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I Tried 5 Sleep Strategies for Toddlers and the Winning One Really Surprised Me!

published Sep 1, 2021
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Earlier this summer, my husband looked at me bleary-eyed from across the breakfast table to inquire about a gas leak. Do we have one, he wondered dreamily as he filled his coffee mug, clearly desperate for an explanation for our family’s exhaustion. At least a gas leak — though undeniably dangerous — came with an action plan and a built-in remedy. 

What we were dealing with, however, was far more nebulous in nature: a wild and capricious toddler who regarded the notion of sleep as a mere suggestion. There was no need to go hunting for safety hazards, because the root of our problem sat just across the table, spooning oatmeal with abandon. 

Of course, I understand the desire to point fingers at everything except the obvious, especially when the obvious comes with no clear-cut solution. In a matter of months, our newly minted 3-year-old went from a sound and solid sleeper, to one that dipped in and out of sleep by whim. As a result, my husband and I were running on empty, often zombie-like and not much fun. 

We needed a change — especially one that was gentle, practical, and sustainable. So, we committed to troubleshooting our toddler’s sleep, trying five methods for inducing those elusive zzz’s.

What’s at play

When it comes to navigating the rough terrain of toddlerhood, it helps to consider all the factors at play. For sleep disruptions, Jenny Bauer, M.D., the pediatric medical director at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital Sleep Disorders Center, says night wakings are perfectly normal — it’s how we deal with them that matters. 

“Everyone, young and old, has short moments of waking up,” Dr. Bauer says, noting that we may experience up to ten wake-ups per hour. “When we see toddlers [waking] through the night, they’re probably relying on someone else to help them go back to sleep.” This, she explains, is how kids form sleep associations, the crutches (e.g., snuggling parents) they lean on to sleep through the night. Thankfully, Dr. Bauer assured me proper sleep training techniques were the answer. 

Here’s what we tried. 

1. The Right Setup 

Problem Area: Nighttime wakings

In a Nutshell: With the help of the right products — a crib and programmed nightlight — parents can work toward a seamless sleep. 

Dr. Bauer sees a lot of parents excitedly transitioning to toddler beds, even though she explains little ones can sleep in cribs until 3 or 4 years of age. “Don’t switch to an open bed just because they tried to climb out of the crib a few times,” she says. “If they transition to an open bed too early, they will have their poor impulse control working against them.” 

Instead, Dr. Bauer recommends a combination of sleep sacks and good old-fashioned reasoning. “If they start climbing out, emphasize that they must stay in the crib during bed time,” she says. Additionally, a sleep sack obstructs their legs just enough to make it more difficult to climb. 

While we packed away the crib long ago, we could follow Dr. Bauer’s second step: using a programmable nightlight. Because toddlers can’t tell time, they wake in the night and think it must be time to get up and get Mom and Dad, she explains. To remedy this, Dr. Bauer advises using a light that can change colors depending on a set wake time. “You can teach a young child the rules of staying in bed according to how you set this signaling device,” she says. 

Our Results: After programming an old Hatch light to turn pink at 7 a.m., my daughter promptly ignored it. When we combined this method with the Silent Returns technique below, however, she realized we meant business. 

Pro Tip: “I recommend being patient, consistent, and persistent,” said Dr. Bauer. “Try to keep everything about bedtime positive. Never punish a child for coming out of their room at night, but praise them if they stay in their bed until morning.”

2. The Silent Return Method

Problem Area: Nighttime wakings

In a Nutshell: Parents gently refuse engaging with their child and, instead, lead them calmly back to their bed again, and again, and again (as long as it takes). 

Meghan O., a mom of three in Chicago, IL, remembers battling her toddler’s steely will at bedtime. Without fail, her youngest would scramble out of bed several times throughout the night, leaving Meghan and her husband boiling over with frustration. It wasn’t until they adopted the silent return method that they finally got some sleep. 

For my family, this method was initially a nightmare (pun intended). Like clockwork, my toddler would wake at 2 a.m., slamming her door and thudding to our room, thus beginning a horrible dance up and down the hallway until finally giving in. 

While at one point I was doubtful anything could cure my daughter’s sleep disruptions, Emma Collett, a certified sleep consultant and the owner of Brighter Days Sleep Consulting, assured me otherwise. 

“Silent returns are one of the most effective ways to sleep train toddlers,” she says. By removing post-bedtime snuggles and conversation, you remove the temptation for toddlers to continue waking. As Collett explains, “The child starts to realize, ‘When I get up, mom doesn’t talk to me. She doesn’t give me anything extra, so I might as well stay in bed and fall asleep.’” 

Our Results: By day four, my daughter’s wakings declined noticeably. After a week, she woke once and needed only a reassuring pat on the back to drift back to sleep. As Collett notes, “If anybody is struggling with toddler wake-ups, silent returns are the place to start.” 

