Practical tips for restful sleep in your baby, toddler, or preschooler

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A well-rested child is essential to a productive day of learning, but it’s common for your child’s sleep to ebb and flow as they experience cognitive leaps, growth spurts, separation anxiety, and more.

Setbacks in positive sleep habits can happen in infancy, toddlerhood, and well into grade school! Why do these setbacks happen? 

  1. Setbacks in sleep are often just developmentally normal and related to spurts in brain growth.
  2. Sometimes, specific events like illness, life transitions, or a new onset of fear trigger setbacks.

In this guide, we’ll offer an overview of both scenarios with tips on how to cope.

How your child’s development relates to sleep woes

Sleep regressions, or times when your child suddenly struggles with sleep, may sound negative. However, they are actually a good thing from a developmental lens. The sudden lack of sleep is related to significant cognitive growth. It’s why you may also notice that new skills and capabilities emerge shortly after! Many sleep educators reframe regressions to the term sleep progression for this reason.

Common sleep disruptors and their solutions

Autonomy: Bedtime protests might occur because of your child’s increased need to exert autonomy, which commonly emerges in toddlerhood. 

How to cope: Be clear, loving, and firm when supporting a transition to sleep. “After you finish stacking another three blocks, it will be time to get ready for bed.” Then, offer simple choices that give them control:

  • Should we tiptoe to your room, or stomp our feet?
  • Which pajamas do you choose?
  • Can you pick one book?

Transitions: If you are preparing to welcome a sibling, moving your oldest out of a crib, or have started a new school, these big life transitions may seem to be going well –– until they disrupt sleep! 

How to cope: Build in quality 1:1 time for about 10-15 minutes earlier in the day, filling up their emotional tank before bedtime comes.  Avoid reacting harshly or negatively to your child’s bedtime struggles. What they most need during big changes is reassurance from you.

New fears: If your child seems more afraid of nighttime as they get older, you’re not alone. Research shows that nighttime fears commonly surface between ages 4 and 12. As your child’s imaginative capabilities advance, they can now imagine scary things happening. 

How to cope: Learn to validate and respect their fears, and avoid dismissing or heightening their fears. 

  • Validating might sound like, “I hear that you’re scared of monsters.”
  • Dismissive might sound like, “You’re a big kid now.” 
  • Heightening might sound like, “Just in case you’re right, let’s spray monster repellant.” 

Once you’ve validated their worry, try giving them concrete information in a relatable way. “When I was a kid, I was scared of the dark sometimes too.” They will love hearing that you felt the same way as a kid! 

Then, guide them through a healthy way to cope. “You know what helped me? Saying a special bedtime mantra three times. I used to say, ‘My mommy is near, my daddy is near. I am loved. I am safe’. I wonder if you’d like to try this special mantra too?”

  • Build a consistent bedtime routine: Pick 2-3 steps that you’re most likely to repeat each night, like brush teeth, choose a book, and say a grounding mantra. By maintaining a consistent routine, your toddler or preschooler learns to associate these steps with the transition to sleep, creating a sense of comfort and security. 
  • Be flexible to find that “just right” bedtime: If it takes a noticeably long time for your child to fall asleep, it can help to get curious about the time you are starting. Children who are under-tired may take a long time, and children who are over-tired may be dysregulated and fussy. 
  • Evaluate your at-home sleep environment: Check that your child’s sleep space is calm, dark, and cool (the ideal temperature for sleep is 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit). Avoid screens or night lights that can disrupt the production of the sleepy hormone, melatonin. Move out toys or mobiles that are too stimulating.

By arming yourself with these nighttime strategies, you can provide your baby, toddler, or preschooler with the foundation for rejuvenating sleep, which may make those morning drop-off routines just a little smoother!

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