Advice for Sleep Training Your Toddler
Got an energetic toddler who resists bedtime? You’re not the only one! Oftentimes, toddlers simply hate the idea of putting all their learning and exploring on hold for a boring ol’ good night’s rest. They’d much rather stay up and see what you’re up to! Plus, it’s normal for toddlers to go through periods of fearfulness where they’re suddenly worried about the dark or being alone in their room for bedtime. No matter what’s keeping your tot from sleeping, here are the tools you need to help them get the rest they need.
Before Sleep Training Your Toddler, Try…
To reduce toddler bedtime struggles and help your little one get the sleep they need, I recommend starting with Toddler-ese, patience-stretching, and following these time-tested toddler bedtime techniques:
Try this toddler bedtime routine.
Because toddlers thrive on order, it’s important to establish a predictable and calming bedtime routine. About an hour or so before lights out, engage in only quiet play, turn off all screens, dim the lights, and turn on low and rumbly white noise. (White noise is fantastic at distracting toddlers from common internal sleep-stealers, like teething pain, and external disruptors, like a too-loud TV.) If you haven’t already, introduce a lovey, like SNOObear, which does double duty as a cuddly stuffed animal and a white noise machine! Loveys can give toddlers the comfort, confidence, and security they need to successfully go to sleep…and stay asleep.
Create and read a beddy-bye book.
Toddlers love to know what’s coming…so help them out by creating a personalized book with photos or illustrations that show a typical day in their life, including all the steps of their bedtime routine. Then read it together regularly—before bed and during the day—to help your tyke know what they’re expected to do when it’s time to go to bed.
Offer a gentle exit.
Here’s a strategy that often works with toddlers who demand you stay with them until they fall asleep: “Twinkle Interruptus.” When you’re just about ready to give good-night kisses, suddenly say “Oh gosh! Wait! Wait! Just one second! I need to check on something! I’ll be right back!” Then leave the room for a few seconds before returning. When you get back, praise your tot for waiting. Next, continue with the bedtime routine and, once again, make an excuse to exit. (“Uh-oh! I need to go potty! Give your lovey a hug and I’ll be back so fast.”). Repeat this a few times, gradually increasing the time your bub is left waiting. Over several nights, you’ll likely find that your toddler has fallen asleep while waiting for your return!
Give “special passes.”
Does your toddler routinely get out of bed and crawl into yours—or yell at you to come back after tuck-in? If so, consider placing “special passes” (paper cut-outs or poker chips), near your tot’s bed and say something like: “At bedtime, you can use these special passes. If you call me back to visit you for water, an extra kiss, or anything, I’ll come quick—but you have to give me one of your passes.” The kicker: If your toddler still has at least one pass in the morning, they can exchange it for a special gift, like a temporary tattoo. If they have two passes, they get a bigger prize, like a special lunch out with you! This works best with older toddlers.
Try an OK-to-wake clock to keep your toddler in bed.
If your problem is that your tot is an early riser who bounds out of bed before the sun is up, an OK-to-wake clock can help them learn when it's time to rise and shine! The gist is this: Set your sleep-trainer to shine green when it's time to get the day going. That teaches your toddler when it's alright for them to leave the room. If the light's not on, they know they need to keep resting. Take a look at more tips for using an OK-to-wake clock for toddler sleep training!
How to Sleep Train Your Toddler
If the techniques above aren’t working, it may be time to use a more direct method of sleep training your toddler. There are primarily two methods for sleep training your toddler. Keep in mind, these toddler sleep training tips are intended for toddlers who are between the ages of 8 months and 3 years old.
The “Pick Up, Put Down” Toddler Sleep Training Method
With the “pick up, put down” toddler sleep training method (also called the fading sleep training method), you support your child by staying in the room until they fall deeply asleep—but give your child more space and independence over time. This toddler sleep training method works best with toddlers 9 months to 18 months. Here’s how to do the “pick up, put down” toddler sleep training method:
Step 2: If your toddler cries, respond by picking them up and cuddling—but only until they calm down. Once calm, tuck them back into bed.
Step 3: Stay in your toddler’s room until they fall deeply asleep.
Step 4: Over the course of several days, as your toddler gradually cries less and less, move your chair farther from the crib or bed and closer to the door…until eventually, you move the chair out of your toddler’s room.
