My recipe for better toddler sleep
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Sleep, or the lack thereof, is such a major part of parenting. And while no two kids are exactly alike, and no two parents or parenting styles are exactly alike, there are steps I believe that any parent can take to help make sleep better - both for their kids and for themselves. Below is my recipe for better toddler sleep. Let me know which steps you try and which ones do and doesn't work for your family!
1 Heaping Cup of Outdoor Exercise
An under stimulated kid will be a restless kid when bedtime rolls around. I like to get all that toddler energy out early in the day through a variety of outdoor activities like hiking, walking, riding bikes, going to the playground, etc. We also try to go outside and play again in the afternoon. My goal is to wear him out a little without overdoing it - an overtired kid will also have trouble sleeping. And why outdoor activity? Because kids need sunlight. Sunlight helps regulate their internal clocks, improves mood, boosts Vitamin D and has a whole other host of other benefits.
A Healthy Scoop of Emotional Support
Another thing to keep in mind is the amount of emotional support your little one is getting throughout the day. When a child feels secure and supported, he or she will rest better at night. When a child carries stress, anxieties and uncertainties to bed with them at night, many times it can result in poor sleep. So how do you give your child emotional support? There are several things you can do! Go slow, make eye contact when talking to them (good tip: kneel down to speak to them on their level versus standing over them), process and narrate new emotions and situations with them, give plenty of touch/comfort throughout the day and of course lots of love.
1/2 c. Extra Food
Sometimes babies and toddlers wake in the night due to hunger. If this seems to be the case for your child, one mom trick that seems to be passed down from mom to mom is to give them an extra snack before bed. I like to do a little bit of carbs to fill their tummies, i.e. half a slice of toast or something similar. I know other moms, though, who will do a full sandwich or cereal to help their little one sleep.
1/2 c. Routine (Optional)
Following the same routine every night can give kids a sense of control in knowing what to expect and can remove any stress or fear about the process. It can also give you peace of mind, knowing what to expect and not having to worry about what to try next. This can be as simple as following the same pattern (for example: potty, story, songs, kiss goodnight) every night for a few weeks. I say this step is optional because it’s not always possible and I know several moms for whom it hasn’t been necessary. So see what works for you!
1/3 c. Independence
I have found that letting my toddler try new things and overcome little challenges on his own throughout the day makes him braver and more willing to try to sleep on his own at night. When I do everything for him, it seems to make him more needy and in turn, results in him "needing" me more during the night. When he feels secure in himself, he's ready to tackle bedtime like a big boy!
1 tsp Screen Time
We try to limit screen time, especially in the afternoon. Many studies have linked screen time and especially screen time later in the afternoon and evening to poor sleep, nightmares and night time waking. I never advocate an all or nothing mentality - sometimes kids need a break and often parents need a break even more! In that case, you can try to do screen time earlier in the day and limit it to the recommended 1 hour for kids ages 2-5, and preferably even a little less.
1/2 tsp Liquids
If your toddler is potty training or has just finished potty training, limiting liquids a few hours before bedtime can prevent wake ups due to accidents or having to use the potty. According to Jamie Glowacki in her book, Oh Crap! Potty Training, if your toddler is still napping, the liquid intake for the day should look like two inverted pyramids with the most liquid in the morning, tapering down a couple hours before nap time and then again with the most liquids after nap and then tapering down a few hours before bedtime. If he or she is not napping anymore, you can do one big inverted pyramid with the most liquids early in the day, tapering down a few hours before bed.
2 c. Relax!!
Going into any sleep issue, it is paramount that you as the leader are cool as a cucumber. If your child senses there is a problem, they will take on that stress and tension as they try to fall asleep. I know this can be hard, but try to breathe, sing bedtime songs and read bedtime stories slowly and be joyful. Make sure you don’t have a pressing engagement immediately after bedtime to give you and your child space to go slow, enjoy the moment and even squeeze in extra snuggles.
Mix all ingredients together, as best you can and don’t stress about the process. Your kids need the sleep as much as you want them to get it. If you try everything and nothing seems to work, it may be time to hire a professional sleep consultant. If you get to that point, though, don’t stress! He or she is here to help, it doesn’t mean that you or your child has “failed.” It’s all a learning process - if we don’t give ourselves grace, we will lose our minds! Even if it's hard, you are helping your child learn a new skill - how to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own. And remember, if tonight doesn’t go well, there’s always tomorrow night! Best of luck, mamas. Here’s to a much needed good night’s sleep.