When your tiny baby suddenly blossoms into a mischievous toddler, it can seem like the transition happens overnight. Of course, it's a lot easier to appreciate the transition if you actually get some sleep at night. Most baby sleep issues are probably resolved by now; you're not getting up for midnight feedings. But your little guy's newfound independence and wisdom can lead to shut-eye issues that plague older kids. Whether he's calling for you from his crib, or you're getting ready for a big-boy bed and potty training, don't let minor disruptions keep you up at night. Your toddler's old enough now to resolve sleep issues quickly.
- Separation anxiety. Even if you haven't dealt with separation anxiety before, your active toddler can suddenly become super-attached, making bedtime traumatic. Good intentions may tempt you into sticking around in your kid's bedroom until he falls asleep, but that can set your little one up for a meltdown if he wakes up to find himself alone. Instead, encourage your toddler to put himself to bed, and check on him periodically. Tell him that you're there, and insist that it's bedtime in a calm, firm voice. Don't relent and take him out of his bed—that'll only restart the struggle. Soon, he'll learn to trust that you're nearby, and you'll have less of a bedtime battle.
- Daytime activities. Your toddler is bursting with endless energy, so if you don't tire him out during the day, you might be in for a bedtime fight at night. No need formal exercise—a walk to the park, an hour at the indoor playground, or even a game of tag can help drain out some of that energy so he's more eager to hit the sack when the sun goes down. If a storm leaves you stuck inside, burn off excess energy by mapping out a treasure hunt, or rocking out during an impromptu dance party, complete with "instruments" made of common household items, such as a straw and funnel acting as a trumpet.
- Obstinance at bedtime. Hey, they don't call them the "terrible twos" for nothing. Toddlers are well-known for their tantrums, and the older your little one gets, the more he wants to exercise his independence. It's important that you don't make bedtime a power struggle; give in once and you'll be back to square one. Instead, put a predictable bedtime routine in place. Having a nightly bath, a sippy cup full of milk, and a bedtime story can help calm your toddler so he's less likely to fight you all evening long. Try and keep bedtime as constant as possible—any change to the routine can cause stress for your youngster, making it harder for him to get some shut-eye.
- Deeper sleep. Be sure that your little one gets the REM sleep he needs, or he'll be susceptible to a host of problems. "Sleep deprivation in children is linked with obesity, hyperactivity, social problems and learning problems," warns pediatric sleep coach Cate McKee. A study published in a 2012 issue of Aging and Lung Disease notes that the REM sleep cycle—the restorative sleep cycle necessary for all humans to be healthy—becomes 60 minutes longer when a toddler is between 18 and 24 months. Your toddler will sleep more deeply than before, and for longer periods of time; if this rest is disrupted, you'll have a cranky, over-tired child on your hands. Facilitate deep sleep by using a white noise machine, a fan, or a radio tuned to static to help drown out household and neighborhood noise.
- Changing beds. If your toddler regularly hops out of his crib and shows interest in your bed, it might be time to think about swapping his baby sleeper for a big-boy bed. Of course, making the switch could definitely put your carefully laid bedtime routine in jeopardy. Ease the transition by creating a space as similar to your toddler's crib as possible. Put the new bed in the same spot as the crib, and use the same bedding. That way, your toddler will take comfort in familiar items as he explores his new sleeping space. Expect that he'll try to escape out of his room; the newfound freedom can be too much for a little guy to handle. Just put him back in his bed wordlessly so you're not rewarding his misbehavior with extra attention.
- New routines. Physician and parenting expert, Dr. Fran Walfish, suggests taking a patient approach to routine changes. "It is common for us to see periodic times of sleep disruption when there is increased conflict during the day," she says, referring to your toddler's new skills and changes in routine. "Parents, please remember to be patient, calm, clear, empathetic and loving when responding to your growing children."
Think of all of the stuff your toddler's working on every day. Self feeding, potty training, making decisions, throwing tantrums, learning to share; all of these can make for a restless night. Expect some changes in the sleep schedule when your toddler is learning new things. Roll with the punches and adjust your schedule accordingly.
Gone are the days of nighttime feedings and fussing—the only thing to keep you up all night is your little one's craving for independence. By allowing him a little choice come bedtime, you'll be able to get your toddler the freedom he wants and the sleep he needs.