Once you’ve got the basics of this sleep training method down, you can add Twinkle Interruptus to this routine and practice patience-stretching about five times a day for a week. Then at night, once your lovebug seems to be doing better and falling asleep with less picking up, begin saying, “Wait! Wait! Hold your teddy! I’ll be right back!” and go to the other side of the room—or leave the room completely—for short periods.
For older toddlers who are already sleeping in their own beds, you may need to make your expectations clear. Make a rule that you’ll stay in the room…but only if they stay in their bed. If your tot gets out of bed, have a family meeting with your child to discuss it during the day—and consider folding “special passes” into your toddler sleep training game plan. At this meeting, say something like this: “I know sometimes you want Mommy to come back and be with you after you go to bed, but the rule is that kids, pets, and mommies have to sleep so we can be happy and play the next day! Next, go ahead and lay out the “special passes” method I explained above.
What if the “pick up, put down” toddler sleep training method doesn’t work?
If the “pick up, put down” toddler sleep training method doesn’t work, there’s no need to worry! There are a number of other toddler sleep training tricks that you can try. (Remember, the “pick up, put down” toddler sleep training method is most effective for toddlers between 9 and 18 months old, but can also be successful as your toddler continues to age.) If you're not finding this sleep training technique effective, then consider using the “longer and longer” method for toddlers.
The “Longer and Longer” Toddler Sleep Training Method
The “longer and longer” toddler sleep training method is another name for the Ferber-style graduated extinction method, also known as the “cry it out” sleep training method...but adapted for toddlers. You should be prepared for some resistance if you choose the “cry it out” toddler sleep training method. That should come as no surprise—toddlers are very strong willed! I know this sleep training method isn’t for everyone, but it does work for some families. If the idea of “crying it out” doesn’t sit well with you, I encourage you to try my other tips! Here’s an in-depth look this toddler sleep training method:
Step 1: Once you close your toddler’s door, if they start crying, let them cry for three minutes.
Step 2: After three minutes, pop your head in just to make sure they're okay…and to let them see that you haven’t deserted the planet. Say “I love you, sweetie, but it’s time to sleep…so night-night, sleep tight.” While some parents find that a longer visit works, this is more likely to give your child false hope that you’ll rescue them and encourage more shrieking.
Step 3: After you close the door again, wait five minutes and repeat Step 1.
Step 4: After that, wait 10 minutes and do it again. Then peek in every 15 minutes until your toddler falls asleep.
Step 5: If your toddler wakes in the middle of the night, you can do a feeding if you want—but then repeat the same “longer and longer”" method.
Be warned: For the first night of the “longer and longer” toddler sleep training method, stubborn little kids can cry for an hour or more. And the second night, they may go on even longer! But don’t lose your determination. If you give in after an hour of crying and pick your child up, you’ll end up teaching them exactly the wrong lesson: If you just yell long enough, you’ll get what you want. So, if you can, hold out. Usually, the third night of the “longer and longer” toddler sleep training method is much better…and by the fourth night, your toddler should be falling asleep fast and sleeping through the night.
What if the “longer and longer” toddler sleep training method doesn’t work?
If your tot’s sleep isn’t better by the fourth night of trying the “longer and longer” toddler sleep training method, step back and consider:
Is there some special stress in your toddler’s life right now?
Could you be sending mixed signals by talking to your toddler too much—or staying too long—when you pop in to check on your tot? (If you have a spirited, tenacious, defiant child, offering too much attention will just encourage them…so make your visits cheerful, but brief.)
Is your child’s bedtime is too early or too late?
If you think your toddler may be going to bed too early, try pushing their bedtime routine 15 minutes later for two to three nights. If you suspect that your tot’s bedtime is too late, start the routine 15 minutes earlier every two to three nights. Either approach should work within a week or two.
In the end, if you need to use the “longer and longer” / “cry it out” toddler sleep training method, try to keep some perspective (and a sense of humor) during this mini ordeal. While these scream-filled evenings seem endless, they’ll be over soon—and all of you will be sleeping better in just a few days. So, stay focused on your goal, and do some magic breathing to help yourself relax. Keep telling yourself that millions of parents have survived this experience —and you’ll survive it too!
More Toddler Sleep Tips:
- How Much Sleep Do Toddlers Need?
- Moving Into a Toddler Bed
- How to Get a Toddler to Sleep
- How to Help Toddlers Fall and Stay Asleep
- 16 Bedtime Books to Lull Your Tot to Sleep
Have questions about a Happiest Baby product? Our consultants would be happy to help! Submit your questions here.
Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.