Pro Tip: To make this method work, Collett encourages parents to talk it through so children have a sense of what’s coming. “Set the expectation during the day so that when you’re doing silent returns that evening, you’re not giving your child the cold shoulder.” She also advises giving your child a pass the first time, explaining that the next time you will not engage in conversation. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

3. The Gradual Withdrawal Method

Problem Area: Long bedtime routines 

In a Nutshell: Over a period of weeks, parents move farther away from their child after the bedtime routine, until they no longer need to stay in the room. 

This process has always seemed laborious, and I entered into it with a sense of dread. On day one, we finished our usual bedtime routine, I tucked my little one into bed, and then I sat nearby, vowing not to engage in conversation. Everything quickly became a game — jumping out of bed, running in for a hug, etc., — and it was apparent I’d need nerves of steel to soldier on. By day four, nothing much had changed, save for my weakened resolve. By day seven, she was chatting away long into the night and I was ready to tear my hair out. It was clear my presence at bedtime was too stimulating, so I abandoned ship gratefully. As Collett explains, “The trickiest part is not engaging in conversation, but letting them know you’re just there to help them feel comfortable as they fall asleep on their own.”

Our Results: Practicing this method was more frustration than it ever seemed worth. Of course, as Collett mentions, different sleep strategies will work better based on each child’s personality. It’s safe to assume neither my daughter nor I are cut out for this one. 

Pro Tip: Collett advises issuing a short reminder every 10 minutes to say something like, “It’s time for sleep.” She also cautions against using this method for children under 3 who are in a toddler bed, as their lack of impulse control will make this one extra tricky. 

4. The BRB Method

Problem Area: Staying in bed

In a Nutshell: Parents pop in and out until little ones are settled in. 

Anna S., a mom in Illinois, often compared her daughter to a boomerang during her toddler years. No sooner had she tucked her little one into bed than she was back at her side. Anna recalls, “I felt like I was trapped in her room for hours before she could fall asleep and I could tiptoe out.” 

For situations like Anna’s, Collet suggests the BRB Method. Here, parents complete the usual bedtime routine, tuck their child in, and then head out for a minute or two, announcing they’ll change into pajamas, brush their teeth, etc., and be right back. 

On day one of my trial with this method, I settled my daughter into bed, tickled her back, and then told her I needed to get into PJs too. I must have taken too long, because she was at my side in no time at all. We started again and this time, when I slipped out to brush my hair, I was lightning-quick. It was clear she was watching the door for me and I sensed a sigh of relief when I returned. Little by little, she relaxed into this routine, trusting I’d keep my word, and by day 7, she was reminding me that I needed to brush my teeth. 

Results: This method was a winner. Not only was I in my PJs by 8 p.m., but I also loved the idea of my daughter drifting off to sleep, secure in the knowledge that I’d BRB. I didn’t need to sit by her side to offer comfort, and I never felt like I was abandoning her.

Pro Tip: “Sometimes this is enough to give toddlers space to get settled, but also feel comforted with you checking in on them,” says Collett.

5. The Visual Method

Problem Area: Drifting off to sleep

In a Nutshell: Parents provide visual instructions for falling asleep.

“Sometimes toddlers can put so much stress on themselves when their parents are upset because they won’t go to sleep. But oftentimes the concept of falling asleep is too abstract. They don’t understand how to do it,” Collett says. 

This is certainly the case for Michigan mom Emily D. and her 2-year-old son. Emily and her partner have often spied their little one on the monitor rolling lazily around the bed — sometimes with his feet up the wall or his head hanging off the side of the mattress. He never protests sleep, but Emily shares, he is visibly exhausted and also taking eons to zonk out. She has been eager to trim some major time off their bedtime routine, and I agreed to test out methods to benefit us both. 

I took Collett’s advice and created a visual for my daughter to follow. While Collett recommends a graphic chart, I wrote up a quick bedtime story instead. With simple drawings and text, I described my daughter falling asleep, writing Pulitzer-winning prose like, “First, I lay down and get cozy under my blanket. Then, I close my eyes and take a deep breath.” 

I committed to reading through this short story every night while my toddler climbed into bed. As wild as she can be, my kid is one who loves a good plan. She took to this book immediately, and even acted it out as I read. 

Results: While I question how effective this method would be on its own, partnered with the BRB Method, it suits my daughter and I well. I’ll likely keep this one around, using it to carry us through any period of sleep disruptions. 

Pro Tip: “If your child is having trouble, you can refer them to the visual and say, ‘Remember, this is how you go to sleep,’” says Collett. 

The last word 

Finding a sleep-training technique is truly won through trial and error. Once you find something you and your child feel comfortable with, Dr. Bauer advises staying the course, resisting the temptation to let your rules slide. To give into this bedtime stupor, she says, only reinforces the behavior you’re working so hard to break.