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Sleep Training Your Toddler

Updated on October 11, 2013
Sleep Training Your Toddler
Sleep Training Your Toddler | Source

Sometimes getting your little one to go to sleep at the end of the night can be one of the biggest battles you face with your toddler. For some reason, at different times during their lives, toddlers love going to bed at night and absolutely hate going to bed. Sometimes this has little to do with you, your home environment, or the other children in your home.

Toddlers have trouble going to sleep. That’s just how it works. Even as brand-new babies they cry when they are tired and fuss as their little bodies are giving in and shutting down. I imagine it’s a little scary, when they get over the fear of what is happening to their bodies, they realize that they are probably missing out. Whether you are staying up and even if the entire household is going to sleep, they could be up and using their time to squeeze in one last story, one more game, or one more hour of using their imaginations.

Didn’t you know that there’s a whole fun world happening after your toddler goes to sleep that they are being punished from experiencing? Finally, when it comes down to it, it’s just plain boring. You’re saying that they just have to lay there by themselves in the dark and do nothing? As time seriously slows down for toddlers, and every minute feels like a whole hour to them, two to five minutes of closing their eyes and relaxing could feel like a century to them.

As I write, I have a crying toddler upstairs fighting sleep herself. I’ve done all the research, read all of the books, and taught many parents myself how to do this, and yet, I still have to work through it myself with each new toddler. Sometimes there’s simply nothing you can do but your best. And I want to give you some key tips for making this process as painless as easy as possible for both you and your little one.

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Keep a Consistent Schedule

I think everyone has heard this one time and time again, but it’s because it works. From dinnertime on, your child’s schedule should be exactly the same as much as possible.

This will give their bodies (and their minds) a little bit of time to adjust to what is happening and start relaxing. This could be as simple as dinner, 1 hour to watch TV, put on pajamas, brush teeth, wash face, 1 story, a kiss on the forehead, and lights out.

One or two nights a week, you could even throw in a bath time to replace the TV time. But by keeping everything the same (and they may still cry every so often, and we’ll talk about this in a little bit) you’ll make each evening so predictable that your child will know what’s coming before it even happens every night, making your job easier and bed time much less painful for your little one.

Don’t Give In to the Requests

While your little one is going through the scared phase, you’ll see just about any request to keep you in the room, including one more story, laying down with them, rubbing their backs, checking on monsters in the closet, etc.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to make bed time easier for your child, nobody likes to hear their children cry, but come up with a definite plan and stick to it.

Vow to only do these things (that you decide on) and then no more, no matter what. Once you find your limit, you can never give more (unless they're sick of course), or they will always expect that much more from you. You don’t want to teach them that sad eyes, tears, begging, crying, or throwing themselves on the floor will get you to do what they want.

When your little one goes through the phase of feeling like their missing out, you’ll see the requests for water, to go to the bathroom, to change their clothes, to find just that right toy (which happens to be in the living room out in the middle of the action), and the slipping out of the room trick.

Same goes here. Decide your limits and stick to your guns, no matter what. Soon they’ll give up trying to keep from going to sleep and stay in bed. But they have to know that you are serious, and you are consistent.

Some Real Reasons They May Not Be Sleeping

Although most of the time, everything you are seeing is just a right of passage for parents and toddlers, there may be times when there’s a real reason they may not be sleeping. External stimuli like loud noise, sugar before bed, extra energy, sickness, a need to go to the bathroom, and too much sleep could be the problem.


I think it’s obvious that if you are having a party, listening to the TV or the radio really loud, shouting at a spouse, etc. then your little one will probably have trouble settling down. NO one in the world says that you too have to go to sleep, but if you’re having trouble getting your toddler to stay in bed and sleep, it might be wise to tone it down in the household around “bedtime.”


Some kids just can’t settle down their bodies down before bed time and they’re still wired trying to go to sleep. This is one reason why experts suggest not giving your children sugary foods, or food that create sugar in your children’s bodies, right before bed. I would avoid jello, pudding, chips, cookies, ice cream, chocolate, and juice at all cost at after dinner, as this is usually within 2-3 hours of their bedtimes.

If they are hungry after dinner, I would consider 1) giving them a small serving of more dinner, or 2) a healthy but sleep-inducing snack like warm milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, bananas, and oatmeal. To get rid of some of the excess energy, think of dinner time as the beginning of calming down time. They should be involved in activities meant to relax them rather than jazz them up. This way, each night not only will you be enforcing the same schedule time and time again to get them ready for bedtime, but you will be reinforcing that with teaching them to calm down and prepare for sleep.

