You'd expect toddlers to be exhausted when bedtime comes around, after all the running around, exploring and learning they do during the day. For many parents, however, getting their toddler to fall asleep without a fuss is a rare occurrence. Parenting experts have slightly different views on the best way to get toddlers to sleep, but they all agree that a consistent bedtime routine is crucial.
It's a good idea to set a specific time for your toddler to go to bed every night. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham, between 6.30 and 8 p.m. is ideal. A later bedtime often results in an over-tired child who manages to stay awake when her body's natural adrenalin and cortisol kick in. Sleep expert Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D., recommends putting your toddler to bed when she is still awake but sleepy, which is the best state for her to be in to learn to soothe herself to sleep. If she can fall asleep on her own when she goes to bed, she's more likely to get herself back to sleep if she wakes up during the night.
A soothing, comforting bedtime routine will help make your toddler feel safe and relaxed in his bed. A routine may include a bath, a story or a lullaby. Your toddler may want to take a blanket or stuffed animal to bed, which provides comfort when you're not there. According to William Sears, M.D., a toddler may need to be "parented" to sleep, which means rocking or lying beside him until he drops off. Sticking to the same routine every night will reassure a toddler that there will be no nasty surprises. As he gets older, he should be able to take himself through the routine with less input from his parents.
A comfortable, cozy bed is important. Eliminate all potential sleep disturbances; if your toddler has a tendency to kick her covers off during the night, put her in a sleeping bag or pyjamas with feet. As soon as she's toilet trained, make a trip to the bathroom the last step before bedtime. Make sure any noise elsewhere in the house, such as the television or older siblings talking, can't disturb your toddler. The curtains in her room need to keep both sunlight and streetlights out; use a blackout blind if necessary.
It's normal for a toddler to want his parent to stay with him until he's asleep. Unless you plan to sleep with your child every night, however, it's a good idea to start the separation process early. Dr. Markham recommends starting by holding him until he falls asleep. As soon as he's used to doing this, move on to simply lightly touching his hand or his forehead instead of holding him. The next stage is to sit beside his bed until he falls asleep, without touching him. Gradually, move further and further away until you are outside his bedroom door. Learning new sleep habits is tough for a young child, and he may go to extreme lengths to persuade you to stay with him. It can be difficult to hear him begging and crying, but remember that if you give in to him, he will expect you to relent every time he cries. It's fine to comfort him, but don't be tempted to get into bed with him.