy to adjust and can be enormously beneficial in helping toddlers drift to sleep more readily. If your toddler does struggle to calm for sleep, stay with them to offer a sense of security and safety until they can do it themselves, because children are dependent both physically and emotionally in those first years and often need help to find calm and feel safe. If you want your toddler to sleep independently of you, remember they NEED to feel very safe and secure to be able to be separated from you so ‘training’ and ‘quick fixes’ are potentially more threatening than calming and your toddler. What is desirable is that your toddler is comforted by a cuddle and knowing they can trust that you will return when you leave them, and they will not be left in a crying state for times governed by a clock, but rather governed by the toddlers ability to self regulate when distressed. If your toddler cannot self calm they will need support and comfort until they can calm before it is appropriate to leave them again. Some toddlers cannot tolerate being left alone but can be comforted by having someone around until they go to sleep, other toddlers will stay awake to be sure the parent doesn’t try to sneak out of the room. Each of these situations are manageable by offering support that is appropriate to the toddlers emotional and development and capacities.
The Safe Sleep Space approach recommends parents listen to and observe what their toddler is communicating so the parent can offer support that is reflective of that individual child’s experience. The many instinctual behaviours of parents can be dampened by overtiredness, so talk with friends and professionals and find the support and guidance to get you back into the ‘feel’ of parenting. Remember you are your child’s expert; professionals are just the scaffolding to guide and support you through this amazing time.
Written by Helen Stevens (author of Safe Sleep Space book 0-3years, and co-author of the Safe Sleep Space DVD 0-12 months, and toddler DVD 1-3 years with colleague Cindy Davenport).
Copyright: Safe Sleep Space 2012