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Help! My 2 Year Old Won't Sleep

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Updated on Jan 27, 2012

Now that your little one has seen her second birthday, the baby gates are up and you constantly find yourself chasing your toddler around the house. Pent-up energy is released through playing, talking and running—which means getting her to sleep soundly is just as important as when she was a baby. However, they don't call it the "terrible twos" for nothing—your two-year-old will exercise independence, which could mean a nightly bedtime battle. Tame the rebellion and get your toddler the rest she needs with these tried-and-true tips for a peaceful sleep routine.

  • Bed Transition. By the time most toddlers are 2, they're constantly on the move. "The magic number happens at 2-3 years because they [kids] can crawl out or jump out of their crib at this age," says Dr. Brett R. Kuhn PhD, a behavioral psychologist and co-author of The Toddler Owner's Manual. "It can be a highly stressful time period if the child can't put themselves to sleep." If your child's climbing out of her crib during the night, it may be time to consider a toddler bed. The AAP recommends switching between two-and-a-half to three years, or if your tot is taller than 35 inches. Remember, a bed gives little legs a lot more freedom to wander around at night, which makes bedroom safety crucial, as well as teaching your night wanderer how to doze off on her own.
  • Independent Sleeper. If your toddler still has trouble soothing herself to sleep, it's time to start training. The Sleep Foundation recommends communicating with your toddler about what you expect from her at bedtime—namely, falling asleep without you there! At some point during the day, try to play "practice-sleeping" by having her lay quietly with you in the living room. Talk to her about how you're both practicing the way big kids fall asleep, by lying still, staying quiet and thinking about nice things. Then let her practice while you leave the room. Once she understands how you expect her to wait patiently in bed, she'll be more successful putting herself to sleep come nighttime.
  • Stick to a Schedule. Even seemingly tyrannical toddlers are comforted by a predictable routine before bed. "Have a good routine preceding sleep," says Dr. Dawn Huebner, PhD and author of What to do When you Dread your Bed. "A variable routine is not useful to kids." Wind down with a warm bath, cozy pajamas and a story—and keep it consistent. If your little one is still struggling, adjust her bedtime and nap length to see what works with her level of drowsiness. Also, establishing a "sleep-only" comfort object, such as a special blanket or stuffed animal, can also signify to your little one that it's time for rest.
  • Put on a Happy Face. If you little one's crying at night when you leave the room, Dr. Kuhn suggests using positive reinforcement to help her relax. Set the mood by lowering the noise level at home—such as turning off the TV and putting away over-stimulating toys—after dinner. After your toddler's tucked in, leave the room, and when she stays quiet, go back in to compliment her in a soft, hushed voice. "Catching [children] being good teaches them skills and not puts them in a difficult situation where they flounder and you get mad," says Dr. Kuhn. Be sure to be unpredictable when you check in, and make your visits few and far between. Soon enough, good behavior at bedtime will be the norm.
  • Let Me Entertain You. Around the age of 2, your little one might start stalling at bed time, asking for extra hugs, one more story or another kiss, all in an attempt to keep you in her room. "Parents need to be able to set limits," says Dr. Kuhn. "Young kids aren't good at entertaining themselves quietly until they find slumber." Be gentle, but firm—one hug, one kiss, and one "good night" to you and her fuzzy friends. Promise to check on her a few minutes later, then do it. If she whimpers or hops out of bed, calmly remind her (always in a bedtime voice) that even if she's awake, she needs to stay in bed. Encourage her to pat her blankie or teddy bear to self-soothe.
  • Night Fright. It's not uncommon for children wake in the night with night terrors or bad dreams at the age of 2-3 years old, which can be scary for both your child and for you. "Night terrors, or abrupt waking in the night, are phases of sleep disruption which come when they [children] are exhausted," says Dr. Huebner. "Getting children to bed early enough, not when they are pushed to the point of exhaustion, is important." Keeping pre-bed activities tranquil and avoiding roughhousing and scary books or shows will help reduce bedtime stress. Back rubbing and hushed words of comfort will ease her late-night fears.

Since your toddler is exploring, learning and growing every day, between 12 and 14 hours of sleep is vital for her development and growth. Between the second and third years, the best way to meet this number is with at least one daytime nap. According to a University of Colorado Boulder study, 2-3 year olds who skip their nap aren't getting enough sleep, have more difficulty solving problems, are more likely to be anxious and are less likely to respond to exciting events with a smile than their well-rested peers. By prioritizing a pre-nap routine, scheduling an early nap, skipping cat naps, and sticking to a schedule, you'll make sure she's getting the sleep she needs without jeopardizing her nighttime snooze.

Armed with patience, perseverance and expert advice, you're ready to tackle any bedtime challenge. Reiterate your expectations with positive reinforcement, and soon, she'll fall into a healthy routine with plenty of sleep to balance out all her play and learning.

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