Too Much Sleep

I think sickness and a need for the bathroom are self-explanatory, but the last one I mentioned was too much sleep. Is this really possible for a toddler? It is. Toddlers, depending on their age should be getting about 11-14 hours of sleep per day. You will want to factor this in to their daily schedules, and make sure to include a nap if they are at least 3 years old and younger (check out the table for more specifics). If they are getting too much sleep, they will most definitely have trouble falling asleep, because their bodies simply don’t need it.

Average Hours of Sleep Your Child Should Be Getting

Number of Naps
Total Naptime Hours
Total Nighttime Sleep Hours
Total sleep (nap plus night)
12 months
1 - 2
2 - 3
11 1/2 - 12
13 1/2 - 14
18 months
1 - 2
2 - 3
11 1/4 - 12
13 - 14
2 years
1 - 2 1/2
11 - 12
13 - 13 1/12
2 1/2 years
1 1/2 - 2
11 - 11 1/2
13 - 13 1/12
3 years
1 - 1 1/2
11 - 11 1/2
12 - 13
4 years
0 - 1
0 - 1
11 - 11 1/2
11 - 12 1/2
5 years
0 - 1
0 - 1
11 - 12

Referenced from "The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers" by Elizabeth Pantley

Sleep Training Your Toddler
Sleep Training Your Toddler | Source

Help For Parents Struggling

For many of you struggling with nighttime battles night after night after night, that can’t seem to make any headway, and are tired of the fighting and the crying, there is hope. I know it doesn’t seem to ever end, and you’ll feel like you’ve been doing this for years and still have years to go, but I do have some solutions for you.

Start Thirty Minutes Early

My first one is to start early. If you have a little one that fights you time and time again, start the whole process thirty minutes earlier than you’d really like her to be asleep. With the little one upstairs, her bedtime is 7:30. She gets up early for “preschool” every morning and so in order for her to get enough sleep every night, and also get her up in the morning, she must be asleep by 7:30pm every night. So guess what, I have a consistent schedule, we have a relaxing time before bed, she has no sugary snacks, and her bedtime is the exact same every evening.

However, we always start the process thirty minutes beforehand, meaning she is in bed with the door closed thirty minutes early. I don’t start the PJs and story time at 7. I aim to be done by 7. Most nights she’s wonderful. She knows the drill. She gets her blanket and dolls, her story, and her hug and kiss before bed. If she’s not tired, she gets to stay up and look at the pictures in her book by the light of her nightlight.

But on the nights that she’s cranky for one reason or another and decides to fight me, she has thirty minutes to calm down and get herself to sleep. And she rarely actually takes that long.

Keep Putting Her Back to Bed

The best way to get the fighting to stop is 1) stay calm yourself. If you get angry and start freaking out, you’ll only make it worse and draw it out that much longer. 2) Put her back in bed. The first couple of times you can reassure her, tell her that you know that she’s upset because . . . . and you’re sorry, but it’s still bedtime. But after that, just put her back in bed and walk out with no talking. Finally, 3) do not respond to the crying.

You’ll know the difference if it’s an emergency, and I know some of the things they might say or do will break your heart, or even make you angry, but either way, don’t respond. This is yet another coping mechanism for not wanting to go to sleep, and delaying the process a little longer. Maybe if they cry, you’ll go back up to them and cuddle, talk, read another book, etc. I repeat, don’t do it.

My little one upstairs normally calms down within 15-20 minutes. If I can simply come downstairs and ride it out, she passes out on her own and doesn’t remember a thing in the morning. She’s just trying to stay awake, which is understandable, and expressing her feelings of frustration and anger, which is completely normal and healthy.

In fact, acknowledging her feelings and allowing her to express herself is good. She needs to know how to handle negative feelings. As long as she’s not hitting me, kicking me, biting me, or spitting at me, we’re good.

Sleep Training Your Toddler
Sleep Training Your Toddler | Source

Bedtime can and will likely be a struggle for most parents and their toddlers. Like I said, it’s a right of passage of sorts for both parties. If you can keep your toddler on a consistent schedule, decide what requests you will give in to and which you will not (and they will come), try to give your child the best chance for relaxing and going to sleep, and stick to your guns about bedtime (even if that means letting them cry themselves to sleep), you’ll have a much easier and more positive experience from here on out.

Very rarely do we have nights like tonight where she cries herself to sleep anymore. But when she has a really big day and she’s really tired, especially if she doesn’t sleep at naptime, bedtime can be a little more difficult.

But to tell you the truth, I’m happy with that. I can usually anticipate a crying night, and prepare myself mentally for it. At least she returns to the happy, buoyant child I know the next morning.

Good luck! I hope my suggestions have helped!

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© 2013 Victoria Van Ness


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