Last updated on October 26th, 2016

One of the most common calls I get is from the parent of toddlers who “used to be such great sleepers” and then, upon hitting toddlerhood, somewhere between 18 months and 4 years, became bears at bedtime…and in the middle of the night…and too early in the morning.

You are not alone! But don’t let sleep time antics deter you from helping them get adequate shut eye. They need 12-14 hours of sleep per day – to help them learn, develop, grow, be safe and healthy, and keep their moods and behavior in check.

Here are answers to the four most common toddler sleep questions I receive:

1) How do I know when to transition to one nap?

Some toddlers stop napping around age 2, but typically toddlers continue to nap until they are 4-5. At 3 years, 92% of children are taking one nap for 1-2 hours. That number drops to 57% by age 4. But even though they may not sleep, keep a 1-2 hour rest time in the middle of the day preferably until full day school begins.. Create a “quiet time” basket with some special toys, books, puzzles, and small crafts. When it’s time for rest time, have them choose one or two to play with quietly in their room or bed. Sometimes, they may even fall asleep! In either case it’s a time out for everyone!

2) How and when do I transition my toddler from crib to bed?

My first tip is: wait as long as possible, to about age 3. Remember, a bed without four “walls” offers freedom! And before you can say “good night, your toddler might follow you out of the room. When you do make the transition, create sleep rules: establish a consistent pre bed routine; and use a toddler clock to help him understand the “right” time to leave the room in the morning. Lastly, make bedtime fun to balance the new rules.

3) What should I do when my toddler has nightmares or night terrors?

First, distinguish between the two. If he looks truly frightened and is awake and responding to you, then it could be a nightmare. Often bad dreams are provoked by something they have seen onscreen or in a book. The bigger the imagination, the more likely nighmares are. The solution is reassurance, but don’t linger longer than necessary to help her feel secure.

Night terrors occur during transitions from light to deep sleep cycles, when a part of the brain wakes up, but other parts of the brain remain asleep. Although your child looks frightened and cries inconsolably, he is actually asleep and and won’t respond to you.

The best response is to hold her securely to wait for the episode to resolve itself. The next morning, she won’t have any recollection of the event, but they can recur. Anxiety, irregular sleep schedules, insufficient sleep, and illness are common culprits. Consistent sleep routines can help.

4) As soon as I put my toddler to bed, he jumps out faster than I can say “good night”; what do I do?

Use a few tricks from sleep specialists:  Start with a family meeting during which you together create a “bedtime manners” sleep chart, and emphasize the consistent routine: “time for bath, book and bed.”

Talk about how important sleep is to “climb the jungle gym or ride your bike.”

Give choices: “Would you like your last drink of water right after dinner or while we are reading books?” “Would you like to go potty before or after we put on PJs?” “Would you like 2 books or 1 book and 1 song?

Setting limits can be the toughest step to implement, but it is crucial training. If he comes out of his room, lead him back again every time, with little to no engagement.

It may take awhile, but be assured he will will get the message. The bottom line is associate bedtime with extra attention for your toddler by indulging him in some favorite routines, but set limits and say no to “extras”. It’s the best sleep medicine!

Photo by swong95765

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Dr. Rebecca Kempton earned an M.D. with honors from Cornell Medical School and now works as a full time pediatric sleep specialist, based in Chicago and serving clients nationwide and globally. For more information please visit her website babysleeppro.com
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