Sleep school: Strategies for dealing with toddlers in transition
From reducing naps to becoming more mobile, toddlers go through many developmental stages that can impact upon their sleep. Sleep expert Lucy Wolfe has some strategies
Just as we get through the baby stages and perhaps start to establish a healthy sleep pattern our wonderful little children send us an invitation to the "toddler years" and attendance is compulsory! This period can be tricky as they, and you, navigate through the many wonderful transitions that accompany healthy development; it can be very challenging and naturally rewarding as we witness huge leaps in progress and the emergence of true individuals.
Sleep in children is always evolving and within their first year they already will have gone through a number of stages and this obviously continues as they get older. We see a number of transitions: two naps to one, cot to big bed, walking, talking, toilet training for example.
From two naps to one
Typically young children are ready to transition from two naps to one somewhere around 15-18 months. Do not rush this transition, as if your child is not biologically capable of being on one big sleep, you may start to experience frequent night waking as a result. Allow this stage to emerge naturally. Often I would want to see a number of factors that would indicate they are ready.
A. Some children may begin to take longer and longer to fall asleep for their morning nap
b. May not take the morning sleep
c. Or they may sleep in the morning and as a result unable to sleep for nap two in the afternoon.
In order to get a true reading of this situation, allow a pattern to emerge before assuming that it is time. Often toddlers can go on "nap strikes" for several days, but then go back to sleeping as normal. Trust your own instincts and then plan the move. It can be a tricky dance as ideally the one nap that they will now need should happen around 12.30-1pm and last for around 2-2.5 hours.
As your child acclimatises to the change, the single nap may need to start earlier initially and then you can work on moving it more towards the bridge of the day. I find gradually moving the time forward by 15 minutes every two days is a good solution until the nap is starting at around 12.30.
Cot to big bed
I normally recommend keeping toddlers in the cot for as long as possible and don't normally suggest making this transition until around 2.5 to 3 years of age. Developmentally then, your child has the mental reasoning necessary to understand words like "stay in your bed all night".
Before making the big move, it is worth discussing your plans with your toddler and giving him or her a sense of ownership over their sleeping arrangements. It can sometimes be helpful to give them lots of small choices around their sleep. This may also coincide with your plans to toilet train your youngster and you don't want to overload them with lots of changes all in the one go. It makes sense to transition to the big bed first and then tackle the training - but you will know your own child best.
Get your small person invested in the new sleep plans, take them shopping to pick out the new bed and bed linen and let them "help" you organise the bedroom for the new bed.
It may be helpful to introduce a reward chart outlining some behaviour that you would like to see, for example "co-operates at bedtime", "stays in bed until morning". Using positive re-enforcement and praising the behaviour that you would like to see more of can make this transition seamless.
You will need to amend your existing bedtime routine and make sure that you are firm about the boundaries. Try not to fall into the trap of "one more story"; as these stalling techniques can often spiral out of control. Also, avoid agreeing to stay lying down with your child or holding hands at bedtime, unless you plan to co-sleep or room share.
If your child is struggling to adjust to the bed, you may have made the change too soon. Don't panic, just put them back in their cot and wait a little longer.
Developmentally the changes that emerge in the toddler years can also affect sleep. Their increasing ability to walk typically can give them an independence that may not be that welcome at bedtime when they begin to run away and even try to climb out of the cot and lots of stubborn children can begin to assert control over their sleep, by refusing to go to sleep, even when they are really tired. This can become a serious challenge as they become more verbal and protest at your demands. Setting boundaries and being consistent will help you through the many challenges.
Furthermore, sleep disturbances such as nightmares and sleep talking seem to emerge from about age two. Ensuring that your child is getting adequate sleep can often relieve symptoms.
Becoming an older sibling
It may be that your toddler will also have to get used to being a big brother or sister during this time and although exciting, there may be a level of emotional conflict as he/she may feel displaced or left out. It is not unusual for these anxieties to manifest at night resulting in bedtime struggles and frequent night waking. As best as you can, you will need to keep things as consistent as possible, and also to allow for some "connected" time with your child, so that they continue to feel safe, secure and loved within your new family dynamic, but try to do this during the daytime instead of over-compensating during the night. Avoid giving lots of extra attention in the overnight period that may inadvertently ingrain night-time activity. However, you will need to create a balance as your youngster adapts and this unwanted behaviour should pass.
Above all, as with all parenting, we have to roll with it, welcome the changes and have a plan of action for those leaps in their ongoing development.
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep consulting practice with her 98pc- effective formula for sleep; she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country. See www.sleepmatters.ie