5 expert-approved hacks to sort toddler sleep

Still looking for the perfect bedtime routine for your toddler. Help is at hand…

5 expert-approved hacks to sort toddler sleep

You thought that by the time your little one was saying their first sentences and toddling on steadier legs they’d be sleeping through the night and drifting off independently, right? As with all parenting, things don’t always go to plan. By the time your child hits toddlerhood, it’s hard to keep finding reasons for their erratic sleep regressions. But the good news is, it’s never too late to make positive progress with your child’s sleep behaviours. “From around 18 months to two-and-a-half years, most toddlers will do best on two to two-and-a-half hours daytime nap in the middle of the day and between 11-12 hours at night,” says The Sleep Nanny Lucy Shrimpton. Are their sleep stats not adding up? Or are you spending your precious evenings stroking their hair to stop them waking? Whether you’re still searching for the perfect toddler-friendly bedtime routine, or you’re looking for some top tips to keep your two-year-old in bed all night, we’ve called Lucy to put together a sleep trouble-shooter. Because the better they sleep, the better you sleep, and you’ll be needing those full eight hours to deal with hurricane toddler again tomorrow…

Bedtime battle 1:

Your toddler doesn't want you to leave, or makes excuses during the bedtime routine
“Have a consistent bedtime routine so your child knows it's sleep time, and have a clearly planned response to the behaviour in question (such as needing a wee) so as not to give mixed messages. Toddlers will try all sorts to see what is and isn’t possible for them to get away with. What they need from a parent or caregiver is a consistent response that reinforces your relationship while establishing boundaries. If you’re going to stay in your child’s room while they settle to sleep, do so every time so they’re not concerned as to whether you’re staying or going. If it’s one story before bedtime, stick to the one, no more. (Make sure any babysitters get the memo on this so that Grandma doesn’t derail the routine, too!)”

Bedtime battle 2:

Your little one wakes in the night & wants to come into your bed
“Firstly, decide whether or not you’re going to allow your child to sleep in your bed (at all). This needs to be black or white. If you think it’s okay after 5am only, that’s unfair on your child, because they can’t tell the time yet! If coming into your bed works for you and you’re happy with it, so long as you’re following safe co-sleeping guidelines, you’ll need to allow this for any waking in the night.

“If you’re not happy with it or it’s not helping anyway, it’s better to avoid it altogether so it’s not a tease. If you’re trying to reverse the habit, start taking yourself back to your child’s bedside to offer them comfort. All night wakings need to be met with a consistent response. Giving the same response at every waking will make the process much easier for your child (and you!).”

Bedtime battle 3:

They wake up screaming with night terrors or nightmares
“Firstly, night terrors and nightmares are very different things and need to be treated differently, too. Nightmares are very bad dreams and you’ll be able to comfort your child if they’ve been woken up by them. Fears often come from the imagination and things they see and hear, as well as worries about being alone. Acknowledging their concerns is important, so they feel heard, so if they can, let them tell you what’s frightened them while you comfort them. Once you’ve listened to them and given them a cuddle, put them back in their bed or cot and follow your usual routine.

“Night terrors are a form of parasomnia – a confused state between awake and asleep. The most common variation seen in toddlers and young children is called Confusional Arousals. A child will appear awake and might look right through you as they’re actually partially asleep. They may thrash about, get upset and say things like ‘no’ and ‘stop it’. They can be disturbing for a parent to watch but rest assured, unlike nightmares, children have no memory of a confusional arousal or night terror come morning. The best way to respond is to watch and make sure your little one doesn’t hurt themselves but not to intervene as you might make it worse. Once they’ve settled, you should be able to safely leave them.

“Most children grow out of parasomnias as their brains mature, and they are usually caused by underlying sleep disturbances or genetic predispositions, and research suggests that behavioural therapy may be a useful treatment if the situation does not improve.”

Bedtime battle 4:

Your toddler consistently wakes up way before your alarm clock
“Firstly, make sure they’re getting enough daytime sleep. It sounds odd but most little ones this age will be waking early due to over-tiredness, so we need to identify where that’s coming from. Getting them to sleep earlier for bedtime can help a lot, even if it’s temporary while you help them replenish a sleep deficit. Keeping the room blacked out from natural light will help, and from 20 months, using a sleep/wake clock with a clear visual of a character asleep at night time and awake when it’s morning time, is another great step in your positive sleep plan.”

Bedtime battle 5:

You suspect naps could be scuppering your toddler's bedtime
“A lack of daytime nap will lead to an overtired child. Occasionally they will zonk out at bedtime with sheer exhaustion but ongoing over-tiredness usually leads to more difficulty settling to sleep at bedtime. This is because, when we push through our best window for sleep, our brains release adrenalin to keep us going. This is why we get the ‘second wind’ effect. So it’s no surprise an overtired toddler will struggle to settle when these hormones are at play. A mini version of the bedtime routine is great for nap time – just five to 15 minutes in length so as to calm a stimulated child and activate the cues for sleep.”

Is there such a thing as a "perfect bedtime routine"?

It may sound surprising, but according to the experts, children’s bedtime routines should remain almost identical from birth right through childhood. Easier said than done? Mandy Gurney, founder of the Millpond Sleep Clinic, has the answer – an ideal routine to use every single night (and you can repeat a shortened version before nap times) to help you on your way to a more restful bedtime for your little one (and you!)

Aim to carry out the same series of steps every night, about 30 minutes before your child goes to bed:

1. Start with a warm relaxing bath, lasting no longer than 10 minutes. Try not to let this become extra playtime, as this could overstimulate a tired child and wake them up again.

2. Go straight from the bathroom into the bedroom – avoid going back into the living area as you will lose the focus of the routine.

3. Dim the lights in the bedroom beforehand so that they come out of the bath into a softly lit room – this will help with their production of the sleep hormone melatonin.

4. Read one or two stories, have a cuddle and kiss goodnight and tuck them in with their favourite soft toy so they are warm and cosy.

5. Leave the bedroom with them drowsy, not asleep, so they learn to fall asleep independently.

6. Your child should be asleep within about 15 minutes.

7. If they don’t seem to like the dark, offer them the reassurance of a low level red or amber light to have on throughout the night.

Remember: practice makes perfect. Making little tweaks to suit your circumstances is fine, but consistency is key so once you’ve found what works for you, try to stick to it. Pretty soon sleeping well will come so naturally to your little one, they’ll be able to do it with their eyes closed…