The Toddler Whisperers Solve the Most Annoying Kid Sleep Issues

published Jun 8, 2021
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Credit: Sarita Relis Photography

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Piled among the many challenges of parenthood lie those desperate bedtime blues that leave families exhausted and just a bit defeated. Maybe you know what I’m talking about? The standing-in-the-doorway meltdown; the request for “just one more” glass of water / hug / story; the shuffling footsteps down the hallway in the middle of the night? Oh, we’ve been there. We’re in the midst of it now — just ask those stylish bags under my eyes. 

In talking to other parents about the kid sleep woes, I heard a chorus of agreement. The Overtired Parents Club has a robust membership. But we know there’s a (night)light at the end of the tunnel. 

Luckily for us all, Deena Margolin and Kristin Gallant, resident toddler experts from Big Little Feelings, stepped in to offer their signature blend of sound parenting advice and non-judgmental encouragement. These moms have deeply impacted the online parenting community with their own real-life experiences and licensed expert approach — and they’re here to help. Not a moment too soon.

Read on to hear what they had to say about the most common (and annoying) kid sleep issues.

My preschooler keeps coming into our room in the middle of the night. What’s behind this and what strategies would you suggest?

It could be that they are beginning to have a fear of the dark, which typically starts to come up around age 2. It could also be that they are just craving your attention. At this age, even negative attention that you offer as a result of behaviors like hitting, whining, or waking up at night can be a manifestation of an overall desire for attention.

Do your best to fill their attention tank proactively during the day. We recommend the “10 Minute Miracle”: 10 minutes of one-on-one time, no siblings, no cell phones, no interruptions. They get to pick the activity you do together during that time.

Do your best to fill their attention tank proactively during the day.

That said, the key to any good bed time routine and addressing issues like night wakings is having a solid plan that involves preparation, commitment, and holding boundaries. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix, but with the right plan and a commitment to following the steps consistently, you can get your toddler to learn to be an independent sleeper who feels safe and secure at night. We walk through our plan and strategies in our course here.

What do I do if my child calls or cries for us in the middle of the night? 

The key is prepping your child for what will happen at night beforehand, during the day. Talk them through what they can expect (toddlers love to be “in the know”) — that you’ll walk them back again and again, if they wake up — then actually follow through the plan consistently.

And again, make sure they are getting what they need during the day: those 10 minutes of carved-out daytime attention are really critical, so they don’t use night time wakings as their time to connect with you.

How do you stop a young child from stalling around bedtime? Our routines can get SO intensely long and tiring.

We recommend making a bedtime chart that lists all the steps (things like bath, pajamas, brushing teeth, reading a book) and give your kid some age-appropriate power by having THEM look on the chart to see what’s next. Then let them put a sticker next to or cross off each step as they go. Involving them in the process can shift them from pushback to collaboration mode.

Involving them in the process can shift them from pushback to collaboration mode.

I know you’ve talked extensively about transitioning to quiet time, for non-nappers. How do you establish boundaries if a child won’t stop leaving their room during quiet time?

Great question, and so key for us parents that just need a break and aren’t ready to let go of naps! We have all of the details broken down here on our IG, but here are a two key takeaways:

  1. Prepare your kids ahead of time by getting them excited about the first day you are going to start quiet time. It’s also really important to fully prepare them on what the expectations are. Leave them with a specific activity to do (read this book or do this puzzle, organize your dolls or trucks by size). You also want to make sure their room is totally toddler-safe.
  1. When you are ready to start, you have to begin with short intervals of time (like two minutes), and then celebrate those two minutes big-time when they’re done! Slowly stretch out the length of time as kids get more familiar with quiet time by trying five minutes, and then ten. And be sure to offer up new ideas for things to do that match the amount of time!
Credit: BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy

Sometimes, my child gets so worked up that she has epic meltdowns at bedtime — which also makes me act rashly. How do we all reset and relax, when we’re on a schedule? 

Just like with any meltdown or tantrum, it is really important to get down on their level (physically get on your knees) and let them know that you see them and that you “OK” their feelings. Just like when we’re upset, having others make us feel rushed to “get it together” or “calm down” usually makes us MORE upset. The same is true for your toddler. We want to OK all feelings, but not OK all behavior. When you let them know it’s OK to feel how they feel, they often move through the upset feeling faster. Here’s an example of what we’d say: “You didn’t want to put jammies on tonight. You’re feeling really mad about it. That makes sense. It’s OK to feel upset about that.”

I found my child sleepwalking the other day! It was kind of scary. How would you handle it? Would you discuss this with them? 

Check in with your pediatrician first and take proactive safety precautions, like making sure windows are locked and stairways have gates. It’s generally advised that you don’t wake a child who’s sleepwalking, because this could scare them or cause them to become agitated. Instead, you stay with them, speak calmly, and gently guide them back towards bed, making sure they don’t accidentally hurt themselves while in this state. 

What suggestions might you have for sleep patterns and routines around travel?

Mentally prepare yourself by having realistic expectations: new places can be hard for most kids, so expect that there will be disruptions in sleep patterns, trouble falling asleep, feeling scared, or other bumps and challenges. And, as always, prepare your toddler by keeping them “in the know.” You can explain the travel plan, where they are going to sleep, and show them pictures of the space.

It can also help to make the new environment seem safe and familiar by bringing familiar sleep objects from home, like a blanket, stuffed animal, or special night light to make it feel as much like their “normal night time” as possible.

Are there any sleep products that have saved you in your own parenting journey?

Thank you, Deena and Kristin! Please follow them on Instagram for more life-saving tips and tricks and check out their courses for deeper resources.