Advice for Sleep Training Your Toddler
Before you try the toddler sleep training approaches in this article, I recommend using toddler-ese, patience-stretching, twinkle interruptus, and the fun bedtime game as effective techniques for reducing bedtime struggles to help your little one get the sleep he needs. But if those aren't working, it might be time to use a more direct method of sleep training.
How to Sleep Train Your Toddler
There are primarily two methods for sleep training your toddler
The “Pick up / put down method” - With this approach, you support your child by staying in the room until he or she falls deeply asleep—but give your child more space and independence over time.
- The “longer and longer method” - This is the old Ferber-style graduated extinction, or cry it out, method, but adapted for a toddler. You should be prepared for some resistence if you choose the cry it out method, That should come as no surprise—toddlers are very strong willed!
Here’s a look at both methods.
Pick Up/Put Down, Toddler Style
In pick up/put down (or fading), play a strong white noise in the room and sit quietly next to the crib or bed, responding to your tot’s cries by picking him up and cuddling—but only until he calms.
Stay in the room until he falls deeply asleep. Then, over the course of several days, as he gradually cries less and less, move your chair farther from the crib or bed and closer to the door.
And now you can add twinkle interruptus to this routine. Practice patience-stretching 5 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.
If he’s already sleeping in his own bed, make a rule that you’ll stay in the room…but only if he stays in his bed. If he gets out of bed, have a family meeting with your tot to discuss it.
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!
“So, let’s make a plan. When I tuck you into bed, I’ll give you 2 special passes. If you call me back to visit you for water or extra kiss or for a back scratch or to pee-pee, or even for any reason, I’ll come fast—but you have to give me one of your special passes.
“But in the morning, if you still have your passes, you can exchange them for a special gift. What would you like? Stars? Special stickers? A shiny new quarter? A cookie?”
“Longer-and-Longer” or Cry It Out (CIO), Toddler Style
If you’re at your wit’s end—or your own health, well-being and perhaps even work or caring for your family is suffering due to lack of sleep—cry it out, or CIO, may be appropriate.
At the toddler stage, you can add a few twists for a gentler approach—like reviewing with your child her Beddy-Bye book during the day, doing doll play, and practicing patience-stretching and magic breathing—but regardless of what you do, you should be prepared for extra friction from your tenacious little cave-kid if you choose the cry it out method.
To increase your odds of success, use white noise at bedtime for a week beforehand. Then follow this drill.
Once you close the door, let your darling cry for 3 minutes and then pop your head in just to make sure she’s okay and let her see that you haven’t deserted the planet. Say “I love you, sweetie, but it’s time to sleep…so night-night, sleep tight.”
Some parents find that a longer visit works. However, this is more likely to give your child false hope that you’ll rescue her and encourage more shrieking.
After you close the door again, wait 5 minutes and repeat step 1. After that, wait 10 minutes and do it again. Then peek in every 15 minutes until she falls asleep. If she wakes in the middle of the night, you can do a feeding if you want—but then repeat the same longer-and-longer method.
If your tot barfs, come in but don’t say too much—just make sure she’s fine, clean up the mess, and say, “I love you, sweetheart; everything is fine. Night-night,” and leave the room.
The first night, 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 angel up, you’ll end up teaching her 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 is much better…and by the fourth night, your tot should be falling asleep fast and sleeping through the night.
What to Do If Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Doesn't Work
If things aren’t better by the fourth night, step back and think about whether your bedtime is too early or too late; if there’s some special stress in her life; or whether you’re sending mixed signals by talking to her too much or staying too long when you pop in.
Also, if you have a cautious, sensitive child, think about whether she may need a gentler approach, with more visits and a little patting and reassurance when you enter—or one of the no-tear sleep techniques.
If, on the other hand, you have a spirited, tenacious, defiant cave-kid, offering too much attention will just encourage her… so make your visits cheerful but brief.
Hang in there!
If you do need to use CIO, try to keep some perspective (and a sense of humor) during mini ordeal. Remember that 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 (they’re the ones who passed on the classic advice, “put cotton in your ears and gin in your stomach”)—and you’ll survive it too!